The Celtics are among the most carefully managed teams in the league. Days like today are the reason why. With intelligent drafting, the right kinds of cost controls, canny negotiation, and some good luck, a team can retool while still contending within its conference. It can be the No. 1 seed, land (and deal away) the No. 1 pick, explore the trade market, and still have both the room and the opportunity to entice a free agent like Gordon Hayward – all while having a solid chance of again landing the top pick in the next two drafts.
Boston would still be in relatively good shape no matter what happened this summer, but actually landing Hayward on a reported four-year, $128 million deal changes the contextual meaning of everything the Celtics have in store. Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford will be even better players when they have a do-it-all wing like Hayward to bridge them. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and any Boston lottery picks to come will benefit from a low-pressure developmental track. Even running second behind the Cavs means something entirely different when Hayward is involved. In one scenario, the Celtics are a distant runner-up lucky to scrape a game off of the prohibitive conference favorites. In the other – our new reality – Boston has enough to pose a more realistic challenge and the pieces to swing for yet another star if the option arises.
Hayward gets the Celtics that far. Boston already had great wing defenders. Now it has another with size enough to make the defense that much more flexible. Thomas and Horford already were doing great things when surrounded by shooters. Now they’ll have another shooter to play off of, one who also happens to be a skilled creator in his own right. Any team in the league could make use of a player like Hayward. One could argue, though, that Brad Stevens and the Celtics would make the best use of his talents of all. Boston can run the same offense next season without compromise. Hayward fits; he slides into the role of any shooter, any cutter, any driver, or any playmaker. Hayward will fly from one motion offense to the next, slotting in however Stevens needs and opening up some entirely new possibilities. There are tasks a team would trust Hayward with that wouldn’t make sense for Jae Crowder or Avery Bradley.
In fact, Hayward eclipses the skill sets of enough of the Celtics’ role players as to make them more expendable. It’s issue enough that Boston has more wings than it can realistically play and develop. Hayward’s game is also so broad as to create an extra layer of redundancy. What can Crowder, for example, do on the floor that Hayward could not? Playing both together has its own appeal, but the fact that Hayward is a Celtic creates a seemingly endless number of pivot points. Having so many team-friendly contracts is what allows Boston to maneuver itself into max cap space in the first place. That the players signed to those deals are so good is what first attracted Horford and now calls to Hayward. They are the gifts that keep on giving.
Yet for all those great values, Boston would still have to unload some salary to make room for Hayward’s max contract. No Celtic aside from Horford is set to make more than $9 million next season. Thomas, in one of the great flukes of basketball talent valuation, will earn just $6.3 million. Boston’s roster just runs so deep as to get slightly in the way in a case like this, forcing the Celtics’ hand on a player (or players) they might otherwise like. Hayward is worth it. His game opens up too much for Boston to get caught on the details.
No one would have blamed Hayward, who had played his entire pro career in Salt Lake City, for sticking with the Jazz. Utah had reinvented itself over the last four years by building around Hayward, climbing from 25 to 38 to 40 to 51 wins. With that comes a sense of ownership. Part of Hayward surely wanted to see what win total would come next. A greater part, apparently, was curious about what could be done with the Celtics. Reuniting with Stevens – who coached him to prominence – on one of the NBA’s most accomplished franchises was too much to ignore. Escaping the West might not have hurt, either. Even for someone as competitive as Hayward, to go from a such a loaded conference to one where a deep playoff run is all but assured must have been appealing. To even make the All-Star team as a frontcourt player in the West, Hayward would probably have to outpoll eight or nine of: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Hayward’s now-ex-teammate Rudy Gobert.
These things matter. An All-Star berth might not be the be-all and end-all, but it correlates with a player’s visibility. Utah, when healthy, might’ve been a better team with Hayward than Boston would be. Yet the fact that the Celtics are a higher-profile franchise, fair or not, influences what sports fans in general think of Hayward. Acclaim, publicity, and deep playoff runs build a player’s visibility. Those are far from the only factors in a decision like this one, but they can color an already difficult and emotional process.
Hayward took in all of it. There was no wrong choice between the Celtics, the Jazz, and the Heat – only a prioritization of what kind of opportunity most excited him. The man made his call.