After what seemed like forever, the Gordon Hayward free agency issue has finally been resolved. The 30-year-old forward agreed to a sign-and-trade deal that has sent him from Boston to Charlotte and finally closed the book on his very polarizing tenure as a Celtic. With this, we can now stop talking about what Danny Ainge COULD possibly be doing with Hayward. That topic was dragged out from the moment the Celtics lost to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The speculation about Hayward's free agency started even before the season ended, as situations in the NBA tend to do. Would Gordon opt-in or opt-out of the fourth year option in his Celtics contract? There were a few schools of thought. Some saw Hayward opting-in to grab that $34.2 million he was owed for 2020-2021 because frankly, he wouldn't sniff that from any other team on the open market. He just wasn't that player anymore and even getting up into the high $20 million range would be an accomplishment.
Others saw Hayward opting-out for one of two possible reasons. If he wanted to stay in Boston and continue to try to contend for a title with money and team role taking a backseat, he could opt-out and re-sign at a team-friendly price. That scenario always seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, but possible nonetheless. The other reason Hayward would opt-out? He wanted out of Boston and saw a team that was willing to pay him well enough that he'd forfeit some of that $34.2 million.
As the offseason opened up, rumors started to swirl about that last scenario being the one that would play out. Hayward didn't want to stay a Celtic for some reason that wasn't clear. Teams like the Hawks and Knicks would relish bringing him in as a veteran presence. Hayward's hometown club, the Pacers, had interest as well. The suitors were piling up and it seemed like Danny Ainge needed to hope Hayward would help him out with a sign and trade, rather than walk for nothing.
A big week approached as Hayward had a deadline to opt-in or out, followed by the NBA Draft, which was in turn followed by the opening of free agency. Hayward's deadline came and went before it was reported that the Celtics and Gordon "needed more time" and would push that time limit back a few days, past the draft.
Time passed slowly. Every hour there seemed to be some new "report" on Hayward and his situation no matter how big or small it was. Some of it of course, turned out to be baloney, while other tidbits were extremely credible. We heard that Hayward's wife and kids had moved back to Indiana and that his home state was his preferred destination. This is where the juicy, nitty-gritty details seemed to start coming to light.
The Indiana Pacers and Danny Ainge were trying to figure out a sign-and-trade to benefit all parties. Indiana was reportedly offering Myles Turner, Doug McDermott and picks for Hayward. Ainge was countering by trying to get Victor Oladipo as well. He was trying to rob them blind, in typical Ainge fashion. Meanwhile, Hayward opted-out. It seemed to be pretty clear, if not certain, that he was moving on from the Celtics.
Things dragged out. We kept getting leaks from each side and Boston fans started going bananas about what this all meant. Fifty-percent of the city was Anti-Ainge and killing him for being greedy and not just ending the whole ordeal. The other fifty-percent was loving it that Ainge was essentially calling Hayward and Indiana's bluff. They were the only spot for him and they didn't have the cap-room to sign him outright. Get all that you can, Danny! Hold their feet to the fire!
When free agency opened, that first fifty-percent got proven right. Out of nowhere, Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets for four years and $120 million. Where did that come from?! In hindsight, we should have all seen this possibility, no matter how unlikely it was. Hayward has signed an offer sheet with Charlotte earlier in his career only to have it matched by his then-team, the Utah Jazz. He clearly would have interest if the Hornets came calling.
At this point, Indiana was mad and so were Celtics fans. How did this Pacers trade not happen? Ainge sat on his hands and waited for another team to come out of the woodwork to steal him for nothing! This was a colossal, top-5 worst mistake Ainge has made as a GM. He was losing an asset for absolutely zero return. What a bonehead! Right?
Wrong. It took another week or so, but we found out that Ainge really didn't have much say in all of this. Hayward wanted Indiana, but he didn't want them bad enough to pass up stupid money elsewhere. Also Ainge was lollygagging with the Pacers due to the fact that he DID NOT want Myles Turner. He was trying to finagle something else, which we may not ever know about.
Anyway, the Hornets didn't have the room for Hayward either so they either needed to move money around like crazy, or do a sign-and-trade with Boston. The problem was, any warm body coming back from Charlotte would be a disappointing return compared to what Indiana had to offer. Who were we going to take? Cody Zeller and Terry Rozier? No thanks.
In the end, the Celtics traded Hayward and second round picks in 2023 and 2024 for a conditional 2022 second rounder and a trade exception. Essentially, it's just the trade exception because the conditional pick only goes to Boston if the Hornets finish as a top 5 team this year, which ain't happening.
It's something though! Not to mention the fact that the trade exception is the biggest in league history at $28.5 million. For those that don't know, a trade exception is something that a team can use for one year after it is acquired, to bring in a player or players who make up to the amount of the exception, plus $100,000. It's a nifty little tool to circumvent the salary cap legally and allows a team to trade for a contract or sign a player without matching what they give up. What they will do with this, is a conversation for another day.
In the end, the Hornets signed one of the all-time dumb contracts to bring in a player who may never be what he was in Utah. He'll cost them essentially $39 million after they had to waive Nic Batum. It can't be overstated how critically stupid this was. For Hayward, he apparently wanted a bigger role (and a lot of money), which he got. I'd also bet that despite his relationship with Brad Stevens and even though he never outwardly complained about anything, he didn't love his time in Boston. He was snake-bit for three injury-riddle seasons and went through a lot. It was time for a change of scenery.
Lastly, for the Celtics and Danny Ainge, I actually think they made out fairly well. You don't get stuck with a guy you don't want (Turner), you don't have to pay Hayward $34 million and you got SOMETHING in return while also quietly building depth with guys like Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson (more on them later). It was long and frustrating, but the Hayward era is over. Let's all move on.