BOSTON (CBS) — For the second straight summer, the Celtics landed a marquee free agent and picked third in the NBA Draft. Not bad for a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference, won 53 games, and ranked among the final three teams left standing in the postseason.
Following an afternoon of seemingly make-believe deliberation as he wrapped up a lengthy 2,100-word piece for the Players’ Tribune, Celts top target and Jazz All-Star free agent Gordon Hayward opted for a move east to reunite with former Butler head coach and current Boston bench boss Brad Stevens.
Even after reading Hayward’s thoughts, you may be wondering, “Why the Green?”
Not the money. Four years and roughly $128 million, with a player-option on that fourth season, is a healthy kind of green in its own right, but it’s less than Hayward would’ve earned by simply staying in Utah or even choosing his other finalist in Miami, where there are no state income taxes.
Most would suggest Stevens was the driving force, which is certainly reasonable when you consider their bond that dates back to Hayward’s teenage years and recruitment to play for the Bulldogs. The soon-to-be eighth-year pro even concluded his farewell to Utah with a message to his new coach, referencing their unfinished business in Butler’s 2010 national championship game loss to Duke.
That title still eludes them both and what better experience than to cut down an NBA net together.
Stevens alone, though, wasn’t enough for Hayward to leave Quin Snyder, another highly respected coach he spent the last five seasons developing under and growing with in Utah. Frankly, all things being equal, Stevens may not have even been enough to be the deciding factor. He didn’t have to be, at least not with regard to their preexisting relationship.
Stevens’ coaching prowess, however, coupled with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s roster building, a strong and committed ownership group willing to pay into the luxury tax for a winner and, of course, geography – those were the reasons Hayward decided to call the Garden home for at least the next three years of his career.
Hayward’s no fool. From the world-beating Warriors on down to transactions that have brought star forwards Paul George (prematurely dealt from the Pacers to the Thunder), Jimmy Butler (traded from the Bulls to the Timberwolves), and Paul Millsap (left the Hawks to sign with the Nuggets) from the East, the West is loaded. Had Hayward returned to the 51-win Jazz, he was staring at a clear postseason ceiling. Utah reached the second round last year and, thanks to a vastly improved and deeper conference, there was no guarantee of escaping the opening round again.
Yes, the East belongs to LeBron James’ Cavaliers, though the Celtics reached the conference finals a season ago without Hayward and no team among the other 13 took a significant step forward. The Raptors, Wizards, and Bucks will contend for home-court advantage, but the C’s are comfortably at worst the second-best club in the conference. If Ainge is able to add another impactful piece through trade between now and the deadline (Marc Gasol?), the Cavs suffer a significant injury, or James leaves Cleveland a year from now – a widely reported consideration – then suddenly Boston will reign supreme.
However, it’s not merely where the Celts are now so much as where they’re going. Hayward joins vets Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford and a deep young core featuring No. 3 picks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, highly-touted big man Ante Zizic, and a tenacious defender with an improving skill-set in Marcus Smart (if he isn’t traded). Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are significant two-way pieces as well, but either or both may soon be on the move. Beyond this season, Boston possesses up to seven first-round draft picks the next three years – possibly two in the top-five in 2018. Ainge has his C’s in position to build toward the sustained excellence the organization has craved since the new Big Three era, only longer, and he can elect to continue to build patiently through the draft or spend some of those coveted assets on other stars as they become available.
Thinking in the short term, Hayward’s offensive production has climbed each of his seven seasons, most recently averaging 21.9 points last year (24.1 in 11 postseason contests), but it’s helpful to know, too, he won’t have to shoulder the offensive load each and every night for his new team with Thomas at the point. Thomas finished fifth in the Most Valuable Player balloting, and the “King in the Fourth” averaged a career-best 28.9 points. Hayward will slide perfectly into Stevens’ system for a coach already quite familiar with designing an offense that best suits him and a team in desperate need of reliable scoring on the wing.
In terms of accolades, Hayward also stands to earn more with All-Star or All-NBA team recognition. All-Star nods likely weren’t in his immediate future out West with Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and now George and Butler, among others, in his way.
And, not to be missed, there’s Boston. Is it warm with loads of nightlife? Not unless you like the cold tea in Chinatown in the summer. Still, with 10 championships among the Celts, Patriots, Red Sox, and Bruins dating back to 2002, athletes in this region have learned how revered one can quickly become when they arrive in the Hub and deliver a title. Hayward could have remained in Utah and perhaps morphed into a legend alongside Karl Malone and John Stockton. Here, in front of arguably the most passionate fan base in the country, he can be a god.
All things being equal, Hayward likely would have remained with the Jazz, even with his beloved old coach across the country hoping to help him with his move at baggage claim. But all things aren’t remotely equal. If Hayward prioritizes the surest path to a championship now and in the years to come, he made the smart choice. Add Stevens as the coach leading that charge, and it was the only choice.
There’s no doubt Hayward’s decision was difficult, even gut-wrenching, leaving the only professional home he’s ever known and a community that embraced him and his family as its own, but a comfort with Stevens and Ainge’s master plans ease that pain. By the time the season starts, any remaining second thoughts will be extinguished as quickly as former fans are burning No. 20 Jazz jerseys in Utah.