Just a few minutes into his highly-anticipated Boston Celtics debut, Gordon Hayward athletically rose in the air to retrieve an errant ally-oop pass, made slight contact on his way down and landed extremely awkwardly, which led to a tragic outcome.
Teammates, Cleveland Cavaliers players, coaches, broadcasters and the crowd fell in stunned silence as Hayward lay screaming in anguish. His foot was horrifyingly pointing a different direction than the rest of his leg. He had visibly broken his ankle, and as he lay in shock with team doctors rushing to his side, an entire vision that Danny Ainge crafted also hung in the balance, teetering on the edge of utter destruction.
Reuniting with his college coach Brad Stevens, Hayward was expected to help Kyrie Irving lead a young Celtics core, signing a four-year maximum contract earlier this summer worth $128 million over four years. To make proper financial room under the salary cap for Hayward, Ainge was forced to trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris. Bradley had a breakout campaign last season and is regarded as one of the NBA's top perimeter and on-ball defenders.
After Bradley's trade and Hayward's signing thereafter, Ainge made perhaps the boldest call of his career in the Celtics' front office, dealing Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and two draft picks, one of which is the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-rounder, in exchange for Irving. While Irving has proven to be one of the best offensive players in the game and is perhaps the best dribbler in NBA history, shipping off Thomas after his emotional and MVP-caliber season with the club was a tough decision.
But, with Hayward's injury, it proved that Ainge made the right call.
Imagine if he didn't pull the trigger. The Celtics would be without Hayward and Thomas (who is nursing a hip injury for the foreseeable future) and would essentially be left with a handful of young, inexperienced players alongside Crowder and Al Horford. Even in the Eastern Conference, that would have been troublesome.
While losing the expected production of Hayward will undoubtedly be a major hurdle for the Celtics, there are a few ways in which they can overcome the injury as an organization. Here are three ways how.
1. Make a trade
According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the Celtics will be eligible to apply for the Disabled Player Exception based on the injury. The exception is reportedly worth $8.4 million and Boston would have until March 10 to use it. Therefore, Danny Ainge will have an opportunity to sign, claim or trade for a player that has one year left on his contract since there was already an open roster spot before the injury occurred.
Although it'd be far from optimal to create another roster mix-up so early in the season, Danny Ainge has a few options with the exception most likely at his disposal in the near future. Since the Celtics failed to come to an agreement on an extension with combo guard Marcus Smart by Monday's deadline, he would be a natural candidate to move since he will become a restricted free agent next summer.
Smart's agent tore into the Celtics after no deal materialized.
“[Celtics owner] Wyc [Grousbeck] doesn’t want to pay the tax,” Smart's agent Happy Walters told The Boston Herald's Mark Murphy. “They’re into the tax already with three guys who make $30 million a year. If they want someone to take a discount, maybe it should be someone who has already made $150 million in their career, not someone who is just up and coming.”
“How long is that window going to last? Those guys have gone to Boston with the expectation they’re going to get better,” Walters explained, “Al [Horford] is getting older. They’ll have to figure out what they want to do with Kyrie [Irving] again.”
The agent also pointed out that there will be no hometown discount happening next summer. “It will cost them a lot more then, I can tell you that,” Walters warned.
Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets is somewhat similar to Smart in terms of skill set and he just received a four-year, $84 million extension. It seems obvious that the Celtics do not want to dish out that kind of cash for Smart, who has struggled to make any noticeable offensive improvements since he was drafted. Given the current inflated free agent market, he could very well be given a sky-high offer sheet by another team, which the Celtics may or may not feel comfortable signing.
For reference, the Brooklyn Nets signed reserve wing Alan Crabbe to a four-year, $75 million offer sheet last summer and the Blazers were forced to match it when his production and potential clearly didn't warrant that kind of deal.
There's no telling how much a desperate team will offer Smart.
Receiving an extended run due to Hayward's injury in the season opener on Tuesday, Smart started 0-for-9 shooting and finished 5-of-16 with 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two turnovers in 35 minutes. While his defensive skills are elite, his shooting touch has been nonexistent throughout his career.
While Irving will be a consistent nightly source of points, it'll be tough for rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year pro Jaylen Brown to consistently produce offensively based on how raw they are at that end of the floor.
Therefore, getting rid of Smart before potentially letting him go next summer in exchange for an offensive-minded wing seems like a smart move. Terry Rozier, who impressed in the preseason and during his limited playing time last season, could take on an increased workload at either guard spot with Smart elsewhere.
2. Sign a free agent
Even before Hayward's injury, the Celtics kept an open roster spot for some flexibility, if needed.
Well, now might be a good time to use it.
Some of the wing players currently still on the free agent market include Alan Anderson, Matt Barnes, Dante Cunningham, Gerald Green and Gerald Henderson. Some proven scorers that are available include guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and forward Terrence Jones.
Although Marcus Morris' return will eventually prove to be incredibly beneficial for the Celtics, who will likely start him at one of the two forward spots, adding depth would absolutely make sense considering that other than Hayward, Morris and Tatum, the team currently has Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis and Guerschon Yabusele on the current roster to back them up. Some veteran leadership and production could certainly be beneficial.
An early favorite for the spot might be Gerald Green, a crowd-favorite who was recently waived by the Milwaukee Bucks. In very limited action last season for Boston, he proved to be a valuable asset when called upon. He'd be able to come in right away and produce with an offensive-minded spark off the bench, if needed.
3. Trust the young core
This is the boring option of the three, but it could also be the most realistic.
Without Hayward, this Celtics team is still talented enough to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference. However, winning banner No. 18 is always the goal in Boston, as participation trophies have never been acceptable.
As Brown and Tatum showed on Tuesday, combining for 39 points on 16-for-35 shooting, they're capable of playing big minutes for Coach Stevens. Brown was on the court for a team-high 40 minutes while the rookie Tatum was trusted for 37 minutes. In what was a nail-biting game against the mighty Cavaliers, Stevens' decision to keep both of them on the floor indicates that they'll see a ton of run this year, even in crucial situations against the Association's top squads.
As mentioned above, Rozier will likely emerge as a viable scoring option off the bench for Boston as the year rolls along. If the Celtics hold onto Smart, he'll also see a lot of minutes along with Irving, which rounds out a group of key players who are all 25-or-under.
Hayward has not been ruled out for the rest of the year, so asking the current roster to hold down the fort until he returns remains a possibility.
While the team's prospects of contending for a title significantly lessened with Hayward's injury, Boston still has a few options to improve their roster, either through a trade or in free agency based on the Disabled Player Exception. Expect them to use that in some way, shape or form.
Or, the team could simply turn to their young core and hand them the keys to the kingdom. With Hayward out indefinitely, this is undeniably Irving's team and he has a number of young, talented sidekicks at his side ready to give it their all every single night. Plus, there is actually a chance that Hayward returns at some point during the end of the regular season, which creates a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, while Boston was dealt a significant blow, don't count them out yet. A lot can happen over the course of a long, 82-game season. And, as Ainge has shown, he's not afraid to blow things up if he has an alternate vision.