A little more than three years ago, Celtics coach Brad Stevens picked up Gordon Hayward at Logan Airport to begin his free agent visit in Boston. It had the feel of a fairytale reunion, the coach and player who had improbably helped Butler to the NCAA title game could now reconnect with one of the most storied franchises in professional sports.
Hayward ultimately signed a four-year, $128 million deal with the Celtics, continuing the momentum from the previous summer, when All-Star forward Al Horford signed a maximum-salary deal with Boston. The possibilities seemed endless. But for Hayward, the next three years would mostly be filled with injury frustrations, as well as a declining role as wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged as stars.
On Thursday, the forward declined his $34.2 million player option for this coming season and became a free agent. Even then, there was hope in Boston that he would ultimately return on a new multiyear deal. But on Saturday, Hayward agreed to a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets, ending a Boston tenure that felt like it had only just begun.
Hayward posted a message on Twitter on Saturday confirming his decision and thanking the Celtics and the city of Boston for embracing him over the last three years.
“I know there were some ups and downs, but I will always cherish my experience in Boston,” he wrote. “I am forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to wear a Celtics uniform and play in front of the Garden faithful.”
The Hornets were a bit of a surprise choice for Hayward. In recent days, the belief around the NBA was that he would most likely be part of a sign-and-trade with his hometown team, the Pacers, or that he would return to the Celtics. But league sources indicated Saturday that trade talks between Boston and Indiana never really gained much traction.
Charlotte had always lingered. In 2014, at the end of Hayward’s rookie deal with the Jazz, he signed an offer sheer with the Hornets when he was a restricted free agent. But the Jazz matched the offer, keeping him in Utah.
This time, Hayward was in control.
While had had been relegated to the fourth offensive weapon with the Celtics, he will likely be the primary option with the Hornets.
The Hornets need to clear about $9 million in salary to sign Hayward outright. Multiple reports on Saturday afternoon suggested that Charlotte would just waive forward Nic Batum to create the necessary cap space. But multiple league sources told the Globe on Saturday night that Boston and Charlotte were still discussing sign-and-trade possibilities. Boston could be in line to receive a substantial trade exception to use at a later date.
Hayward’s departure created a considerable void in Boston’s frontcourt, and the Celtics started scrambling to fill it Saturday afternoon. The team made a strong push for veteran forward Paul Millsap, 35, a four-time All-Star who is nearing the end of his career but remains a sturdy presence.
A source close to Millsap said Saturday that Boston had moved to the top of Millsap’s list of suitors. But in the end he chose to remain with the Nuggets on a one-year deal, in large part because he did not want to uproot his family.
Later in the night, the Celtics agreed to deals with center Tristan Thompson and point guard Jeff Teague, according to a league source. Also, Boston guaranteed the contracts of center Daniel Theis and forward Semi Ojeleye.
Hayward’s Boston tenure, meanwhile, comes to a close after three seasons that will be remembered more for what kept him off the court than for what he did on it. Five minutes into his debut in 2017 he suffered a gruesome left ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. He struggled to regain his form in the 2018-19 season. This year he started to look like an All-Star-caliber player again before an ankle sprain forced him to miss most of the playoffs.