On the morning of Nov. 22, Gordon Hayward agreed to a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets, one of the more surprising free agent deals in the past decade, with many NBA executives and experts befuddled at the amount of money Hayward earned after three injury-filled seasons in Boston.
The Hornets were desperately seeking respectability and significance. The Celtics would have preferred to have Hayward return, but not if it would have placed the franchise in the luxury tax or had four players on the roster earning at least $30 million per season.
The Pacers wanted to acquire Hayward, and Hayward told the Celtics he wanted to go to Indiana. The catch was the Celtics and Pacers needed to agree to a sign-and-trade deal to make it happen. They couldn’t agree, and then Hornets owner Michael Jordan placed a call to Hayward on Nov. 21, promising a lucrative deal.
Hayward accepted, and the Pacers and Celtics ended up with nothing besides contentious trade discussions.
Indiana president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard acknowledged the Pacers “pursued as hard as we personally could” for a Hayward trade.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge wanted Myles Turner, according to NBA sources, but he also wanted Victor Oladipo or T.J. Warren to complete the deal. Pritchard balked at that demand.
What casual observers have tended to ignore is Hayward needed to agree to such a deal. If he didn’t, there would be no deal because he had opted out of the final year of his contract and was officially a free agent. While Hayward wanted to go home to Indiana, the Pacers would have had to agree to pay Hayward in the neighborhood of what the Hornets offered.
If the Pacers would have packaged Turner ($18 million) and Warren ($12 million), and the Celtics then signed Hayward to a four-year package at $30 million annually, the trade would have fit perfectly. The Pacers did not agree to such a deal.
“Other than that, between the two teams, I always feel like that’s very private,” Pritchard said of the trade parameters. “The one thing we did differently … we talked to our own players and let them know. We tried to be very proactive and extremely transparent, when it was out there.
“Yes, we pursued. It didn’t work out. If you can add a player that materially improves you, you have to take a shot. And we’re not afraid to take a shot. It hurt a little bit more this time because the feedback was that he wanted to be here. We were probably overpaying in the trade, but we were willing to try to get a special player.”
Pritchard made it clear Ainge’s asking price of Warren and Turner was too much.
“We’re going to try to improve the roster,” Pritchard said. “But it can’t come at a cost that’s so debilitating that it doesn’t make sense. We felt like we’ve got a lot of very good players on the team and plans to stand pat was a very good plan. There will be a time where there’s turnover. But unless it made us materially better, like a no-brainer trade where were going after an A-list star, we were going to do that. Other than that, it had to be a complete no-brainer.”
As for Charlotte, the Hornets have in the past paid generously for veteran players, but those deals failed miserably. Nicolas Batum signed a five-year, $120 million extension after being acquired from the Trail Blazers, and he never came close to making an All-Star team.
The Hornets are trying to dump the final year of Batum’s contract ($27 million) and would have loved for the Celtics to take that in a sign-and-trade for Hayward. That wasn’t happening. The Hornets also dumped Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the final years of their contracts.
The Hornets essentially had to overpay to land former Celtics guard Terry Rozier before last season, and then promised Hayward $30 million when they had only $20 million of cap space available. To create that space, they will need to waive and stretch Batum’s contract — $9 million per over the next three years — or find a taker for his contract.
Where Jordan has failed miserably in his ownership is with free agency. Remember when there were assumptions that Jordan’s ownership would turn Charlotte into a free agent destination? Without quality free agents coming to Charlotte, the club sought Hayward because he was the best free agent on the market.
While the team has promising youngsters such as Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, and Devonte’ Graham, none of them has the credentials of Hayward, who was a 2017 All-Star. The Hornets have little chance to win a playoff round this coming season, but they are going to compete for a playoff spot. That’s a significant step for a franchise that reached the playoffs twice in Kemba Walker’s eight seasons.
Speaking of Walker, the Hornets refused to pay him anywhere near the max, which allowed him to sign with the Celtics. If you add the $9 million to stretch Batum to Hayward’s $30 million, that is in the neighborhood of what they would have had to pay Walker.
