Gordon Hayward severely handcuffed the Utah Jazz in his botched free agency departure, but there are still several reasons to be optimistic about the team’s future.
Ever since “The Indecision” in which former Utah Jazz All-Star (it still feels weird saying “former”) Gordon Hayward absolutely botched his approach to announcing which NBA team he would be playing for next season, Jazz fans have been up in arms about the way the situation was handled. It’s been a hurtful few days for the Jazz organization and fans alike.
Not only did they lose out on Hayward himself, but additionally have been forced to sit back and watch as option after option to fill his void have fallen through.
In a lot of ways, Hayward’s decision to leave Utah — though disappointing — is far from a surprise. There are certainly several reasons why the All-Star could justify a move to play with his former coach and in a weaker Eastern Conference, so his choice in and of itself was quite understandable.
However, his handling of the entire situation was far from that. In fact, considering the situation Hayward has now put the Jazz in, it’s little surprise that fans are furious with the player that they once so revered. And they have absolutely every right to be that upset.
First of all, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article from Tony Jones and Aaron Falk (which is an absolute must-read for any Jazz fans who haven’t seen it already), long before the start of free agency, Gordon Hayward had made it clear to former teammate George Hill that his return to the Jazz was far from a guarantee.
In other words, the theory that has oft been contrived as “bitter” that Hayward had long made his mind up before releasing his final decision, more than likely comes from some very real kernels of truth. As much as Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, would like to make us believe that Hayward waffled back and forth relentlessly on the 4th of July before finally making his decision, it seems more and more apparent that Gordon has had one foot out the door for quite some time.
Now, with that being said, I truly do believe that the decision was harder for Gordon Hayward than many Jazz fans are portraying. Whether he’s truly been planning to bolt for Boston for months or not, I imagine that there was a large part of him that had an extremely hard time saying goodbye to the Utah Jazz — a team and organization that had helped groom him into an All-Star and one that he had helped lift back into playoff contention.
As much as we fans like to think in bitterness that Hayward simply brushed the Jazz aside, I imagine it truly was a more painful decision for him than we might think. Nevertheless, considering Hayward’s actions leading up to this point, it’s pretty clear to see why fans would think that spurning the Jazz was an easy and comfortable decision for him.
His seeming indifference is without a doubt one of the biggest reasons why Jazz fans ought to be upset with Hayward. Quite frankly, leaving for Boston was never the main issue. Did we want him to stay? Absolutely! Would we have been disappointed no matter what with him leaving? You bet! But it’s one thing to simply leave a team, it’s another entirely to leave a team in shambles. And that’s exactly what Hayward did.
Hayward cost this Jazz team so much by the simple fact that he led the organization on. If he had the intention to join Boston for such a long time prior to the start of free agency (as his aforementioned conversation with George Hill seemed to indicate, as well as comments from former teammate Trevor Booker alluding to older rumors that Hayward would look to depart), then he needed to speak up and let the organization know.
As much as I’m similarly (though not as drastically) upset about former Indiana Pacers forward Paul George’s handling of his departure from Indy, at least he was up front with the organization and made his intentions crystal clear so they could get SOMETHING in return for him.
Meanwhile, in Hayward’s case, a false pretense of politeness and contentment to stay with the team didn’t serve the Jazz in any way, shape or form. Rather than let the Jazz know where his head was truly at, Hayward decided to play the role of the “yes-man,” making the Jazz believe they had as good a chance as any team of keeping him for next season and beyond. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that likely wasn’t the case.
Throwing further salt in the wound, Hayward reportedly expressed to the Jazz organization that he was excited about the Ricky Rubio trade that happened in the midst of his free agency decision, and that he “wanted the chance to play with him.” Why on earth would he allude to this if staying wasn’t even his preferred option?
Hayward needed to be up front with the Jazz, so instead of them having to wait on their hands for him to simply screw them, they could have made moves, put a plan of action together and recovered nicely well in advance of his actual departure.
Instead, he hid his true feelings and desires to flee for Boston for perhaps weeks or months, then selfishly waited to release his final decision so that he could do it “his way” with a tacky blog post that only served to waste more time that the Jazz could have used to seek his replacement.
