Goodbye Gordon?

by Jonathan Kim

A Look at Gordon Hayward’s tenure at the Celtics and his Free Agency Future

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Gordon Hayward will be an upcoming free agent next year—if he decides to opt into his player option—after signing with the Celtics in 2017 for around 128 million dollars on a 3+1 deal. Hayward was emerging as one of the top stars in the NBA just before he left the Jazz in 2016, which reflected in his whopping 32 million dollars per year contract; however, his brutal injury six minutes into his first game with the Celtics ruled him out of the 2017-2018 season. With a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle, Hayward’s career has shifted tremendously from one of the league’s top players to a strong, but inconsistent role player.

Even when he came back from injury during the 2018-2019 season, he was not the same player he was 2 years before. In almost every stat category, especially in PPG, FG, FT, MP, 3P, Hayward has declined significantly from his 2016-2017 season to his return in the 2018-2019 season. As a result, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has found it difficult to integrate Hayward back into a well-established team with star individuals such as Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. Before his injury, he was expected to be the 2nd option after Kyrie, yet he played after his return like a role player, averaging only 11.2 PPG in 25.9 MPG in 2018-19. Although he had a disappointing season, Hayward bounced back the year after, averaging 17.5 points, 4.1 assists, and 6.7 assists. It seemed as if Hayward was returning to his normal self, he encountered some obstacles: this season, Hayward missed 20 games in the regular season and was injured for the majority of the playoffs.

So what does this mean for Hayward’s future? It is unlikely that Hayward will decide to opt into free agency this year since he would have to forgo his 34.1 million salary for his final year on the Celtics, money he would likely not find anywhere else. Also, due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the NBA schedule changes, it would be safer for Hayward to opt into his contract. However, there is a possibility that he could leave the Celtics for a long term deal with another team since he is one of the top free agents in the market this year. Also, Hayward’s future may not even be in his hands, as the Celtics may trade him for a solid forward or another bench player that can help offload his huge salary figure.

Looking at this year, the Celtics are in dire need of a starting center and depth, weaknesses that were exposed during Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. Since the Celtics have three first-round picks as well, there are a variety of choices the team can make. A great target is Myles Turner in the Indiana Pacers, who have expressed a desire to leave his current team this offseason. Although the Pacers may ask more for Turner than just Hayward, it would be a great opportunity for both teams, as the Celtics would benefit from adding a big man and the Pacers would improve drastically with a starting wing player.

Since Hayward is no longer the number one option on the Celtics—now overshadowed by Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown—he may want to look for a team where he could be the number one option. Provided that he declines the player option, he can look at teams like the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, and Utah Jazz. These teams have the most salary space available for Hayward to sign this year, and they could satisfy his playing and salary demands. The Knicks, who can sign Hayward to a maximum contract, need a player who can lead young players such as Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett. Hayward would be able to be their first option and perhaps even lead the Knicks back into playoff contention in the following seasons. Similarly, he can sign with the Pistons who also have the space to do so, and Hayward can lead alongside players like Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin. For the Heat and the Jazz, acquiring Hayward is more unlikely as they do not need a forward nor have the best salary cap situation this season. However, the Heat had tremendous interest in him in 2017 and can still try to pick him up this year, while Hayward may also have an interest in going back to his former team in Utah.

All in all, it does not seem that Hayward is willing to give up the 34 million dollars to move somewhere else this season. His plan will most likely be to improve his playing with the Celtics this year and raise his value to either stay with Boston for the long term or move somewhere else for another big-money contract. Next year, he will have an infinite number of options he can pick from, but if he does not take the player option this year, he will only have a few places where he can go. Although the Celtics are not too keen on paying Hayward such a large amount of money, they will most likely try to utilize him for another playoff and potential championship run.