The exact sequence of events may never be known, but we can relatively comfortably make the following three statements about Gordon Hayward's departure from the Boston Celtics:
- When free agency began, Hayward wanted to sign with the Indiana Pacers. This was reported by both Marc Stein of the New York Times and Shams Charania of Stadium.
- The Pacers, unable to create the cap space to sign Hayward outright, made a significant offer to Boston to cooperate on a sign-and-trade. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe reported that the Pacers offered Myles Turner and Doug McDermott. J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star reported that Indiana's offer included Turner, a first-round pick and a rotation player (perhaps McDermott).
- There was a lengthy window for negotiation. Montrezl Harrell agreed to join the Lakers on the first night of free agency, but according to The L.A. Times' Brad Turner, The Hornets offered him more money. Doing so would have prevented them from signing Hayward, suggesting that he was their second choice and that they pivoted toward him only after missing on their top target. Hayward's agreement with Charlotte was not reported until 1:30 p.m. ET on the second day of free agency, giving Boston and Indiana over 19 hours after the opening bell of free agency to go back to the bargaining table and reach an agreement amenable to all three concerned parties. In free agency, that's an eternity. Yet no deal was reached.
Hayward had agency in all of this, of course. Perhaps Charlotte's offer came earlier than it appears, and he might have lost any interest in the Pacers once the Hornets offered $120 million. But without even knowing the details, all of this points in an interesting direction: Danny Ainge simply didn't want to trade for Myles Turner.
It's somewhat surprising on paper. Boston lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals in large part because of Bam Adebayo's two-way domination. Turner, who finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, might have slowed him down. Brad Stevens has always emphasized shooting in his centers. Turner took 250 3-pointers last season, more than Al Horford ever did in Boston, and he did so playing for Nate McMillan, whose Pacers attempted the fewest 3-pointers in basketball. The fit appeared to be a clean one. Turner, six years younger than Hayward, would replace Hayward, shore up Boston's rim protection and space the floor for its many ball-handlers. But Ainge felt he could do better, so functionally speaking, he traded Hayward for a player to be named later.
Even if it wasn't the Hornets, he knew that Hayward's only option aside from the Pacers or a more favorable sign-and-trade was to sign with a team that had the cap space to add him outright. So he let that happen and then sent the Hornets a couple of free second-round picks to structure the deal as a sign-and-trade. Charlotte lost nothing in the equation, but the Celtics gained something enormous: The biggest trade exception in NBA history.
Trade exceptions function as empty salary slots. Teams can acquire a player, or multiple players through trade up to the amount of the exception without sending any money back to the other team. As Boston absorbed no salary in the Hayward sign-and-trade, the exception they are granted equals his first-year salary in Charlotte. Current estimates peg that number at $28.5 million, meaning the Celtics can absorb a player making up to that amount without sending a penny of salary out in the deal. Here's a simpler way of putting that: There are only 34 players in the NBA who make more than Hayward will next season (if you include the unsigned Anthony Davis), according to Spotrac. The Celtics can now take in literally any other player in basketball without sending out a cent. Ainge seemingly believes that he can find one player in that vast grouping more valuable to Boston than Turner.
These exceptions always have value because there will always be cheap owners and general managers with cap space ambitions. Sending money out without taking money back in is always going to be beneficial for a cap sheet. But those benefits are enhanced significantly during a pandemic in which revenue is going to be limited. More owners than ever are going to push their front offices to save money. The Celtics can eagerly accommodate.
That slot does come with one minor limitation, and it's self-imposed. By signing Tristan Thompson for the full mid-level exception, the Celtics hard-capped themselves at the $138,928,000 apron. They cannot spend above that amount for any reason, and if we're being honest, the Celtics would probably prefer to stay below the $132,627,000 luxury tax line as well. Doing so delays the repeater tax clock that will surely start ticking for them when Jayson Tatum's max extension kicks in for the 2021-22 season. Boston currently has around $117.1 million committed in salaries next season, giving it almost $21.8 million below the apron to work with, and around $15.5 million below the tax line.
