The offseason's favorite parlor game has quickly become "Guess Gordon's Future."
And with no deadline yet for when he actually has to make a decision on the $34.2 million player option he holds for next season, it’s likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Hayward speculation got a turbo shot Monday when two of basketball’s brightest minds pontificated on a podcast that, “something is mildly afoot here,” and wondered out loud if Hayward is, “doing the [Al] Horford plan.”
The Horford Plan suggests that Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, could be taking stock of options across the league with the goal of giving his client a better gauge on what’s feasible — and maybe seeking some leverage in talks with the Celtics about long-term options.
Horford surprisingly turned down a $30.1 million option in the summer of 2019 before signing a four-year, $109 million deal with the rival Sixers. At the time it was a stunning swerve but it became clear in the aftermath that the Celtics were not willing to offer Horford the same amount of years and salary as Philadelphia’s deal ultimately delivered.
So, could the same thing happen now with Hayward?
Short of taking a massive paycut, there are not many deep-pocketed suitors who can spend $20+ million per year to secure Hayward’s services. In fact, about the only team that can do such this offseason and has an attractive enough roster to even be considered a surefire playoff contender is the Atlanta Hawks.
Atlanta is a somewhat intriguing situation, having already added Clint Capela to a young core headlined by Trae Young and John Collins. Much like his arrival in Boston, Hayward would be viewed as someone with the potential to help Atlanta take its next step, though it’s hard to suggest that the Hawks have the same championship potential as Boston’s current core.
So why are we even talking about the possibility of Hayward walking away? Now on the north side of 30 and having endured a catastrophic injury at the start of his Boston tenure, Hayward has to at least consider his long-term options. It also gives his camp a base to negotiate a potential extension with Boston if he were to opt and re-sign with the Celtics.
There is always the chance that, snakebitten by injuries, Hayward is intrigued by the idea of a fresh start. Once the biggest free-agent signing in Celtics history when they hooked him in 2017, Hayward was slightly upstaged at his own introductory press conference by the surprise deal that delivered Kyrie Irving. Three years into his Boston tenure, he’s become Boston’s so-called “fourth option,” playing alongside Kemba Walker and a blossoming young tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Even if there isn't a team that has the cap space available to pursue Hayward, he could try to leverage a sign-and-trade, but that’s a delicate dance that would require Boston’s cooperation after his opt out. Maybe the Celtics would be intrigued with the potential of recouping assets but, again, that’s why Bartelstein has to gauge all possibilities for his client before decision day.
Once Hayward opts in, his immediate future is out of his hands. The Celtics could be motivated to move him for assets if they don’t see a path to retaining his long-term services. That desire could hinge on whether Boston looks like a title contender in the early portion of next season.
One thing we keep thinking back to is Hayward’s declaration when he first signed in Boston. It was all about the "unfinished business” -- his own words from his Players' Tribune announcement -- that he and coach Brad Stevens had from Butler University. Hayward, after missing so much time on the court in Boston, likely yearns to show off his true potential after injuries have robbed him of those chances.
Hayward’s biggest payday comes from betting on himself, too. Not only is he positioned for the $34.2 million payday this year, but a solid season leaves him as a prime option in 2021 free agency when teams that miss out on the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James or any of the other possible names on that market might throw their cash his way, all hopefully further removed from the pandemic-crippling economics that impact the NBA currently.
The Celtics’ best option for title contention this year likely involves Hayward, too. Boston played some of its best basketball last season when Hayward was available. He paired nicely next to the Walker/Tatum/Brown triumvirate, with Boston putting up gaudy offensive numbers with that quartet on the floor.
For all those Celtics fans that simply yearn to move on, a friendly reminder that watching Hayward walk away does not open $34.2 million in cap space. About the only advantage Boston would gain is avoiding the luxury tax and being able to use the bigger of the midlevel exceptions to pursue additional bench help.
Alas, the players available at that price tag are far less impactful than a healthy Hayward.