A third maximum-contracted All-Star has left the Boston Celtics over the course of two offseasons.
Just as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford did a year ago, Gordon Hayward is leaving a Celtics team believed to be on the short list of Eastern Conference contenders. Hayward opted out of $34.2 million this coming season for the long-term security of a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. It is a curious offer from Charlotte and a blow to Boston’s title chances, even if matching the contract would have been unwise.
It is also a concerning trend for the Celtics, a historic franchise that had shaken its reputation as a destination big-name free agents avoided. Horford’s signing in 2016 was a sea change for a well-positioned front office that stockpiled young talent and draft assets for an expedited rebuild from the Kevin Garnett-era. Isaiah Thomas’ rise put the turnaround in overdrive, and then that reputation reared its ugly head again.
Off the court, superstar-chasing has gone to you-know-what for the Celtics ever since they squeezed every last ounce of value out of Thomas and disposed of his injured hip in the deal that landed them Kyrie Irving.
I am not saying they are cursed, but there has been no luck of the Irish, either. Hayward signed a max deal in July 2017, only to suffer a gruesome ankle injury five minutes into his Celtics career. Irving suffered a season-ending knee injury that same season, and even though Horford helped lead them to a surprising conference finals appearance in their absence, life was never the same for Irving and Hayward in Boston.
Irving famously left the Celtics in 2019 free agency after publicly pledging to re-sign, and Horford followed him out the door, turning down a $30.1 million option for this past season in favor of the longterm security of a $109 million contract from the Philadelphia 76ers — just as Hayward did to join the Hornets. Both are playing in relative obscurity now. The promise of a bigger payday may be the only explanation necessary.
The Celtics salvaged Kemba Walker out of the space left by Irving and Horford’s exit, a sign that Boston’s culture is still an attractive one. (That Charlotte would not pay Walker what they gave Hayward is a wonder.)
But this was not Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s master plan when he pulled off one of the quickest rebuilds in NBA history, thanks to the war chest of draft picks the Brooklyn Nets gave him for Garnett and Paul Pierce. The coming years brought Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and a host of quality players acquired through smart trades, with several more draft assets in the hopper.
With their draft picks transforming into stars on their rookie contracts, Boston was positioned to spend its cap space on max-contracted free agents who could transform the team into a contender before Brown and Tatum came calling for their own max deals. And it has worked. Horford helped them to consecutive conference finals in 2017 and 2018, and Walker contributed to their run in the bubble this past season.
Boston is still poised to contend. They made their most recent run without Horford, Irving and largely without Hayward, who was injured again for much of the playoffs. (This is why signing him for $120 million was untenable.) Smart is a First Team All-Defensive guard, Brown is a rising star, and Tatum has the potential to become a future MVP. If he reaches that level, the Celtics will be in 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 do they lose one of the most efficient fourth options in the league, but there was some thought he would force his way to the Indiana Pacers, who reportedly offered Myles Turner and salary to work a sign-and-trade. Anything would have been better than nothing, but the Celtics got nothing.
Now, that war chest of draft picks has dried up. Picks from the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies were not the assets they were once thought to be, and there is no cap space to keep chasing stars. The path to building a championship favorite is not as clear as it once was, but it also not entirely impossible.
They still have Tatum, Brown, Smart and Walker, along with a handful of intriguing prospects and valuable low-salaried players. They have the midlevel exception, even if waiting on Hayward winnowed the market. They will invest in their own player development, and Tatum is on his way to being a bonafide superstar. This is a team that is very much still poised to be a threat in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Maybe Tatum’s rise attracts the next star free agent. Of equal concern now, though, is whether Tatum and Brown will eventually follow the same path out of Boston that Irving, Horford and now Hayward just paved. He will almost surely sign the max rookie extension that is in front of him now, because 22-year-olds under team control do not often turn down $190 million, and that could keep him and Brown put through 2024.
Boston’s ability to deliver them an NBA Finalist before that date just became more difficult. No NBA future is guaranteed, especially in the player empowerment era. The Celtics just learned that lesson well once again.
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