For many, the Unites States’ Independence Day is all about freedom of choice. And on this July 4, Gordon Hayward chose to exercise his right literally…and to its fullest extent.
After seven years with the Utah Jazz, the coveted small forward will be joining the Boston Celtics.
But not without a bit of controversy.
At 2:17 p.m. EST, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported the following:
Free-agent Gordon Hayward plans to sign with the Boston Celtics, league sources tell ESPN.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) July 4, 2017
Thirteen minutes later, all hell broke loose. Per Yahoo Sports’ Jordan Schultz:
Source confirms Gordon Hayward has NOT made a decision. The report saying he is headed to #celtics — at least as of right now — is UNTRUE.
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) July 4, 2017
ESPN’s David Aldridge confirmed Schultz’s report, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski spoke to Hayward’s agent:
Gordon Hayward's agent, Mark Bartelstein, tells ESPN: "Gordon hasn't made a decision yet. We are still working through it."
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 4, 2017
In all actuality, Haynes’ original reporting was correct. Hayward just wanted to tell Utah, Boston and the NBA masses himself.
At 7:48 p.m. EST—five-and-a-half hours after this madness began—Hayward tweeted out the following:
Thank You, Utah. https://t.co/ICfocNeZfW
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) July 4, 2017
In the penned Players’ Tribune piece, Hayward acknowledged “this is the toughest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life.” During the process, he narrowed his choices down to Utah, Boston and the Miami Heat, and each team left him convinced it was the ideal landing spot.
Ultimately, Hayward decided to join the Celtics, where he’ll reunite with head coach Brad Stevens, his college coach for two seasons at Butler. The terms of the deal, per The Vertical’s Shams Charania:
Free agent Gordon Hayward has agreed to a four-year, $128M deal with the Boston Celtics, league source tells The Vertical.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 4, 2017
As the dust finally settles, we can examine how the newly signed Celtic will fit into his old coach’s offense.
Hayward’s Fit in Boston
When inspecting the Celtics offense, one must begin with point guard Isaiah Thomas. The 5’9″ dynamo is fresh off a breakout season in which he notched 28.9 points, 5.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds on 46.3/37.9/90.0 shooting, all while putting up a ridiculous 8.2 triples per contest.
The Celtics won 53 games last season and earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Though they beat the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards in the first two rounds of the playoffs, they were no match for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals. Most teams need two players capable of taking over a game at any given time, but Boston had nowhere to turn when Thomas was neutralized.
Add in Hayward, and Boston has its two guys.
The 27-year-old forward continued his upward trajectory last season, improving in both raw stats and efficiency. He netted averages of 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47.1/39.8/84.4 shooting while launching 5.1 threes per game. But his fit becomes most intriguing when considering the offensive actions the Celtics run.
Both the Boston and Utah offenses use misdirection and movement to score, with a high volume of pick-and-roll, handoffs, weak-side screens and cuts.
The Jazz ran a ton of pick-and-rolls a season ago, and Hayward, as the ball handler, scored 5.6 points per game with a 49.2 effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). His new running-mate Thomas scored 9.2 points per contest and posted a 52.5 eFG% on such plays.
Both players are effective pull-up shooters and punish defenders when given even an inch of space.
Hayward and Thomas are also capable drivers—especially the latter, who led the league in drives and points off them. He was also eighth in assists off drives while committing just 0.6 turnovers per game.
Hayward scored 4.8 points per contest off catch-and-shoot looks a season ago—just more than Thomas’ 4.6. It’s easy to envision either player operating a Horford pick-and-roll flanked by shooters, given their dual ability to drive and dish or wind up on the receiving end of a feed:
And if the defense stays true, both All-Stars have shown the ability to find the rolling big.
If Hayward’s fit with the offense wasn’t enough, his addition properly positions forward-center Al Horford in the team’s hierarchy.
For as multifaceted, versatile and analytically sexy as Horford is, your team is never winning a championship if he’s the second-best player. He averaged 14 points during his first season with the Celtics—his lowest in the past five. But he dished a career-best 5.0 assists to go with 6.8 rebounds and 80 percent shooting from the line.
The big man has extended his range beyond the arc over the past two years, taking 3.1 and 3.6 threes per game, respectively, after never averaging over 0.5 in a prior season. Horford’s percentage from distance jumped to 35.5 percent in 2016-17, and he shot 47.3 percent overall despite launching so many treys.
Just letting Olynyk go won’t be enough to create the space for Hayward though, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote:
With Gordon Hayward now agreeing to a four-year $127M max contract, Celtics management now has a series of transactions to do in order to create cap space. The Celtics would have to pull the qualifying offer on Kelly Olynyk, renounce free agents Jonas Jerebko, James Young, Gerald Green and waive the contracts of Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson (or trade). The Celtics would be left with $27.6M in room and likely need to move the contract of Jae Crowder, Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart. Trading Rozier would have the Celtics short $1M of a max salary slot.
