Given the current landscape of the league, Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward will likely be hard-pressed to instantly help a team turn into a title contender no matter where he goes this offseason.
We’ve known it to some degree all year, but the 2017 NBA Playoffs, most notably the Conference Finals, have solidified that this season’s NBA is a two-team league. It was always going to be a long shot to prevent the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers from meeting for a third straight NBA Finals, but I’m not sure anyone fully comprehended the gap between those two teams and the rest of the league until now.
Would the San Antonio Spurs, the closest team to their level, have a shot at upsetting the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard were active and 100 percent healthy? Sure, it could happen. The Spurs’ huge lead through most of three quarters in Game 1 against Golden State proved that. But does that mean I believe that a fully healthy Spurs team could defeat a fully healthy Warriors team four times? I’d like to think they could, but if my money were on it, I’d have to say probably not.
I shouldn’t get ahead of myself as that series will now shift to San Antonio and you can never count out a Gregg Popovich-led team. But a discouraging 0-2 hole and a questionable Kawhi Leonard certainly spells bad news for the second-seed Spurs.
Then there’s the Boston Celtics (the presumed favorite to add Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward in free agency this summer) who some supposed would give the Cavs somewhat of a challenge. Sure, we’re only one game in, but Cleveland’s 117-104 win over the Celtics that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated looked far from challenging for them.
And although many have argued that the Celtics are nearing title contention, that they’re only a couple pieces away from taking that next step and that Gordon Hayward would be an ideal fit there, I still have a hard time believing that will be enough. Could the Celtics have used Hayward last night? No doubt. Would his presence have turned the game into a Boston victory? No disrespect to Gordon, who I’m obviously a huge fan of, but I seriously doubt it would have.
The point is, there’s plenty of good teams in the NBA right now, one of them being Hayward’s Utah Jazz. However, there are only two great teams – the Warriors and the Cavs, with the Spurs being the unique team hovering just outside of greatness. And with no team looking anywhere close to poised to knocking off the league’s giants, it’s honestly hard to make a substantial argument that Hayward would be better off with any other team than he would be with the Jazz.
The one exception might be the San Antonio Spurs who currently are on that cusp and have the best chance of taking down the league’s best. However, given that they currently have the sixth highest payroll in the league and will more than likely be in the hunt for a point guard this offseason, not for a second small forward when they already have one of the best in the league in Kawhi Leonard, Hayward’s chances of going there in free agency are slim to none.
Beyond that, barring some major moves by Eastern Conference teams like Boston, Indiana and/or Miami (all teams Hayward’s been connected to) IN ADDITION to signing Hayward in free agency, it’s highly unlikely, given what we’ve seen out of Eastern teams so far, that he would be in a spot to knock off LeBron James.
Meanwhile, in the West, we’ve already discussed the Spurs, but beyond them even though Houston and LA finished above the Jazz in the standings (and obviously Utah beat LA in the playoffs), I honestly don’t see a team with a brighter future and better chance of competing with the Warriors down the road than Utah.
Obviously they’re not there yet and, who knows, maybe with how Golden State is currently constructed, the Jazz never will get there. But the fact of the matter is right now Gordon Hayward has two choices – join an East team and get beat by the Cavs or stay in the West and get beat by the Warriors.
However, although it’s still a long shot, I truly believe that Hayward’s best shot at changing that outlook is to stick with the Jazz. They have the cap space (even after signing Hayward) to make some significant moves this offseason, plenty of young talent, an incredible coach and last but certainly not least Rudy Gobert, the anchor of one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
Boston has a lot going for them, but aside from Isaiah Thomas, you could make a firm argument that Gobert is a better and more impactful player than anybody else on the Celtics roster. He’s a special player with still plenty of room to grow and improve and as he does so could honestly hold the key to making the Jazz a Western Conference contender.
Don’t get me wrong, the Jazz aren’t there yet. But they have a lot of great signs indicating that they can get there if the right pieces fall into place – one of those key pieces being Hayward staying put, of course. And although the Celtics have a bright future as well with the first overall pick this season and the Nets first round pick again next year, it’s clear that as of right now, they’re still a ways away from true title contention because of the greatness of the Cavs.
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Thus although the temptation to flee the Jazz and go to Boston will surely be there, it wouldn’t by any means instantly thrust Hayward and his new team into the title contending conversation, no matter how much folks want to say that Boston is nearing a level where they can compete with Cleveland. And that’s absolutely something he has to consider before giving up all that he’s worked so hard to build with the rising Utah Jazz.