The Hornets just gave Gordon Hayward one of the worst free-agent contracts in recent memory

 cbssports.com  11/22/2020 01:20:07 
NBA: Boston Celtics-Press Conference
Bob DeChiara / USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward signed a four-year, $128 million contract with the Boston Celtics in 2017. At the time, he was a 27-year-old All-Star with a nearly spotless medical history. Over the past three years, the following has occurred:

  • Hayward has missed 111 regular-season games and 31 playoff games.
  • His per-game numbers have declined on a deeper Boston roster, but his efficiency hasn't necessarily improved with less defensive attention. Hayward's true shooting percentage last season was 59.5 percent, the same number he posted in his final Utah season.
  • This goes without saying, but he has aged three years.

It's fair to say that at a bare minimum, Hayward should be less valuable today than he was in 2017. Hold Michael Jordan's beer.

The Charlotte Hornets just gave Hayward a four-year, $120 million contract that, from a practical perspective, will actually cost them more than Hayward's original contract with Boston. Why? Because they will reportedly waive Nicolas Batum using the stretch provision in order to create the cap space to sign it. That will cost them another $9 million annually for the next three seasons, bringing the total cost of the Hayward acquisition up to $147 million over four years.

Charlotte isn't just paying more cash for Hayward than Boston did. It's paying a higher percentage of the cap for his services. The 2017 cap was $99,093,000. On average, his deal cost Boston $32 million per year. That's around 32.3 percent of that cap. Charlotte's deal, with Batum factored in, will cost an average of $36,750,000 per year against a $109.14 million cap, or around 33.4 percent, and Boston signed him under the assumption that the cap would be rising indefinitely. Charlotte is signing him in an uncertain, pandemic-influenced cap environment. No matter how you slice it, the Hornets are paying more for a 30-year-old Hayward than Boston did for the 27-year-old version. In fact, they're giving Hayward one of the heftiest deals in basketball.

Only 22 players in the NBA have contracts that, in total, are worth more than $147 million, according to Spotrac. Of those 22 players, 15 are former All-NBA selections. Hayward is not. Of the seven that haven't earned that honor, five were coming off of rookie contracts when they signed with the expectation that they would eventually reach that level. Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, Kristaps Porzingis and De'Aaron Fox all probably have All-NBA selections in their future, and while Andrew Wiggins might not, as a former No. 1 overall pick, the Minnesota Timberwolves were justified in assuming that he might.

That leaves two other players off of that list: Mike Conley and Tobias Harris. They signed their deals during boom times. Conley was able to squeeze over $150 million out of the Memphis Grizzlies thanks to the 2016 cap spike. Tobias Harris cashed in on the bonanza of 2019 to the tune of $180 million. Those were perhaps the two best summers for free agents in NBA history. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know these to be two of the worst contracts in basketball. Their teams likely understood that risk, but had no choice but to oblige or lose them for nothing. Harris and Conley were able to extract such contracts out of their teams because cap space was plentiful enough to guarantee them multiple max offers elsewhere as leverage.

Hayward had no such leverage. Only one other team with cap space is known to have pursued him: the New York Knicks. Multiple reports have suggested that they were not willing to come close to what Charlotte offered, and preferred a short-term offer. The Indiana Pacers were the other team in the bidding, but they didn't have the cap space to match what the Hornets put on the table. Their offer, according to The New York Times' Marc Stein, was in the neighborhood of $100 million over four years. From a practical perspective, the Hornets are paying around 47 percent more than that. Boston, with full Bird Rights, could have topped that offer to bring him back at the last second. Not only did they choose not to, but appeared uninterested in bringing Hayward back at all. There's a reason they were shopping him to Indiana in the first place.

This was supposed to be the worst free-agent market in years thanks to the COVID-induced cap freeze and 2021-induced thriftiness. The Hornets blew every other team out of the water to secure Hayward. There's an element of common sense to this. If even the Knicks aren't willing to match an offer you've made, maybe that offer isn't particularly wise. The Celtics and Pacers didn't match it either, and they have two of the best front offices in basketball. The Hornets are alone in making this bet.

There's a reason for that. Injury-prone 30-year-olds just aren't that valuable in the grand scheme of things unless they figure to immediately contribute to championship contention. Hayward was doing so in Boston. This contract might have been justifiable for the Celtics considering how close they just came to winning it all. Charlotte is miles away. The Hornets technically finished in ninth place in the Eastern Conference last season, but that was something of a mirage. They had the fourth-worst point-differential in the NBA last season, a far more predictive measure of team quality than record.

If Hayward is healthy, he makes them a better team. That much is obvious. But how much better in a far deeper Eastern Conference remains to be seen. The likeliest immediate outcome of this contract is another trip to the lottery for Charlotte, but with fewer ping pong balls. That's when the real damage of this contract starts to kick in.

Hayward warrants a big salary at 30. Will he at 31? Will he at 33? Probably not, which raises meaningful timeline questions. Devonte' Graham is 25. Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington are 22. LaMelo Ball is 19. By the time that core is ready to win at a high level, Hayward will not only be past his prime, but eating into cap space that could be used on players in their general age range. They won't be ready to win with Hayward now, he'll be past winning-age when they're ready to compete leader. The opportunity cost, in that sense, is massive. Even if Charlotte had waited three years to give this exact contract to a similar player, it would have made more sense given the construction of its present roster.

There's an argument to be made that the Hornets have to overpay players like Hayward to play in Charlotte. History supports the notion. A year ago, they dwarfed the market on a three-year Terry Rozier contract. But there's an alternative here that the Hornets seem to have missed. They didn't have to sign Hayward at all. The benefits were minimal. The cost is enormous. The rest of the market implicitly told them what a bad idea it was.

It didn't matter. The Hornets were determined to sign Gordon Hayward, so they threw caution to the wind and brought him in at a price even greater than what Boston paid to get him at his absolute peak. That Celtics deal didn't exactly work out as Boston planned. The outlook on this Hornets contract is even bleaker.

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