Gordon Hayward’s time with the Celtics has been nothing if not eventful, and now it remains to be seen whether he’s played his final game in Boston.
After agreeing to a four-year, $128 million deal in 2017, Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia in the first quarter of his first game.
Following a long rehabilitation process, he returned to action and played 72 games the following year but clearly wasn’t himself. He came off the bench in all but 18 games and averaged 11.5 points in 26 minutes per game on the season.
Hayward looked more like his old All-Star self this season, starting all 52 games he played in and averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor. He then suffered a Grade 3 right ankle sprain in the Celtics’ playoff opener against the Philadelphia 76ers, causing him to head home.
He came back for part of the Miami Heat series – missing the birth of his son in the process – but he didn’t appear to have total mobility in his right leg.
It’s hard to believe how much GT looks like me! pic.twitter.com/fTSUdn2UBw
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) September 30, 2020
Now the Celtics are faced with a major decision. If Hayward opts into the final year of his deal – which NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg believes is “quite likely” – the Celtics will owe him $34.2 million for the 2021 season.
“It will also put the Celtics on the clock to determine whether Hayward is part of this team’s long-term future,” Forsberg wrote, “and that’s a far more difficult decision based on the team’s bloating salary commitment as it attempts to maximize a title window that seemed to open this year given the leaps Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made.”
Forsberg noted that if the Celtics let Hayward play out his deal, there’s a chance he’ll leave at the end of the year without compensation. That’s less than ideal, Forsberg said, for a Boston team that “has limited means to upgrade its roster given the salary commitment to its top-end talent.”
Clearing Hayward’s salary wouldn’t open any immediate cap space, Forsberg wrote. The Celtics could try to retain Hayward “at a more agreeable salary number” or consider a sign-and-trade, but Forsberg said that’s “a tough needle to thread.”
He said the Celtics must consider trading him, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily will do so. Forsberg also said playing out the season might be the team’s best move if Hayward can avoid getting injured and consistently play the way he has in flashes – but, of course, that’s the big question mark.
The team’s offensive rating (113.8 compared to 109.8), net rating (8.5 to 3.8), field goal percentage (47.5 to 44.6), assist percentage (57.9 to 53.3), and plus-minus (+333 to +121) are all considerably better with him on the floor. Forsberg praised Hayward for his ability to help the Celtics maintain a high level of play when Tatum and Brown were on the bench.
Forsberg said there’s risk for both sides if the Celtics sign Hayward to an extension. Trading him is “no easy task,” but it might end up making sense if a beneficial deal for both parties pans out.
“There are no easy answers here for the Celtics, but Hayward’s future is going to dominate the offseason chatter,” Forsberg said.
The Boston Globe‘s Adam Himmelsbach, speaking on Celtics Beat, said Hayward looked really good this year when he was healthy and was one of the Celtics’ best players. He called it an encouraging season, noting that there “aren’t a lot of Gordon Haywards out there.”
“I know fans are kind of disenchanted with him,” Himmelsbach said. “He’s had some brutal luck, really. It’s not like these injuries he’s suffering are because he’s frail. Just brutal, brutal luck.”
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) October 13, 2020
Himmelsbach said there’s a reason trades are so infrequent, and he believes the Celtics are still high on Hayward and are confident in him. He said he gets the sense the Celtics “want to make this work” with Hayward, and he doesn’t expect a trade to happen.
The Athletic’s John Hollinger said Hayward’s strong bounce-back season with the Celtics “theoretically opens the door for him to test free agency in search of one more big payday.”
“Realistically, however, none of the teams that have room would seem to need to break the bank to have a 30-year-old wing be their third-best player,” Hollinger wrote.
He said Hayward is better off banking the $34 million this year and trying again in a much better 2021 free-agent market. Hollinger’s prediction is that the Celtics pick up the option and Hayward stays with the team this season.
Hollinger’s colleague Jay King said the assumption is that Hayward will pick up his player option. King, speaking with Michael Scotto on the HoopsHype podcast, said there aren’t many teams with cap space – particularly ones with which Hayward would mesh. As for his role with the Celtics, that’s a whole separate question in King’s eyes.
“Do the Celtics want to pay him into the future to be a fourth option? I think that’s probably the easiest way to keep their talent cupboard stocked, but I also think the Celtics owners could look at that and say we’ve already got so much money committed in this core, the luxury tax payments on this roster are going to be so steep if they keep everybody together,” King said.
He said he doesn’t think the Celtics can get equal value back if they look to trade Hayward.
As for where the Celtics stand, President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge – speaking on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich,” – said he believes the team is “in a pretty good place” going forward.
Ainge said Hayward really wanted to help the Celtics against the Heat, but he simply wasn’t the same player he had been the rest of the year. He added that he’s unsure when Hayward will decide whether to opt into the final year of his deal.
“It’s a good question, I don’t know the answer to that,” Ainge said a few weeks back. “The league is trying to figure out when free agency starts. We don’t know for sure. We think we have a pretty good idea of when the draft is going to be, but it’s not set in stone either.”
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