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Locking In?

Jaylen Brown’s decision to sign a four year-$115 million extension, was the talk of Monday afternoon coffee breaks, especially in Beantown. Many felt that his overall career performance thus far didn’t warrant a hefty future pay-day. NBA Twitter went as far as to claim Brown “finessed” Danny Ainge.

To the contrary.  This move from a team-building standpoint makes sense. Danny Ainge is ensuring his young core (one that is playoff tested) will be in green for the foreseeable future. Next year, chances are Jayson Tatum time will receive an extension. Soon after, Marcus Smart. If this occurs, Smart, Tatum, and Brown will be on the Celtics through 2024.

Two key names are missing from the prior sentence: Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward.

Kemba Walker, who the Celtics acquired in June via a sign-and-trade for Terry Rozier (which hard caps Boston at the Apron; for more info about the Apron check out Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ here), is under contract officially until the 2021-2022 season, however Walker has a player option for the following season that he could invoke. In the modern NBA, we are seeing players make the decision to move after 3-4 years with a given team. If Boston wants to entice Kemba, and avoid another Kyrie Irving-esque snafu, they would need to bolster the roster in a way that would leave Kemba with no valid reason to switch to another team. Surprisingly enough, Boston could quell this issue before it even develops. They could actually do it this season, and it involves Gordon Hayward.

Gordon Hayward was supposed to be the franchise’s max-money star signing of Summer 2017. After the Hayward signing, Boston made a blockbuster trade, acquiring Kyrie Irving to pair with Hayward and savvy veteran Al Horford. This trio, along with young, talented pieces in Smart, Rozier, Tatum, and Brown, were supposed to be pivotal in Boston’s hunt for “Banner Eighteen”. The basketball gods determined that was not to be the case, as Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury just mere minutes into the first game of the 2017-2018 NBA season…and the rest is Celtics history.

Since returning, Hayward has not performed like the 21.9 points-per-game player with whom the Celtics’ brass became enamored with. To make matters worse, Hayward is slated to earn $32,700,690 this season. He also has a $34,379,100 player option that he can invoke at his behest. Celtics fans would not be happy with this, unless Hayward plays like a superstar again. This is highly unlikely, based on the organization’s financial commitment to one of its younger core pieces. The probable result is that Brown will be a fixture in the starting lineup, and Hayward would be relegated to the bench (I predict a starting lineup of Walker – Brown – Tatum – Kanter – Williams). Fans will not be happy with this result either, due to the value of Hayward’s contact.

Hayward’s player option makes things interesting for Danny Ainge, as, if he wants to makes moves in the summer to acquire a veteran role-player, or even make a blockbuster splash, it could be dependent on Hayward not invoking his player option. If he doesn’t play up to par this season, he will probably invoke his option for financial security. Also, the presence of Hayward causes a log-jam in Boston’s wing rotation. The team still has players at the wing spot such as Grant Williams, Romeo Langford, and Semi Ojeleye, who will need some minutes of their own.

Now, how is Hayward the key in potentially keeping Kemba Walker in Boston come Summer 2022, or Summer 2023? Cap relief. You may be stunned at that. How could one associate “cap relief” and Hayward in the same sentence after explaining his remaining contract value.

Note that I never stated cap relief for Boston.

If the Celtics want to make a move that would allow possibly five players (even more so their starters) locked up and locked in for the long-haul, they should look to trade Hayward. I propose packaging Gordon Hayward, and a future draft pick in exchange for Kevin Love.

Kevin Love’s game has historically been predicated on strong rebounding, low-post moves, and the ability to stretch the floor. Offensively, Love would be able to fill the void lost from Al Horford. Kevin Love has better  career numbers compared to Horford:

  • three point shooter (37.0% vs 36.7%)
  • free throw shooter (82.7% vs 75.4%)
  • scorer (18.3 points per game vs. 14.1)
  • rebounder (11.3 per game vs 8.4)

Rebounding is the key trait that Love is adept at that Boston needs, and that is highlighted by the signings of Enes Kanter, and the EuroLeague’s top rebounder last year, Vincent Poirier.

Historically, especially in recent times, Boston has been horrific when it comes to team rebounding. The last time the Celtics managed to be top-5 in team rebounds per game was the 1990-1991 season. Since then, the team has managed to generate a top-10 ranking an underwhelming six times. You would be surprised to find out that in the Big 3 era of Celtics basketball, the team’s best rebounding ranking was 9th. In the season they won the Celtics’ only championship since 1986, they ranked 12th in that category. From the 1981-1982 season to 1985-1986 (peak Bird-era), the Celtics never had a total rebounds-per-game ranking less than 3rd. In that time span, the Celtics won two NBA Championships in three Finals attempts.

If the Celtics are looking to return to those glory days, having elite or relatively elite personnel at each position is a must. Kemba is elite at the guard spot, Brown and Tatum have elite potential at the wing spot, and Love is elite for his position (contrary to recent beliefs based on his Cavs’ tenure).

A starting line-up of:

Walker – Brown – Tatum – Love – Williams

has exceptional offensive capabilities, rebounding potential and the opportunity to excel in spacing the floor (especially by running different screen variations with Love).

In terms of trade math, a trade for Kevin Love would work, and actually decrease salary in the 2020-2021 season (the following season) by approximately $3 million (comparing Hayward’s player option if invoked vs. Love’s salary in that season). Love’s contract is favorable for Boston, because it expires in Summer 2023, whereas Hayward’s definitively ends in 2021. Plus, by trading for Love, Boston will acquire the Bird rights to re-sign him if need be.

On the flip-side, why Cleveland for Gordon?

Because no one wants to be there. Kidding. Or am I?

Cleveland has been in the underbelly of the Eastern Conference since LeBron’s departure to Hollywood. Also, the team is still recovering from a batch of high-priced contracts that never worked out (Exhibit A – Tristan Thompson). In fact, the team will still be paying luxury taxes this season, and is eligible to be considered a repeater, which will make them subject to paying even higher amounts. This summer will be pivotal for Cleveland as the contracts of Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, and others will expire, making them unrestricted free agents. That will also turn the Cavaliers from a team deep in the luxury tax, to a team with up to $40+ million in cap space.

So what if you swap Love and Hayward’s contracts? If Hayward decides to not invoke his player option (due to being in an unfavorable city, team’s high likelihood of losses, etc.), the Cavaliers would free up possibly an additional $30+ million in cap space, making Larry Nance Jr. their highest paid player at $11,709,091. This would give a team like Cleveland, who is looking to rebuild, leverage to build around either Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, or all three plus Nance. Even if Hayward opts in for the 2020-2021 season, the Cavaliers would still achieve cap relief in Summer 2021.

This is a win-win on both sides. The Boston Celtics manage to build a long-term (better) core, capable of competing against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. Cleveland has an early exit strategy from overpriced contracts, giving them enough cap space (and an additional draft pick) to rebuild with a young core of their own.

So, Jaylen Brown’s move should not be considered Ainge being finessed, but rather Danny locking in his picks for high-yielding assets. Brown’s extension will now allow for Boston to move forward with their young core, and move away from the failed Horford-Kyrie-Hayward project…in record time..and with the possibility of  extremely better results.

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