Even before the coronavirus threw a wrench in the 2020-21 salary cap, it seemed likely that Gordon Hayward would opt into the final season of the four-year, $128 million contract he signed with the Celtics in 2017.
Hayward is set to earn a hefty $34.2 million next season, currently projected as the 15th highest salary in the league and second largest on the Celtics behind only Kemba Walker at $34.4 million.
Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis
The immediate question, of course, is why would Hayward even desire to walk away from such an eye-popping salary? There’s a few potential motivations:
1) With 10 years of NBA service, Hayward could have commanded a starting salary up to 35 percent of the salary cap. Back when the cap was expected to rise to $115 million, Hayward could have sought a max deal with a first-year salary north of $40 million (and valued at roughly $173 million over four seasons).
2) Having endured a catastrophic ankle injury that has defined his Celtics tenure, Hayward could have opted out in hopes of seeking long-term security. Hayward is positioned to command one more big-money deal and played at a high level early in the 2019-20 season. Given his age (30) and at least minor health concerns, he could seek security in case of another injury or downturn in play.
3) The situation Hayward finds himself in now is very different from when he arrived in Boston. When Hayward first signed, he was positioned to be a focal point of a team looking to get over the hump and had complementary pieces like point guard Isaiah Thomas and big man Al Horford around him. Then the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving and Hayward injured his ankle five minutes into his first game in green. In the aftermath, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged as the young core and created a talent glut on the wing.
Even in a vacuum, none of these three reasons might be enough for Hayward to seriously consider opting out.
He can still command a hefty salary in the summer of 2021 if he stays healthy and plays to a high level. Hayward has dug deep roots in the Boston area, too, and isn’t the type that craves the spotlight. His unselfish nature has meshed well alongside Boston’s young wings.
But there are other complicating factors to an opt out this year, including the fact that teams that projected to have cap space are not exactly the best fits.
Would the rebuilding Hawks or Grizzlies want to use available money on a 30-year-old Hayward? Would Hayward even view any of those situations as better than what he has in Boston? A team like Miami, another of Hayward’s primary suitors in 2017, might be a bit more intriguing, but the Heat likely desire to save any space for a grander pursuit in the summer of 2021.
The free agent crop of 2020 is positioned to be underwhelming at best and Hayward would be a top available name. Alas, the lack of intriguing suitors might make it better for Hayward to simply be part of that more glitzy 2021 class.
The coronavirus pandemic might have made Hayward’s decision even easier. While no one knows exactly how this year’s revenue losses will impact the salary cap, reports suggest that the cap could actually drop next year. That means Hayward’s potential starting salary would dip, all while teams have even less money to spend this offseason.
Before the season paused, Celtics brass were uncertain what Hayward would do at year’s end but believed it was likely he would opt in. The pandemic has only seemingly increased the likelihood of another season in green.
For the Celtics, a lowered cap and luxury tax line next year would add some stress to carrying Hayward at such a bulky number. The tax line had projected at $139 million in January but might be closer to this year’s threshold of $132.6 million, or lower if the cap drops.
The Celtics currently have $95 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2020-21 season. Jaylen Brown’s extension is set to kick in (originally projected at $23.9 million before the cap woes) and Jayson Tatum could ink a rookie extension this summer that would trigger a year later.
If both Hayward and Enes Kanter opt in — and including Boston’s nonguaranteed salaries — the Celtics project at up to $144.4 million in salary commitments, and that’s before free agency and draft additions. Boston has managed to stay out of the tax but could have to cut bulky checks to the league if their payroll is that high next season.
Celtics ownership will be content to pay if the team can truly compete for a title. More difficult decisions loom if Boston isn’t one of the elite next season. And the Celtics might have to decide if Hayward is part of their long-term core at some point very soon.
There is one instance where an opt-out might make sense but it would still likely require Hayward to stomach a hefty paycheck hit. If long-term security is something Hayward truly craves, he could opt out and re-sign with Boston at a less gaudy cap number. This might help Boston avoid, or at least ease, a potential tax burden next season and beyond.
But Hayward can also bank on himself.
He can collect that hefty $34.2 million and hope that a strong performance — both for him and the Celtics — will help create a high market value in the summer of 2021, where those teams stiff-armed in the pursuit of the biggest fish might be content to splurge on him. The Celtics might still be willing to extend at a more reasonable number at that point, too.
All of which only increases the likelihood that Hayward opts in this offseason.