When Gordon Hayward opted out of his $34.2 million contract option Thursday afternoon and became an unrestricted free agent, there was a collective disappointment among Celtics faithful. Boston fans are loyal to their players, despite how much of a struggle Hayward’s three years were in green.
Yet, this move should be viewed as an amicable divorce, a relationship that didn’t work out for various reasons that were no fault of Hayward’s or the Celtics.
Here’s what is going on right now in the Hayward discussion: Hayward wants to play in his native Indiana and he has informed the Celtics of his desire to be traded there. He moved his family back to Fishers, Ind. (About 30 minutes from Bankers Life Field House) during the team’s stint in the NBA Bubble. He has enrolled his daughters in school there.
So he has essentially broken all personal ties to Boston. He opted out because it gives him the best chance to get to Indiana without having to wait a full season. It’s interesting because of the 72-game condensed season, 2021 free agency is about seven months away.
The Pacers have offered center Myles Turner, the centerpiece of any deal for Hayward, and sharpshooter Doug McDermott, who can’t stay on the floor consistently because he can’t defend. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has countered with Turner and T.J. Warren or Victor Oladipo. Warren scored 52 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in a bubble game and is a rising scorer. Oladipo, a two-time All-Star, hasn’t been the same since a devastating knee injury and apparently wants out of Indiana. He has one more year left on his contract.
McDermott and Warren/Oladipo is a large difference and it’s yet to be determined whether Ainge will reduce his asking price.
There is faint chance Hayward returns to Boston but would Ainge really invest two years and let’s say $50 million on Hayward when they have to sign Jayson Tatum to a maximum contract and he just drafted a 6-foot-6-inch swingman in the first round? It’s not a good investment.
Hayward has the right to be unhappy with his situation but not the Celtics. The Boston front office and coaching staff have given him every opportunity to succeed. Injuries have been his biggest obstacle.
When he signed as a maximum free agent in 2017, he was the Celtics’ No. 1 option. The Celtics had just drafted Tatum a week before and Jaylen Brown was an athletic but flawed player coming off an uneven rookie season. Those two players catapulted to top 20 players in the NBA and then the Celtics switched out Kyrie Irving (someone Hayward was looking forward to playing with) for Kemba Walker and suddenly Hayward was the fourth option.
And you could make that fifth depending on the nights when Marcus Smart gets 3-point happy. That’s not what Hayward signed on for. But when you get injured and then spend your comeback year playing tentatively and then get injured twice during the third year, you usually get passed up.
Hayward got passed up in Boston, turning from a primary threat to a complement and there’s little the Celtics could or would do about that. And when the Celtics needed him most during their playoff run this year, Hayward severely sprained his right ankle in the opening playoff game. He admirably came back in five weeks, playing at about 65 percent in the Eastern Conference finals loss to Miami, but he wasn’t the same player and couldn’t give them what they needed.
It’s reached a point where Hayward would be hard-pressed to make up for his first three years in Boston even if he came through with a healthy, productive fourth season. The best he could do is help the Celtics win a title as a fourth option. Is that good enough for him?
It’s understandable that Hayward was unhappy with his situation in Boston. He came here as a rising star, on the cusp of being a Top 10 player, getting All-Star nods, USA Basketball invites, and was regarded as a superstar. Instead, he’s become the Celtics’ version of a sparkplug, entering the game with the express purpose of scoring in short spurts.
He’ll never be the No. 1 option again, even if he signs an extension. NBA executives around the league are shaking their heads at Hayward rejecting the $34.2 million option during a pandemic, when the league and the world has taken a financial backslap. He opted out because he either wants to play for another team at any cost or believes there is a lucrative deal on the market that can give him a chance to reassume his role as a primary option.
But those teams with salary cap space — New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks — have little chance to do anything more than compete for an eighth playoff spot next season.
Now that the Celtics have seen what motivates Hayward, it’s time to appease him with a return package that could help next season. It’s time for Ainge to work a sign-and-trade, send Hayward home and get Turner and even McDermott if it comes to that. If Hayward’s heart isn’t in Boston and he’s angry or annoyed that circumstances beyond the organization’s control prevent him from reaching stardom, it’s time to send him somewhere he can perhaps take a shot at those goals. But it isn’t Boston.