The outside perception is that the Celtics lost free agency because they watched Gordon Hayward agree to that mammoth contract with no compensation — unless the Celtics work out a sign-and-trade — while the team’s rivals in Miami, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia ramped up their rosters.
Yet, the Celtics can still save free agency with some astute moves as the market dries up.
Losing Hayward, if he was healthy, was a blow. But it allowed the club to sign former Cleveland big man and Celtics’ menace Tristan Thompson, who was coming off a five-year, $82 million deal. Thompson likely doesn’t accept the Celtics’ taxpayer-level exception of $5.7 million but was enticed by the $9.25 million non-taxpayer exception because it pays him about $19 million over two years.
Hayward leaving meant the Celtics were no longer a taxpayer, so they could net Thompson. In Hayward’s situation, the Celtics were left with little choice. He opted out of the final year of his contract. Would he have been enticed if the Celtics tore up that final year and offered him the same money as Charlotte — four years, $120 million? Perhaps.
But the Celtics could not and should not have been ready to make such a heavy financial commitment to their fourth-best player. Bringing back Hayward at that rate would have given them four players — Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker — combining for more than $120 million in salary for the 2021-22 season.
Ownership would have been drowning in luxury-tax payments and it would have impacted free-agency plans for years. Could president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have worked out a deal with the Indiana Pacers? Yes, but Hayward would have needed to agree to such a deal and work out the dollars with the Pacers. And their offer wasn’t $30 million.
Hayward was the beneficiary of Charlotte’s desperation to be significant. The Hornets have lacked for star power of late, and let Walker walk all the way to Boston in free agency last season. While they did draft LaMelo Ball to go with prospects Miles Bridges and PJ Washington, the Hornets’ roster was a trivia question to most NBA fans.
The Hornets needed a face of the franchise — and since Ball is too young to fill the role — Hayward gets another chance to be a cornerstone.
The optics look unflattering to the Celtics. Another All-Star caliber player leaves via free agency before his contract expired. But Hayward’s departure may be a positive for Boston depending on what the Celtics do next.
The club has its $3.2 million biannual exception available and there will be quality players willing to take that for a chance to win and stay in the NBA.
There are a couple of players the Celtics should consider.
Former Celtic Evan Turner knows Brad Stevens’s system, is accustomed to coming off the bench, and can play point forward. He’s available and still a solid player. But he was traded a couple of times because of the heftiness of his contract and basically didn’t play last year. Glenn Robinson Jr. has dealt with injuries in the past and didn’t play for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA bubble but he could serve as a perfect 3-and-D backup for Brown and Tatum. Robinson is a career 37.3 percent shooter and is only 26.
Or the Celtics can go the super-seasoned route and sign Kyle Korver, who at 39 came off Milwaukee’s bench and shot 41 percent from the 3-point line. Stevens may have to hide him at times on defense but he certainly is familiar with the attention Korver receives from defenses because of his shooting ability.
The Celtics knew there was a need for significant changes to their roster. Boston shipped the unproductive Vincent Poirier to the Oklahoma City Thunder and got back a small trade exception. The popular Enes Kanter, who turned into a situational player because of his defensive limitations, was moved back to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he thrived two seasons ago.
Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters agreed to two-way contracts again for this season so they will be available for spot duty. Boston has one available roster spot if it doesn’t bring back Javonte Green, and that move could determine its free-agency grade.
Jeff Teague has been a solid NBA point guard for the past decade and will stabilize the second unit as Walker’s backup. It’s an upgrade from Brad Wanamaker, who signed with the Golden State Warriors. But with Romeo Langford out indefinitely, Aaron Nesmith a rookie, and Payton Pritchard’s contribution unknown, the Celtics need to add a veteran player.
Ainge got too attached to his roster last season and it cost the Celtics in the playoffs. They had too many garbage-time players. Each player on this roster appears to have a particular use. Langford and Carsen Edwards are the only question marks but will get another year to develop.
For now, the Celtics won’t get a low grade in free agency. But time could be short to secure a solid score with one more impactful addition.