What Gordon's Hayward free-agency exit means for the future of the Boston Celtics
A third all-star with a maximum contract has left the Boston Celtics in two offseasons.
Just like Kyrie Irving and Al Horford a year ago, Gordon Hayward is leaving a Celtics team believed to be shortlisted for the Eastern Conference. Hayward opted for the long-term security of a four-year, $ 120 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets for $ 34.2 million in the coming season. It's a strange offer from Charlotte and a blow to Boston's title chances, even if it would have been unwise to fulfill the contract.
It's also a worrying trend for the Celtics, a historic franchise that had shattered its reputation as a destination shunned by well-known freelance agents. Horford's signing in 2016 marked a fundamental shift for a well-positioned front office that stocked young talent and designed assets for an accelerated rebuilding from the Kevin Garnett era. The rise of Isaiah Thomas brought the turning point into full swing, and then that cry raised his ugly head again.
Off the field of play, the superstar hunt for the Celtics has gone to you since they squeezed the last ounce of value out of Thomas and dumped his injured hip in the deal that brought them to Kyrie Irving.
I'm not saying they're cursed, but the Irish weren't lucky either. Hayward signed a Max deal in July 2017 only to suffer a gruesome ankle injury five minutes into his Celtics career. Irving sustained a late-season knee injury that same season, and although Horford led her to make a surprise appearance in the conference finals in her absence, life was never the same for Irving and Hayward in Boston.
Irving left the Celtics in 2019 after publicly signing again, and Horford followed him out the door, declining a $ 30.1 million option for the past season in favor of the long-term security of a $ 109 million Philadelphia 76ers dollar contract abandoned - Just like Hayward did to join the Hornets. Both are now playing in relative darkness. The promise of a bigger payday can be the only explanation necessary.
Gordon Hayward left a Boston contender for $ 120 million safety in Charlotte. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)
The Celtics rescued Kemba Walker from the room Irving and Horford left, a sign that Boston culture is still attractive. (That Charlotte Walker wouldn't pay for what they gave Hayward is a miracle.)
That wasn't Celtics' basketball operations president Danny Ainge's master plan, however, as he carried out one of the fastest rebuilds in NBA history thanks to the war chest of draft picks the Brooklyn Nets gave him for Garnett and Paul Pierce. The years to come brought Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and a variety of quality players acquired through Smart Trades down the funnel with several more design objects.
With their draft picks turning into stars in rookie contracts, Boston was able to spend its place on max contract free agents who could turn the team into a competitor before Brown and Tatum called for their own max deals . And it worked. Horford helped them hit consecutive conference finals in 2017 and 2018, and Walker contributed to their run in the bladder last season.
Boston is still ready to fight. They made their last run without Horford, Irving and mostly without Hayward, who was re-injured for much of the playoffs. (Because of that, signing him for $ 120 million was untenable.) Smart is an all-defensive guardian of the first team, Brown is a rising star, and Tatum has the potential to become a future MVP. When he reaches this level, the Celtics will be on the hunt for some time.
But losing Irving, Horford, and Hayward for nothing hinders their ability to raise that ceiling. Hayward is a prime example. Not only are you losing one of the most efficient fourth options in the league, but there were some thoughts that he would force his way to the Indiana Pacers, who reportedly offered Myles Turner and salary to make a mark and trade. Anything would have been better than nothing, but the Celtics got nothing.
Now that war chest of pull picks has dried up. Picks from the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies weren't the capital they were once adopted, and there's no place to keep chasing stars. The path to building a championship favorite is no longer as clear as it used to be, but it is also not entirely impossible.
You still have Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Walker, along with a handful of fascinating prospects and valuable low-salary players. They have the mid-level exception, even if the wait for Hayward hit the market. They will invest in their own player development and Tatum is well on his way to becoming a bonafide superstar. This is a team that will still pose a threat to the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Perhaps Tatum's rise will attract the next star-free agent. Of equal importance now, however, is whether Tatum and Brown will at some point take the same route from Boston that Irving, Horford and now Hayward have just paved. He's almost certain to sign the maximum rookie extension that now lies ahead of him, as 22-year-olds under team control don't often turn down $ 190 million, which could keep him and Brown through 2024.
Boston's ability to supply them with an NBA finalist before that date only got tougher. Especially in the era of empowerment, no NBA future is guaranteed. The Celtics have just learned this lesson well again.
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Ben Rohrbach works for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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