Sure enough, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported this shortly thereafter:
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2017
As Wojnarowski noted, it’s up to Hayward to approve a sign-and-trade, but doing so would be helpful in creating the necessary cap relief for his maximum contract. Jae Crowder is on a bargain contract with three years, $21.9 million remaining. However, his role is severely diminished with the addition of Hayward and rookie Jayson Tatum, not to mention the development of sophomore Jaylen Brown.
The roster is obviously in flux, but when the smoke clears Boston should at leave have Thomas, Hayward, Horford, Tatum, Terry Rozier, Brown, newly acquired Ante Zizic, Daniel Theis and one or two of Smart, Crowder and Bradley.
The main thing Hayward’s signing negates is the decision to win now or build for the future. The Celtics can do both with the All-Star in tow. At 27, he can see the Thomas-Horford core through and be just rounding 30 when the new wave of talent is hitting its stride. On top of all that, the Celtics could have as many as seven first-round selections in the next three seasons.
This team still can’t beat the Cavaliers as presently constructed, but it’s getting closer. And even if they never get past LeBron, the Celtics are set for the present and the future.
Hayward’s Financial Advantage
Utah’s financial leverage in re-signing Hayward had been a major subject of discussion before his decision to join the Celtics. If he had returned to the Jazz for the five-year maximum, he would have made $44.55 million more than signing a four-year max elsewhere.
But as Sporting News’ Danny Leroux noted prior to Hayward’s decision, the disparity was significantly exaggerated.
Per Leroux: “Whether he returns to Utah or signs elsewhere, the All-Star will reach ten years of NBA experience with the 2019-20 season, meaning he will be eligible for a full 35 percent maximum contract even if he does not reach the Designated Veteran qualifications that eluded him this year.”
In simple terms: since he signed a 3+1 (three-year deal with a fourth-year player option), the Celtics will gain Hayward’s Bird rights after the third season and will be allowed to go over the salary cap to re-sign him to a max contract worth 35 percent of the cap. By Leroux’s estimation of future salary cap increases, the difference between the five-year max and the 3+1 followed by re-signing with Boston is just $5.3 million, even if he exercises the fourth-year player option. That’s a far cry from $44.55 million, and very well contributed to leveling the playing field for Boston.
As for Utah, there’s no way around it: This stings. Hayward was drafted ninth out of Butler in 2010. The following season, longtime Jazz point guard Deron Williams was traded to the New Jersey Nets for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two draft picks. In 2013, the team dealt Al Jefferson, while Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll bolted to the Atlanta Hawks.
Suddenly, entering just his fifth season, Hayward was the longest tenured member of the Jazz. The team acquired Rudy Gobert in a draft-night trade that summer and selected Dante Exum and Rodney Hood the following year.
Utah was truly built from the ground up, and general manager Dennis Lindsey deserves a lot of credit for that. But let’s pump the brakes before saying the Jazz did everything right to build and keep this team together.
When Hayward was a restricted free agent in 2014, the organization had an opportunity to sign him to a five-year maximum contract and lock him up through the 2018-19 season. It instead took its chances, letting Hayward explore the market; he subsequently signed a four-year maximum offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets.
The Jazz matched the four-year deal, with a player option this summer. But If they had just ponied up the money, Hayward would surely still be in a Utah uniform.
Still, it’s tough not to feel bad for them. Outside of 2014, there’s little else to take exception to—and even there, they only did what most teams tend to do in restricted free agency. They traded for veterans George Hill and Joe Johnson last summer, before acquiring Ricky Rubio, re-signing Joe Ingles and moving up in the draft for Donovan Mitchell this year.
With Hayward eastbound, the Jazz quickly focused their attention on Washington Wizards’ restricted free agent Otto Porter Jr., but before they could get an offer in place, he signed a max offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets. There was little chance the Wizards weren’t matching any offer, but clearly the Jazz have moved to Plan C: a sign-and-trade for Crowder.
If that doesn’t pan out, they’ll likely woo remaining free agents such as Rudy Gay, James Johnson, C.J. Miles and Tyreke Evans—capable players who are two tiers below Hayward and a notch beneath Porter. But, at this point, they’ll have to take what they can get.
The development of players like Hood, Exum and Mitchell are now as important as ever. The Jazz will still be competitive in 2017-18, but in an revamped Western Conference, it’s tough to hope for much better than a low-end playoff spot.
Such is life out West.
Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03