BOSTON (CBS) — When the clock strikes midnight July 1, it’s widely expected popular Celtics head coach Brad Stevens will pick up his cell phone, scroll for former Butler standout Gordon Hayward’s number, press send, and try to talk the 27-year-old Jazz star free agent into a future in Boston.
But that’s only the first domino.
If the C’s can first add the All-Star Hayward to a would-be Big Three with two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas and four-time All-Star Al Horford, they’ll seek to follow the model of the reigning champion Warriors with a fourth All-Star: Pacers stud Paul George.
Super teams, be damned. These are super-duper squads.
Last Friday, WBZ News Radio first reported Boston’s interest in adding George via trade following a Hayward signing, with whispers of a three-year extension in place. The Vertical, ESPN, and the Boston Herald have since echoed those same desires.
While implied, it’s unknown at this time if one move is fully conditional upon the other or whether the Celts would still have interest in adding George if Hayward elects to remain in Utah or go elsewhere for roughly $45 million less than he could earn by staying put on a new max deal. Worth noting on Hayward — the financial difference is not actually that stark if the forward were to sign somewhere other than Salt Lake City and opt out after three years. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor recently illustrated how Hayward would only be costing himself about $5.4 million by moving on.
Seemingly, the C’s wouldn’t hesitate to add George regardless for pennies on the dollar, even if perceived as a one-year rental, but the club would surely be willing to deal more assets with Hayward (or Clippers free agent Blake Griffin) already in the fold. They recognize the difference in challenging the Cavaliers for the East crown versus the juggernaut Warriors for NBA supremacy, and the latter takes as much ammunition as possible. Plus, the more competitive the season, the more likely George would re-sign if a renegotiation and extension were not already agreed to upon the trade.
Given this master plan, it comes as no surprise the Green were less inclined to deal for Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who went to the Timberwolves on draft night. Why part with potentially substantial assets for Butler when sources say there’s a quiet confidence among Celtics brass in their ability to ink Hayward for nothing more than money? There is also a belief Hayward, a family man, isn’t attracted to the lifestyle that drives most young players to Miami, a rumored contender for his services.
However, while the Celtics plan to carve out the cap space to add a max player and have a treasure trove of resources to move in any deal, they only have so much power. Hayward, as noted, is free to sign wherever he’d like. George doesn’t have any control over where the Pacers elect to send him. Suppose the Pacers don’t want to help a conference rival like the Celts, Cavs, or Wizards create a potential powerhouse, and would prefer to send him to the Lakers, Rockets, or Spurs? Or, perhaps Indiana will wish to act before Boston’s prepared to finalize a deal so as to not lose out on a good opportunity.
Per sources, Boston’s offer to Indiana for George currently involves two first-round draft picks, forward Jae Crowder, and some sort of salary filler. Center Tyler Zeller’s name is the one that continues to emerge and, economically, his contract would suffice. The Pacers could also ask for guard Avery Bradley in his place, since either would become a cap casualty of adding both George and Hayward. Specifically, the picks would be the Lakers/Kings/Sixers choice recently acquired by the Celtics as part of the package for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, along with either the 2019 Clippers or Grizzlies selection, both of which are heavily-protected.
The Celtics are reluctant to part with the final unprotected Nets pick they’ll inherit in 2018.
The Pacers are acutely aware no other team in the Association can offer a better collection of future picks and current players. They’re also well aware their star wants out of Indiana.
That package is one well worth executing if there’s a belief or even a backdoor agreement George will continue in Boston rather than depart in free agency next summer. Just taking the risk may be a price worth paying given the franchise’s history in making players fall in love with the team, its fans, and the city, not to mention the larger gamble of banking on those draft choices panning out.
It’s reasonable to wonder why George would agree to an extension, given a very publicly reported desire to bolt for his hometown Lakers in 2018. This has many layers.
Ignoring the financial component for a moment, there’s no guarantee of a pairing with current Cavaliers star LeBron James out west. The King will always imply an impending departure to keep owner Dan Gilbert on his toes, but he’s never said anything to indicate he’s truly intrigued by moving on from Cleveland a second time. A new report recently surfaced denying James’ interest in leaving the Cavs when he hits free agency a year from now. And, in the short-term, if James is focused on chasing Michael Jordan’s shadow, leaving the East to compete with the younger, deeper, stronger Warriors in the West is nonsensical.
