After a disappointing loss to the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the five stages of grief have included frustration over yet another fourth quarter meltdown, appreciation of a year-long season that brought so much joy, excitement for young players like Grant Williams, Robert Williams, and Romeo Langford, and confidence that the franchise is in good hands with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
The fifth stage is hand-wringing over Gordon Hayward.
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reports it’s “likely” that Hayward picks up his player option this fall. With few teams with salary cap space this off-season and a league reeling from COVID-19, it’s a no-brainer for Hayward to pick up the +$34M owed to him in 2020-2021. He just had his fourth child so stability could be a priority and there’s still “unfinished business” between him and Brad Stevens.
There are plenty of reasons to want Hayward back in Boston, too. The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn reported that Hayward basically played on one leg after returning to the bubble; the Grade 3 ankle sprain he suffered in Game 1 of the Sixers series required two-plus more weeks of rehab that the Celtics just didn’t have. Instead, they opted to play him in Game 3 with the hopes that the four days until Game 4 would be enough for him to recover. Hayward is a gamer (on and off the court). His inconsistencies in green have always stemmed from incredibly bad luck. He’s consistently shown a commitment to the franchise with the work he put into his comeback and the sacrifice he made missing the birth of his son last week.
Let’s also not forget how efficient Hayward was when he was healthy. Only one other player in the league (Karl-Anthony Towns) averaged over 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists on +50 FG% and +35 3FG% over the course of the regular season. Hayward had as productive a season as he did in his All-Star campaign in Utah before signing with the Celtics.
This is the player that got the fanbase excited in the summer of 2017, but an injury-riddled appearance to close out the playoffs has explicably left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths. Kemba Walker deservedly gets a lot of credit for taking a complimentary role with the ascension of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Hayward doesn’t. It’s nonsense.
And as many have noted including CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith, even if Hayward doesn’t pick up his option and/or negotiate an extension, that does not open up any cap space for Boston. It’s difficult to see how the Celtics could make up his production with the taxpayer’s mid-level or bi-annual exception.
In an “if this, then that” hypothetical, former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss suggested that Hayward (and draft picks) could be sent to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo (and possibly Myles Turner). Jared notes that the Haywards still have a place in Indiana and both Pacers are looking to leave, but for now, there’s no actual smoke. It’s an interesting trade idea and we’ll hear more like it with the Celtics now officially done for the year.
It’s easy to point at Hayward as the weak link in Boston’s championship hopes. His age, his contract, roster redundancies, and recency bias make him seemingly expendable. However, it’s hard to ignore just how much better the Celtics were with Hayward on the floor.
Through five games in the playoffs, Hayward put up a paltry 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists on 40% shooting. Those are numbers unbefitting of a max player. But it’s hard to ignore just how much better Boston was with him. To wit, Tatum lead all rotation players with a 10.6 net rating when he was on the floor in the regular season; Hayward was second at 8.5. For now, there’s uncertainty surrounding his future with the franchise and it’s understandable to fear the unknown. But if the Boston’s run in the bubble is any indication, the Celtics are in win now mode and giving up on an All-Star still in his prime would be silly.