In other words, the Hornets chose to pay an injury-prone Hayward over Walker, who was the most popular player in franchise history. Charlotte made a statement with the Hayward signing, but the question is whether the contract will prove to elevate the franchise or will the club look to move the deal in the final season, as it has for so many previous over-market signings.
These teams took big steps forward
Free agency is winding down and the predictions that teams would limit spending and sign moderate contracts never really happened. Several teams used sign-and-trade deals to acquire players, while the Thunder became trade central because of their desire to rebuild and amass first-round picks.
Here are some free agent/offseason winners with breakdowns of the signings:
Los Angeles Lakers — Team president Rob Pelinka could easily have decided to bring the same team back that just cruised to the NBA title. Instead, he decided to part ways with JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley, Danny Green, and Quinn Cook. The Lakers were able to acquire a point guard, Dennis Schroder, and re-signed guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forward Markieff Morris.
The Lakers then stunned the league by adding Montrezl Harrell from the rival Clippers. Harrell took less money from the Lakers (two years, $18.9 million) than his market value and also accepted less than what the Hornets offered. Harrell gives the Lakers toughness in the paint and a reliable interior scorer. Dwight Howard, who signed with the 76ers, and McGee were rim protectors but not quality post scorers.
Finally, the Lakers added Raptors center Marc Gasol, who will be a reliable defensive presence in the paint. Celtics fans remember Gasol struggling mightily in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but the Lakers do not need Gasol to score. They need him to pass in pick-and-rolls and play defense. Grade: A.
Portland Trail Blazers — The Blazers didn’t break the bank. Rather, general manager Neil Olshey used the trade market to acquire sharpshooter Robert Covington and then bring back former Celtic Enes Kanter, who provides a solid backup center to Yusef Nurkic.
Olshey then re-signed swingman Rodney Hood, who is coming off an Achilles’ tear, and added forward/center Harry Giles from the Kings and jumper Derrick Jones Jr. from the Heat. The Blazers deepened their bench and got more athletic. Covington will stretch the floor and allow more space for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while Giles may flourish in a new situation after a disappointing stint with the Kings. Portland was able to add to its roster without signing a major free agent, which has turned the Blazers into an NBA Finals contender. Grade: A.
Milwaukee Bucks — The Bucks are trying to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a super max extension, and they approached this offseason aggressively with the express purpose of building an NBA Finals contender after two unceremonious dismissals from the playoffs.
The first move was to acquire combo guard Jrue Holiday, who had been dangled in trade talks by the Pelicans. They were able to dump Eric Bledsoe, who they signed to an unwise extension last season, along with George Hill and draft picks. Milwaukee was also able to get three key role players in Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig, and Bobby Portis.
Forbes is a sharpshooter who was underrated in San Antonio. Craig played good minutes in the bubble for the Nuggets, while Portis finally gets a chance to play in a winning situation. Grade: A.
Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks have been planning for this offseason for years, scraping every cap dollar and acquiring expiring contracts so they could be major players. But there were no maximum free agents who were going to join the Hawks. Atlanta made the best of the situation by signing Danilo Gallinari as a dependable frontcourt presence and former Celtic Rajon Rondo to stabilize the backcourt.
And finally, the club was able to nab shooting guard/small forward Bogdan Bogdanovic from the Kings as a restricted free agent. The Hawks were already a deeper team but painfully young. The presence of Gallinari, Rondo, and Bogdanovic relieves pressure on Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Kevin Huerter, while the team also selected promising Southern Cal big man Onyeka Okongwu in the draft.
These moves turn Atlanta into a playoff contender led by Trae Young and John Collins. Coach Lloyd Pierce had a difficult second season because of injuries and underperformance, but he now has the talent to win. Grade: A
Ex-Celtic Baynes joins Raptors
When the Celtics decided to move Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier and create an open slot at center, there was talk of a reunion with Aron Baynes, who played two impressive seasons with Boston, becoming a franchise and fan favorite because of his toughness and ability to shoot 3-pointers despite his size.