If George lands in a situation that helps him knock James off his throne, which he’s been unable to do with the Pacers having not won a single playoff series in three years, it’s possible he’ll enjoy annually competing for titles in a sports-crazed market. Like most, he’s seen how the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were embraced in Boston, and how that feverish fanhood hasn’t waned since.
The Celtics possess a stable and highly-respected ownership group, front office, and coaching staff, but roster personnel may play into this as much as any factor. ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote in March that George would love to play with Hayward. A month earlier, George was asked which All-Star he was most excited to see at the mid-season weekend event. His reply, Isaiah Thomas. All-Stars probably know him as “the recruiter” by now. All a coincidence, maybe.
You may be thinking, but there’s only one ball. That didn’t stop Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen from co-existing. It didn’t stand in the way of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh teaming up, nor James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. And it definitely didn’t prevent arguably the best player in the world in Kevin Durant from joining Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State. All three Warriors still averaged at least 22.3 points per game last season, and there’s little cause to think a trio of George, Hayward, and Thomas couldn’t do the same. Scoring isn’t Horford’s top priority.
The allure of basketball immortality is a powerful thing. George told ESPN Radio in February, “I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it [all]. That’s important. Say what you want; I want to compete for something. It’s frustrating just playing the game for stats or for numbers or to showcase yourself. Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.”
As for the Los Angeles element and at least temporarily abandoning the idea of playing at home, most players don’t live year-round in their basketball-playing cities. He’s also newly 27, with a long career ahead of him.
George’s financial motivation is trickier, but cap expert Albert Nahmad outlined the benefits of him inking a long-term deal with Boston upon his arrival, beginning with a renegotiation of his current $19.5 million contract to as much as $29.5 million. Another salary cap specialist, Ryan Bernardoni, touched on the advantage of jumping to about $24 million Or, as mentioned, the two sides could wait until next summer. The belief is George and Hayward would both like the ability to opt out in 2020 in order to sign 10-year veteran maximum deals.
As for the Celtics’ financial commitments, Bernardoni explained two paths the team could take to add Hayward and George (without a renegotiation) alongside Thomas and Horford. It’s necessary Hayward commit first in order to make the secondary cap-clearing decisions to absorb George’s deal.
The first option is currently viewed as the most realistic. This would involve the C’s building around their core-four (totaling $83 million of the projected $99 million cap, with Hayward leading the way at $29.7 million), Marcus Smart, Ante Zizic, and the last two third overall picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Fan-favorites Bradley, Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, and Terry Rozier would all be moved or cut loose. Former 2016 No. 16 pick Guerschon Yabusele would be stashed overseas a second straight year. It’s conceivable Boston would be able to retain Gerald Green at the veteran minimum, while the club would also have space for a $4.3 million room exception (Jonas Jerebko is an option to return here), and a group of recent second-round selections that could include Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader.
Should the Celts elect to take a different route, they’d still be deciding between Smart and Rozier in most instances, and Smart will be a restricted free agent in 2018.
The future beyond 2017-18 becomes more fiscally problematic if George does agree to re-sign because it could involve moving on from Thomas, the heart-and-soul face of the franchise, or paying deep into the luxury tax to the tune of $200 million.
As for how Hayward, George, Brown, and Tatum – all “small forwards” in an increasingly archaic basketball view – would fit together, consider how Stevens responded on draft night when asked if he viewed Tatum as a “3 or a 4.” The coach quipped, “It doesn’t matter.”
Who will the rookie guard? “Whoever,” Stevens said.
It’s a position-less league now, and all are capable of playing multiple spots. Stevens has used four-guard lineups and even featured the 6-foot-6 Crowder at center.
Fans shouldn’t be surprised by president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s bold offseason goals. He’s always thought big. It’s been a decade since the Celts boss traded for All-Stars Garnett and Allen and he has been stockpiling assets for another such run since the Brooklyn blockbuster of 2013. Imagine Kevin McHale helping to build one Big Three, then Larry Bird’s now old team (he still advises) assisting to form the next.
Ainge has made constant references over the years to Boston’s need for scoring on the wing and shot-creators, and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck stated flatly in a radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub after the trade deadline he believes his team is “two significant guys away” from being a “really, really, good team.”
Nothing is certain in this waiting game. Hayward has a difficult decision over whether to leave his only professional home and the Pacers are seeking the best return for their most prized asset to spark a rebuild. Soon, though, the Celtics may tear down a 53-win Eastern Conference finalist and replace it with something better.