The workaround there is a simple one: sending out extra salary. The Celtics can't expand their trade exception, but they can shave hard-cap and luxury tax room by including other players in such a deal. The Celtics have made five first-round picks over the past three NBA Drafts: Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams. There aren't enough minutes for all five of them. Some combination, alongside future draft picks, will likely be dangled in trade talks. They may be able to afford an expensive new player, but they still have to give up assets to get the other team to agree to give that player up.
These restrictions likely played a part in motivating Boston's decision not to trade for Turner. Replacing Thompson and Jeff Teague with Turner and McDermott would have taken Boston over $131.5 million, giving them only around $1 million to work with below the tax line. That doesn't exactly offer in-season flexibility. The Celtics might have been interested without absorbing McDermott's deal, but the Pacers needed to send out more money to make the contracts work. Without paying off a third party to absorb extra salary, there was no way for Boston to avoid taking that money on next season. If we assume doing so was a nonstarter, a clearer picture of what the Celtics actually plan to use that trade exception for begins to form.
Boston's willingness to let Hayward go suggests its preference is to add a younger, more durable player. Otherwise, it would have just paid Hayward itself. The decision not to acquire Turner, and in turn sign Thompson, indicates that center simply isn't a position the Celtics want to make a long-term investment in, and the overall sequence of events combined with their expected future expenditures hints at a hesitance to pay the tax this season. With all of that in mind, a small group of players stands out as likely Celtics targets.
- Aaron Gordon rumors are nothing new, but Orlando's present state makes a trade likelier than ever. Without Jonathan Isaac and after losing DJ Augustin, the Magic appear destined for the lottery this season. Gordon has only two seasons remaining on his contract. The final season has a $1.7 million salary decline, which would be helpful for Boston in paying the tax next season, but at only $18.1 million in salary for this season, the Celtics could easily fit him under the 2020-21 tax by sending two cheaper players to the Magic. Gordon's positional versatility offers the Celtics a hedge on their plan not to invest in centers. Gordon has spent his entire career on gigantic Magic teams that have miscast him as a wing. Realistically, he's a power forward with small-ball center potential, giving the Celtics a solution at the position with the versatility to move down a slot or two when necessary.
- The Raptors need to move Norman Powell if they plan to open up max cap space to offer Giannis Antetokounmpo next offseason, assuming he opts into the final year of his deal. The Celtics just had the chance to scout Powell up close for seven games. The results were mixed. Powell struggled early in the second round and thrived in the final three games of the series.
- Eventually, the Spurs are going to have to settle on which of their young guards are actually long-term rotation pieces and which are expendable. Derrick White, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson are all still on rookie deals. DeJounte Murray is not, and if Boston believes his jump shot will continue to improve, the Spurs might be open to off-loading their one somewhat expensive young piece.
- Trade exceptions typically last a year. Even if the timeline is altered to reflect the league's unusual schedule, there is no reason to believe Boston wouldn't keep this exception deep into 2021 free agency given how long it delayed the Hayward sign-and-trade. That suddenly puts 2021 free agents in play as sign-and-trade targets. Imagine a scenario in which the Mavericks need to clear cap space for a star-level addition. They'd likely be amenable to receiving draft compensation for Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade rather than renouncing him outright, assuming he opts out of the final year on his deal.
Unless the Celtics cook up some sort of scheme to turn that exception into a superstar, that is the mold they are likely to explore here: a young perimeter player on his second contract playing for a team with different priorities. The exception doesn't even have to be their direct method of acquiring that player. If none present themselves, they could merely use it to add extra tradable salary so that when one such player does emerge, they are positioned to pursue him without breaking up their core to do so.
That wouldn't have been possible with Hayward making $30 million per year, and it might not have been with Turner sitting on their books at $18 million annually either. Boston's rejection of both was a gamble on the market producing a superior option in the semi-near future, one that they would need flexibility to pursue rather than a player whose immediate value to winning might be greater.
Hayward and Turner are both very productive players. There's a reason they got those contracts in the first place. There is no guarantee that they find an improvement. The majority of trade exceptions go unused. But Ainge was so confident in what he could do with this one that he seemingly turned down Turner to get it. He probably wouldn't have done so if he didn't have a plan to use it.