The Celtics instead opted to sign 29-year-old Tristan Thompson, who had played in numerous big games with the Cavaliers. The 6-foot-10-inch, 260-pound Baynes, however, was snapped up by the Raptors after they lost both of their centers in free agency. Baynes, 33, played well for the Suns last season before contracting COVID-19, averaging career highs in points (11.5) and 3-point attempts (4.0) per game.
Baynes had to be patient as higher-regarded big men began signing. But the Raptors lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol within a few days.
“Once Ibaka went to the Clippers, the conversations started getting real on both sides,” Baynes said. “I’ve seen what they’ve done from afar. I’ve played against them many times. It’s always been a fun place to go out there and play.”
Baynes’s 3-point prowess is no longer a laughing matter. He attempted seven in his first five NBA seasons, and then he tried 21 in his first year with the Celtics, making three. That attempt total increased to 61 in his second year in Boston, and he converted a respectable 21 (34.4 percent).
Last season with the Suns, Baynes launched 168 in just 42 games, making 59 (35.1 percent). He credits Celtics coach Brad Stevens with encouraging him to shoot threes. Baynes said Stevens insisted on it.
“It’s definitely been an evolution throughout my NBA career,” Baynes said. “Once the coaches were satisfied with everything else I was doing, I decided it was my time and I was going to work on these things. I figure I’ve got to be able to add something else to my game.
“When I got to Boston, having the confidence of the coach helps, and Brad Stevens told me from the first day to shoot the ball. Look, if you don’t take this shot, this is hurting my team. [Coach] Monty [Williams] continued that with me in Phoenix. It always helps when you have that confidence from everyone around you.”
The trend should continue in Toronto under Nick Nurse. And perhaps Baynes will get a chance to let a few go when the Raptors visit TD Garden.
“I had numerous discussions with Danny [Ainge] and Brad, and they told me to shoot the ball,” Baynes said. “As soon as you see one go down and you don’t see a poor reaction from the coach, it doesn’t take long to buy into it and want to take as many as you can.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking to continue to get better every year. I’ve been continually working on the 3-point shot. I feel very comfortable that I’m going to go out there and contribute.”
With roster spots thinning around the league, center Hassan Whiteside accepted a minimum deal, $2-plus million, to return to the team that drafted him, the Kings. Whiteside was coming off a four-year, $98 million deal he originally signed with the Heat. With nearly 90 percent of the league’s roster spots occupied, players are going to have to take less than their market value to get jobs with training camps beginning next week. The free agent pool is dwindling, with players such as former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, Boston native Shabazz Napier, and ex-Celtic Evan Turner still available. Most teams have already used their mid-level exceptions, meaning the lone salary slots are the veteran minimum and the biannual exception … The Celtics used their mid-level exception on Tristan Thompson, but former All-Star Paul Millsap was also in the running for that spot. Millsap decided to return to Denver on a one-year, $10 million contract. The Nuggets wanted to re-sign Jerami Grant, who flourished in the bubble but opted out of the final year of his contract. Grant decided to join the Pistons for a more expanded role for the same money the Nuggets offered ($60 million over three years) … Detroit general manager Troy Weaver has overhauled his roster, with only five players from last season coming back. Stuck with Blake Griffin’s albatross contract and a lack of star power, Weaver is adding younger talent and maintaining roster flexibility. The hope is Grant becomes a cornerstone, Griffin can maintain good health, and second-year guard Sekou Doumbouya develops into a standout. The team also has Derrick Rose, who is coming off a strong season … The Celtics were fortunate to get Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters to agree to two-way contracts for the 2020-21 season. Waters has value around the league as a backup point guard and will get an opportunity to boost his stock with a strong season heading into free agency. The Celtics signed Jeff Teague to back up Kemba Walker and Teague will likely get major minutes in the early going as Walker heals from knee issues. That means Waters could get early opportunities as Teague’s backup. As for Fall, the Celtics feel they are making great progress in polishing his game and he could be a backup center in the future.