Three years after the entire NBA world waited with bated breath for Gordon Hayward to drop a Fourth of July Players’ Tribune letter and let us know of his free agency decision (I know, I don’t like to think about it either), Hayward somehow once again became one of the more notable names on the market this year. Now, he has a new home again—Charlotte. Alas, we do not have another letter. On Saturday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Hayward signed a four-year, fully guaranteed $120 million deal with the Hornets.
After opting out of a $34 million player option with the Celtics earlier this week, it was clear something was afoot with Hayward, including that he might be splitting up with Boston and his former college coach. Rumors of Hayward angling to return to his hometown Pacers or being one of the beneficiaries of the Hawks’ plethora of cap space surfaced, as well as reports linking him to the Knicks. There was talk that Hayward and the Celtics could work on a sign-and-trade, but nothing seemed concrete. From a public perspective, no one really saw the Hornets in the picture, in part, because they didn’t have the outright cap space to sign him. But in a move by GM Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan that can only be described as poetic, Charlotte is waiving Nic Batum, the team’s last major free-agent signing who inked a $120 million deal back in 2016, to make room for Hayward and its next $120 million deal.
Hayward raised some eyebrows when he declined his option, but as Mikal Bridges noted on Twitter this morning, Hayward (and his agent) clearly knew what he was doing. There’s an inherent shock value, though, that comes with that sticker price. Few thought Hayward could demand that much in free agency after an injury-plagued stint with the Celtics, and thought it was likely that he’d have to take less money to secure a longer-term deal. But Hayward found a way to get paid and secure a lengthy commitment. The 30-year-old has never been the same player he was in Utah after suffering a devastating leg injury in his first game with Boston, but the Hornets still saw enough to break the bank for him. In a crowded crew of Celtics’ wings, Hayward often felt like the least playable at times, but he averaged around 14 points per game with Boston and occasionally displayed flashes of the playmaker he once was, but he’s no longer the player who made the All-Star Game in 2017, nor is he likely the main option on a playoff team, like say, how Kemba Walker was once upon a time. And now it’s going to cost them even more than what Walker makes now to absorb Hayward’s contract.
Kemba Walker will make an average of $36 million over those three years. https://t.co/Ec9FBsGyWq— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) November 21, 2020
The Hornets flash-mobbing their way into the Hayward sweepstakes and stealing him might be the most surprising move in free agency so far. It’s clear that they were the ones willing to pony up the cash for Hayward to feel good about leaving $34 million on the table from Boston, but his fit in Charlotte is questionable at best. With a host of young players like recent top-3 pick LaMelo Ball, breakout third-year guard Devonte’ Graham, and a handful of other intriguing players like Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington on the roster, it seemed like Charlotte was ready to embrace a post-Walker youth movement. On one hand, Hayward is a good veteran addition that will give Charlotte scoring from the wing spot; given that LaMelo’s immediate impact will likely come in the form of playmaking, Hayward’s scoring is bound to go up as a recipient. But on the other, his on-court value cannot be worth close to $30 million to a team that will probably miss the playoffs. And if Charlotte thinks Hayward is their ticket to the no. 8 seed, well, it wouldn’t be the first time their front office has been horribly wrong.
Charlotte has a history of dishing out gaudy contracts in free agency. See: Batum, Terry Rozier (terms), and Bismack Biyombo (terms). But they’re also a small-market team that will never attract free agents for anything other than cash, so there is a hefty tax that they usually must pay to get players to come.
Over in Boston, the Hayward departure cuts deeper than expected. That $34 million that was headed Hayward’s way cannot simply be redirected to another player. The Celtics couldn’t finagle Hayward into a sign-and-trade that brought them back any kind of return (a rumored Myles Turner-for-Hayward swap was the best-case scenario) and now they’re left without much space to improve upon a team that’s hoping to take the next step to reach the Finals next season.
Boston needs a big man badly and might be more hamstrung with Walker than we think. By being involved in Jrue Holiday talks, it was clear they were OK with parting with him, too. So far, after Holiday ended up going to the Bucks in a trade, Danny Ainge has only added draft compensation to his team. The East is loading up and getting better, and though one could argue that Hayward’s departure isn’t a major blow on the court to the Celtics, you can’t say they’re keeping up.