Danny Ainge has finally done it. After years of missed opportunities and what feels like a dozen near-deals, the Boston Celtics have taken the next step in their path towards contending—acquiring a superstar wing. Gordon Hayward announced yesterday, after a... prolonged deliberation period, that he would sign a four-year deal with the Celtics.
It’s a huge victory for Boston, especially since Hayward came in free agency. They’re able to hold on to Ainge’s children (all the future draft picks), so they can continue their quest to find a way past LeBron James in the Eastern Conference while maintaining their future.
For Hayward’s maximum salary, the Celtics will need to clear $29,727,900 in cap room—the same starting salary that the Clippers gave Blake Griffin. Due to years of smart, cap-saving maneuverings, Danny Ainge has all but a few million of that salary already waiting for Hayward on Boston’s cap sheet. Renouncing Kelly Olynyk’s qualifying offer brought them close, but even dumping the salaries of Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson and convincing Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic won’t be enough to give Hayward a maximum salary. Even if it did, the team would be left void of depth.
Ainge’s next move is inevitable: in order to make Hayward’s signing possible, he’ll have to move one of the Celtics’ more substantial salaries. Presumably Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Boston’s price rookie and sophomore prospects, aren’t candidates for a salary dump. Similarly, Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, as the team’s leading scorer and only big man, seem safe. That leaves three wings, whose minutes will be replaced by Hayward anyway, as the expendable salaries: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart.
The choice here is no easy one—all three averaged more than 30 minutes a game for the Celtics last season, with Bradley and Crowder as the full-time starters on the wing. Smart is likely the worst of the trio, but also the youngest at 23 years old. Bradley is 26 and Crowder will turn 27 tomorrow. And while Bradley is probably the best of the three, he’s the one who’ll likely lose the starting shooting guard spot to Hayward. Furthermore, Bradley faces unrestricted free agency and a big payday next summer, while Smart will be a restricted free agent and Crowder is signed through 2020 on what may be the league’s most team-friendly contract.
If I had to bet, I’d think that Ainge is listening to offers for all three. Hayward’s capability to play both wing spots—and Smart’s utility at all three perimeter positions—leaves the team flexible; they’ll be just fine next season no matter which player is traded. Depending on the offers that other teams make, Ainge will determine the best path forward. By listening to proposals for all three, he expands his options.
Frankly, it’s somewhat difficult to see the Clippers getting into this sweepstakes, but not impossible. The team has a $7.27M trade exception from the Chris Paul trade, which would fit Crowder or Smart’s salary, but not Bradley’s. When using the TPE, the only way for the Clippers to return value to Boston would be with draft assets—a tall task considering that the Celtics already own the Clippers’ 2019 first-round pick. One way to get Ainge interested could be to offer to remove the protections on that pick, a risky measure to say the least.
For Avery Bradley, who does not fit in the Clippers’ TPE, the Clippers could offer Lou Williams’ $7 million expiring contract. They could also take back Demetrius Jackson, who has $650,000 guaranteed, to save Boston a little bit of money compared to simply releasing him. By my math, saving $1.8M in a Bradley-Williams swap, plus shedding Jackson’s deal and releasing Jordan Mickey’s non-guaranteed contract, would leave the Celtics right in the ballpark of giving Hayward his max. For the Celtics’ part, they’d get a valuable role player on a cheap expiring deal to replace Bradley—a piece that can easily be moved at the deadline.
The Clippers would still likely have to include additional draft assets to make such an offer be competitive with the calls that Boston is sure to get from around the league, but it’s one possible way for them to get in the game. In all likelihood, the Clippers won’t be able to get in on this opportunity, as several teams with cap room to spare and a need for quality building blocks will call Ainge with packages of assets. If it can be managed, however, a player of Bradley’s caliber would simply further serve to cement the impressiveness of the Clippers’ off-season.