Trading Isaiah Thomas last summer suggested there was no bridge Danny Ainge wouldn't cross -- and then reduce to rubble -- to improve his team.
The King in the Fourth captivated fans, made the Celtics relevant, and led an improbable run to the conference finals. He did so while playing through the death of his sister, as well as the rearrangement of his megawatt smile.
Ainge shipped Thomas to Cleveland anyway. In retrospect, the decision didn't require much deliberation, because it returned former No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving, a legitimate superstar.
Celtics fans took some perverse glee in Thomas's ensuing downfall, from his nagging hip injury to his disastrous 15 games in Cleveland to his exile in Lakerville. How quickly we forget what he meant to the franchise, but that's life in the big city -- there's always the possibility of being replaced by someone better.
Thomas springs to mind today because Ainge is once again free to think big this summer. LeBron James will presumably leave the Cavaliers. Fellow All-Star Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio. Burgeoning big man Karl-Anthony Towns could be moved from Minnesota.
As has been the case for the last four years, Ainge possesses the pieces to strike. We like to call them "assets," as if they're line items on a financial statement, or rental properties on the Cape, or a strip of 24-cent Inverted Jennys.
In Ainge's world, we could be talking next year's Kings pick or a potential 2021 lottery selection from the Grizzlies. Usually, however, those assets are people, which brings us to the one guy Ainge cannot, under absolutely any circumstances, trade this summer.
You thought I was going to say Jayson Tatum, right? The combination of his affordable rookie deal and jaw-dropping potential makes him a safe bet to stay put, though if the Pelicans dangled a certain center . . .
But I digress. This isn't about contracts or talent or the relative value of Player A to Player B. This is about doing right by the person, in no small part because it will affect how you're judged by those who might consider joining you in the future or staying with you beyond the present (Don't reach, youngblood).
When the Celtics traded Thomas last summer, it felt cold, but the team owed him nothing. He had one year remaining on his contract, questions about his size, health and durability made a maximum contract offer a risk, and the C's saw a clear opportunity to improve. Their relationship produced reciprocal benefits -- yes, Thomas made Boston a destination, but Boston made him a star.
Hayward resides in an entirely different class. He came to Boston last summer in free agency, uprooting his family after seven years in Utah. The Celtics made him rich with a four-year, $128 million contract, but he also committed to Boston, in part because of a close personal relationship with head coach Brad Stevens.
We need no reminder of what happened next. Five minutes into his Celtics career, Hayward skied for a lob against the Cavs and snapped his ankle like a matchstick. The image of an anguished Hayward reaching helplessly for his mangled foot while players on both teams knelt in prayer rates as one of the worst visuals in franchise history, topped perhaps only by Reggie Lewis collapsing vs. the Hornets in 1993.
Hayward has spent the last eight months doing his damnedest to rehabilitate and return to his All-Star form. It hasn't been easy -- he suffered a setback in the spring that officially erased any lingering hopes of returning for the playoffs, and then recently he had the plate and screws removed from his ankle because they were irritating his tendons -- but it shouldn't be easy. Had the break not been clean or mostly spared his ligaments, we might be talking about the end of his career.
Instead, we're hoping for an inspiring comeback next fall, when the Celtics could open the season as the Eastern Conference favorites without making a single move.
The means keeping Hayward, even though his salary alone could facilitate the straight-up, dollar-for-dollar acquisition of James if the latter opts into the final year of his contract before being traded. While that temptation might exist for Ainge in theory, it cannot be entertained in reality.
For one, it's grossly unfair to Hayward, whose career in Celtics green nearly ended before it started. He made a commitment to Boston when he left his only professional home, and the Celtics owe him the opportunity to make good on it. It's not like he pulled a Pablo Sandoval and grotesquely underachieved. He suffered a catastrophic injury.
For two, it would put Stevens in a terrible position. His pre-existing relationship helped sell Hayward on Boston. Ainge shouldn't cast that aside to chase the newest shiny bauble.
But most importantly, imagine the message it would send to future Celtics, not to mention current ones. Every prospective free agent would listen to the team's pitch and then politely ask what's to keep them from being traded after an off year or injury. At some point, Ainge must convince his players they're actually part of the future. Otherwise, Stevens' messages of selflessness and sacrifice will ringer falser than a telemarketer. It's hard to sell the idea of putting the team first when said team has established it will jettison you the first time it needs to dump fuel.
The counter-argument is that Ainge's sole responsibility is building a champion, no matter the cost. That may work on paper, but most of the assets at his disposal are living and breathing, and they have memories. Commitment is a two-way street, and if the Celtics deal Hayward this summer, Ainge may as well erect a giant One Way sign outside his office, signaling the Kyries of the world to leave while they retain some control over their future.
So no trading Hayward. The Celtics are building something potentially great, and acting ruthlessly with Hayward can only jeopardize that process.