After meeting with Miami, Boston and Utah in free agency and spending the entire 4th of July deliberating, Gordon Hayward announced his decision to sign a four-year, $128 million deal to join the Celtics. In a Players' Tribune essay, Hayward called it the toughest decision he's ever had to make in his life.
What it means for Boston …
The Celtics -- who also had designs of landing Paul George before he was dealt to the Thunder last week -- have to be ecstatic with signing the 27-year-old Hayward to this deal that includes a player option in the fourth year. Danny Ainge now has a big three of Hayward, Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, two intriguing young talents in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and multiple first round picks in the upcoming drafts.
Hayward -- who averaged 21.9 points in Utah last season, and per Synergy Sports, finished as the seventh most efficient high volume scorer in the league -- joins Thomas, who finished third in the league in scoring at 28.9 points per game, to give Boston a dynamic scoring duo, adding to a team that already won 53 games and went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Acquiring Hayward isn't without a cost for the Celtics, who will lose some depth. In order to create room to sign Hayward to the max, Boston made Kelly Olynyk an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics will also likely need to move Jae Crowder, Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart to create cap space for Hayward.
Hayward doesn't have the same ceiling as George, or Jimmy Butler, two players who the Celtics have targeted in the trade market, but it also didn't cost Ainge either Brown or Tatum or any of the first round draft picks in his coffers.
By the time Hayward's contract is up, Horford's deal will have expired, and Thomas and Avery Bradley -- both unrestricted free agents next summer -- will be on new deals or on another team. At that point, Ainge will have either turned a combination of players and picks into another star in the trade market, or Tatum, Brown, or any of the Celtics' upcoming first rounders will (the Celtics hope) have developed into stars. Hayward will be in his early-30s and Boston could bring him back on another long-term deal for the next iteration of this team in a landscape where LeBron James could be either out West, in decline, or retired.
As for the present, the Celtics have gotten better, and established themselves as the main challenger to Cleveland's throne in the East thanks to a migration of stars to the Western Conference. Ainge got the player he wanted and kept his flexibility for building a contender three-to-five years out in tact. The Celtics have to consider this a successful summer.
What it means for Utah …
This is the worst-case scenario for a team like the Jazz, who aren't an attractive free-agent destination and have to continually build through the draft and via trades and then hope to keep their core together. In three seasons under head coach Quin Snyder, the Jazz went from 38 wins to 40 wins, and finally put it together last season, winning 51 games, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. They also won their first postseason series since 2010, when Jerry Sloan was head coach.
The Jazz built a core group of Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks and supplanted it with veterans Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson -- who play a crucial role in Utah's playoff run. Even before Hayward made his decision on Tuesday, the Jazz were aggressive in free agency, trading for Ricky Rubio -- who flew in from Spain to be part of the recruiting pitch for Hayward -- to replace outgoing point guard George Hill, and re-signing Ingles to a four-year, $52 million deal.
Hayward was a key part of that plan, and with his departure, there isn't much left on the market to replace his scoring. The Jazz scheduled a meeting with restricted free agent Otto Porter on Tuesday, but he signed an offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets, meaning Utah will have to look internally to replace Hayward's production. That could come from either Hood or Burks, who will see an increase in minutes, but it's difficult to project the Jazz as more than a potential playoff team, given the improvements of other teams out West, and the lack of internal option to replace Hayward.
Utah spent the last half-decade building their team back into contention, and was just starting to reap the benefits of that process this season. With Hayward back, the Jazz would have been primed to make another playoff run. Now, they've taken a step back without a clear path to raising their ceiling above just a playoff team in the West for next season.
What it means for Miami …
The Heat were always considered a dark horse in this race, although you can never count out the impact of having Pat Riley in the room for a free agency meeting, and the power of the culture that's being sold in Miami. Landing Hayward would have been a major coup for the Heat, who went 30-11 during the second half of last season on a team led by Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters and James Johnson.
Waiters and Johnson are both free agents, and with Hayward off the market, the Heat are expected to be aggressive in retaining both of those players. The Heat have significant money tied up to Whiteside, Dragic and Tyler Johnson through the 2019-20 season (Whiteside and Johnson have player options which they can exercise after 2018-19).
But given the market for remaining players -- Patrick Patterson just signed with Oklahoma City for three-years, $16.4 million when that could have been his projected annual salary if you predicted free agency numbers at the start of the season -- Waiters and Johnson are likely not going to command more than $10 million annually respectively, if that.
With Riley in the fold, they've continued to land meetings with the premier free agents -- Kevin Durant last summer, Hayward this year -- which gives them a puncher's chance every offseason to upgrade their team. In the meantime, if the Heat re-sign Waiters and Johnson, they should be a playoff team next season.