What's next for Danny Ainge, Celtics after Gordon Hayward's departure?

Chris Forsberg
·6 min read

Forsberg: Where do C's go from here after Hayward's exit? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We won't sugarcoat it.

The biggest free-agent signing in Boston Celtics history walked away Saturday to sign with the Charlotte freakin’ Hornets. The Celtics engaged in a high-stakes staredown with Gordon Hayward and when Michael Jordan stealthily pulled up with $120 million Brinks truck, Hayward danced off to the land of Bojangles and Ric Flair. 

The Hornets, after using the stretch provision on Nic Batum, will have the necessary cap space to sign Hayward and will not need to engage the Celtics on a sign-and-trade to facilitate the deal. Boston could offer a draft-pick sweetener if it yearned to salvage at least a trade exception by delivering Hayward via sign and trade but the Hornets are under no obligation to cooperate (though the Celtics could note how they delivered Terry Rozier under similar circumstances last year).

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Sources close to Hayward insist that Indiana was his desired landing spot with a desire to return close to home, particularly amid the ongoing pandemic. The Celtics always seemed a bit lukewarm on the possible return in an Indiana deal and left themselves vulnerable when Jordan flew in from the foul line offering $30 million per season.

Now, two days into a frenetic free agency, the Celtics find themselves having to fill the void of an All-Star-caliber wing. After a quiet first 36 hours, Danny Ainge got on the board when the team agreed to a deal with veteran big man Tristan Thompson, who is expected to receive the full midlevel exception, and added a backup ball-handler in Jeff Teague

Boston still needs to upgrade its bench and Teague can help. 

There is no shame is not wanting to be the team to pay Hayward $120 million for the next four years. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think the Hornets overpaid for a 30-year-old with an injury history. Charlotte *had* to overpay in order to make a splash.

How Michael Jordan played a role in Hayward choosing Celtics

But the Celtics might have overestimated the potential of an overzealous bidder. As teams like the Hawks and Knicks used up chunks of cap space, it might have further emboldened Boston to dig in with Hayward’s primary desire to be in Indiana.

And, just like that, Hayward was gone. There was no 2,000-word Player Tribune goodbye, either, like Utah got. Just a couple tweets thanking Boston.

The reality is that three star players, including the two biggest free-agent signings in team history, have walked away in the past two offseasons. All three had some extenuating circumstances —  Al Horford and Hayward got major paydays that the Celtics had no desire to match, and Kyrie Irving is, well, Kyrie Irving — but it’s still not a great look. That Hayward would walk away to sign with the forever-eighth-seeded Hornets is not a great optic, either. Alas, money tends to talk in these matters.

The bigger conundrum is filling Hayward’s void on the roster. But it’s still jarring it ended like this.

It's been a tough road for Gordon Hayward since Day 1

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Hayward will forever be one of the biggest "What Ifs" in Celtics history. What if Hayward never got injured? What if Boston never signed Kyrie Irving? What if the 2017-18 season hadn’t left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths? What if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown hadn’t blossomed while Hayward was sidelined by injuries?

There is little use lamenting the past. The Celtics must turn their eyes to the future.

When Horford left last year to seek a payday in Philadelphia, the Celtics dusted themselves off by clearing enough cap space to pursue Walker. They don’t have that luxury now. Boston won’t have cap space until Walker comes off the books and he holds a final-year option for the 2022-23 season. 

The Celtics should dip out of the luxury tax with Hayward’s departure and could potentially utilize the larger midlevel exception ($9.3 million) to chase an impact free agent. It’s unlikely to be a player of Hayward’s stature but it could aid a championship hunt that just got a bit more daunting.

Boston also would have the biannual exception ($3.6 million) to add depth if the team was certain it could stay out of the tax this year. That would add hurdles to bigger in-season moves, however, so the team would have to be confident that those additions wouldn’t handcuff them until the next offseason.

One pathway to add impact talent would be to take on players via sign-and-trade while utilizing the $5 million or $2.5 trade exceptions generated from the recent trades of Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier. 

The wing position is suddenly in focus, maybe more so than the big-man spot that has generated so much chatter since season’s end. Hayward gave the Celtics a dynamic fourth option who didn’t sulk when Walker, Tatum, and Brown got the majority of touches. Hayward quietly accentuated those players’ talents and was content to do the little things while Boston put up some of its best offensive numbers when that quartet were on the floor.

Marcus Smart can elevate to a starter role but that weakens an otherwise young bench. The Celtics must hunt for a complementary talent that can potentially slot into that starter role and fill some of Hayward’s many roles. Maybe that player will be more durable and that would help but it’s undeniable that the Celtics took a step backwards in terms of overall potential on Saturday.

Did the Celtics miss an opportunity with the Indiana deal? Maybe. If they could have nabbed both Myles Turner and someone like Aaron Holiday then it would have at least given the team a chance to explore their fit in Boston. Turner has his warts and his salary was bulky but he would have been a tradable asset if he simply wasn’t an upgrade over what the team had.

Again, Danny Ainge must look ahead and not back.

Boston still needs to upgrade its bench, unless it’s banking on immediate contributions from rookies like Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. Romeo Langford is still in a cast and the team must account for his early season absence.

Ainge said after the season that the Celtics had work to do. The NBA season starts in a month and that to-do list is still pretty lengthy. East rivals have beefed up and the Celtics need more talent to stay in the race.

So much of what the Celtics accomplish this season ultimately hinges on the level that Tatum and Brown ascend to. But it’s undeniable that watching Hayward walk away without immediate return weakens the Celtics overall talent. And that puts a little bit more pressure on the young core to carry this team.

The Celtics have to find unique ways to improve this roster despite the loss of Hayward.