It seems like only yesterday that Gordon Hayward hijacked everyone’s Fourth of July holiday in 2017 before finally confirming that the Boston Celtics had won the tug-of-war for his services in free agency.
Thirty nine months later, Hayward has another decision to make, though this one probably won’t require a couple of 2,000-word Player Tribune entries to explain. It seems quite likely that Hayward will opt into the final year of his Celtics deal, which will pay him a robust $34.2 million for the 2021 season.
It will also put the Celtics on the clock to determine whether Hayward is part of this team’s long-term future, and that’s a far more difficult decision based on the team’s bloating salary commitment as it attempts to maximize a title window that seemed to open this year given the leaps Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made.
Letting Hayward play out his deal leaves open the possibility of him walking away at season’s end without compensation. That’s less than ideal for a Boston team that has limited means to upgrade its roster given the salary commitment to its top-end talent.
Clearing Hayward’s bulky salary after this season will not open any immediate cap space given that Brown’s rookie extension is about to kick in and Tatum’s max extension will almost certainly follow the season after.
The Celtics could always try to retain Hayward at a more agreeable salary number or explore sign-and-trade possibilities that could recoup value, but that’s a tough needle to thread in a market that’s expected to have no shortage of deep-pocketed teams that could sign Hayward outright as a consolation prize if they miss out on a bumper crop that could include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James.
That's why the Celtics must at least consider any trade possibilities involving Hayward from now until the trade deadline. Let’s be clear here: This does not mean the Celtics should move or will move Hayward. The team’s performance early in the 2021 season, along with a better grasp on the salary cap numbers, will factor heavily into Boston’s decision-making.
Let’s examine all of Boston’s options:
PLAY OUT THE SEASON
Boston’s hopes of contending for a title this season could very well hinge on Hayward’s performance and it might ultimately be their best move to see if this core can take another next step this season.
Remember, there were multiple stretches last season in which Hayward looked closer to the All-Star the team signed three years ago. Over Boston’s first eight games of the 2019-20 season, Hayward averaged 18.9 points per game while shooting 55.5 percent from the floor and 43.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He added 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists over 31.2 minutes per game before breaking his hand in a fluke collision during a game in San Antonio.
When the Celtics reconvened in the bubble after the season paused, Hayward averaged 18.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists over 34.1 minutes per game in Boston’s seeding games. Late in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series against the Sixers, Hayward landed awkwardly and suffered a Grade III ankle sprain.
He returned for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami and gave the Celtics a temporary jolt but looked hobbled the rest of the way and especially in Game 6, which only confirmed that Hayward was simply not healthy enough for playoff intensity despite trying to tough it out.
The Celtics played some of their best offensive basketball this past season when Hayward shared the court with Tatum and Brown. In 661 minutes with that trio, Boston owned an offensive rating of 115.4 and a net rating of plus-9.2. Take Hayward off the court and the Tatum/Brown lineup still had a similar net rating (plus-9.3) but the offense dipped by five points per 100 possessions. The takeaway there is that the three wings can co-exist and produce some of the team’s best-looking basketball over a large sample size.
What’s maybe more important is how vital Hayward was to helping Boston sustain a high level of play when Tatum and Brown were off the court. In 297 regular-season minutes with Hayward on the floor without the two Jays, the Celtics had a net rating of plus-8.1.
Remove Hayward from the equation and, in the 257 minutes that all three players were off the floor, the Celtics had a net rating of minus-14.8. Some of that can be chalked up to trash-time minutes with the starters out of the game, but it also reflects Boston’s bench struggles when Hayward was unavailable.
If the Celtics think they can contend with this core and they show it early in the 2021 season, they might just have to bite that bullet and worry about Hayward’s future later.
SIGN AN EXTENSION
Both sides have at least some motivation to consider an extension as early as this offseason if Hayward elects to opt out of his deal and re-sign at a more agreeable number. There is also risk involved for both sides.
Hayward’s best payday comes if he bets on himself, taking the $34.2 million payday and hoping a strong season positions him for his last big NBA payday during the offseason. On the flip side, if he struggles, it could be a tougher market with no guarantee he finds suitors that match his desire to contend.
If the Celtics extend Hayward, there is no guarantee he stays healthy enough to maximize whatever they pay him. Hayward’s age and injury status have to factor into Boston’s decision. While most of his maladies have been fluky, Hayward has missed 111 out of 236 possible regular-season games (47 percent) and 27 of 41 possible playoff games (65.8 percent) during his three seasons in Boston.
Hayward will turn 31 next season and could be the oldest player on the Celtics roster pending offseason maneuvering. We’re not calling him ancient — though he was part of a trade that involved Penny Hardaway, Charlie Ward, and Stephon Marbury; alas, that was in 2004 when he was still a freshman in high school and the Knicks traded the pick that Utah would ultimately acquire and select him with in 2010 — but the point is players don’t typically get more durable into their 30s.
There’s also this: Let’s say Hayward extends at $20 million per season, easing Boston’s tax burden this year. In 2021-22, the Celtics would have nearly $130 million committed to their Best 5 of Tatum, Brown, Walker, Hayward, and Marcus Smart. It assures Boston will be in the tax and leaves limited resources to build out the rest of the roster. That’s even more troublesome if the Celtics aren’t competitive for any reason with that group.
If the Celtics determine their best path forward does not involve Hayward or they simply cannot commit the resources to keep him long term, they should consider trying to move him before next season’s trade deadline.
That’s no easy task considering Hayward’s bulky salary in a year the cap might stay flat and his value is lessened from his injury woes. All that said, he’s a monster expiring contract coming off a team’s books right before potentially one of the best free-agent crops in recent memory.
The Celtics can’t benefit from that but another team certainly can. And if it appears the Bucks are going to watch Giannis EuroStep his way out of Milwaukee, there will be plenty of teams trying to maneuver for max cap space to make a pursuit.
Go ahead and pull up a list of the highest-paid players in the NBA and start daydreaming. Take on an extra season of Blake Griffin so the Pistons can create even more cap space? Call the Magic about Nicola Vucevic, who has three years left but at a descending value and try to convince them their best path forward is to shake up their own core?
It’s hard to make big-salary moves during the season. And yet teams that realize they have no hope early next season will turn their attention to 2021 free agency. The Celtics could be additionally motivated to lower their tax bill if this team fizzles for any reason.
There are no easy answers here for the Celtics, but Hayward’s future is going to dominate the offseason chatter.