In a recent interview on 1280 The Zone with Mark Bartelstein, Hayward’s agent stated that Gordon “doesn’t want to disappoint anyone”, referring to him as a “pleaser” who doesn’t like confrontation. I’ll do the honors of putting that in more blunt terms – in short, Hayward was too selfish and scared to be real with the Jazz and let them know his intentions. And that’s far more disappointing to all involved than if he would have just sucked it up and told them the hard truth from the get-go.
Instead, he made a decision that he likely had known for a long time, leaving the Jazz with nothing to show for it. Even then, he had a chance to redeem himself if he would have taken the Jazz into consideration before declaring his allegiance to the Celtics, but he missed that opportunity as well.
After making his free agency decision known, apparently he and his agent were more than willing to help facilitate a sign-and-trade to help net Utah something in return, but as soon as Hayward had already committed to Boston, the Jazz no longer had any leverage.
Why would the Celtics pursue a sign-and-trade if they already knew Hayward was coming? Why would they give up assets for a player they were about to get for nothing? If Hayward truly had an ounce of respect and consideration for the Jazz, as soon as he knew that Boston was going to be his final decision, he would have brought up the sign-and-trade option with them as part of negotiations.
Hayward and his agent, who one would assume would be an extremely capable negotiator, could have had the influence to put the squeeze on the Celtics making it known that his decision to join their ranks was contingent on such an agreement.
Sure, Hayward would have joined them with or without a sign-and-trade (as he already has agreed to) and Boston may have called his bluff and not agreed to those terms, but they had to shed salary anyway and out of fear of potentially losing him, a decision could have very well been reached that at least would have softened the blow of Hayward leaving by giving the Jazz something in return if the matter had at least been brought up beforehand.
However, such considerations were apparently far from Hayward’s mind and by the time throwing a bone to the team he was about to decimate came to his mind, he’d already given Boston his word and removed any leverage that could have existed previously.
In other words, once again, Gordon’s selfishness cost the Jazz in a big way. Now they have no Gordon Hayward, no replacement at the small forward position, no trade exception that would have come as a result of a sign-and-trade to help them have further financial cushion, and next to no players left in free agency to pursue. That’s without a doubt a rotten hand to be dealt.
Whatever issues Hayward had with Utah, whatever reasons he had to leave, in no way was he justified in leaving a team that had been so good to him in such a poor situation.
Adding to fans’ justification to be upset with Hayward, his apparent disregard for all the Jazz did for him aside from a brief message in his Players’ Tribune piece is definitely disconcerting as well. As the Salt Lake Tribune’s Gordon Monson recently pointed out, perhaps no one ought to feel as bad about Hayward’s spurning than Coach Quin Snyder.
Snyder had shaped the offense to best fit Hayward. He had transformed Gordon as an individual and the team as a whole to maximize Hayward’s talent and performance. It’s safe to say that Hayward wouldn’t be nearly the player he is today without the molding of his now former coach.
But as Hayward’s Players’ Tribune piece indicated, none of that could compare to a chance to reunite with his former college coach Brad Stevens. I get that they have a great relationship, but it’s still an overwhelming slap to the face to Coach Snyder. Beyond Snyder, general manager Dennis Lindsey also did everything and more that Hayward could have asked for to produce a comfortable and successful environment. Yet Gordon didn’t seem to care about that one bit either.
It was also reported that Hayward didn’t even call Lindsey or Gail Miller to let them know his final free agency decision. In my mind, that’s cowardice and disrespect at it finest.
Perhaps worst of all, he made no mention of any of his most recent teammates in his farewell letter, a blow that will very likely be taken personally by each of them. In short, Hayward burned a lot of bridges and showed little, if any, remorse for it. With that being the case, it isn’t hard to see why fans are upset.
However, the road may very well be more difficult for Hayward than he might presume. Apparently the Celtics used the weak Eastern Conference as a big selling point for Hayward (which on a side note ought to be an absolute disgrace to the league as a whole as it wags a middle finger at the idea of a competitive league).
While it’s certainly true that the East is much easier to traverse than the West, that’s pretty sad to me if that was a major selling point in Hayward’s mind. To be among the best, you have to beat the best and quite frankly, I’d rather have someone on my team who is anxious to rise to the challenge and compete rather than simply cower and flee to an easier conference that provides a false illusion of heightened success.
The fact of the matter, though, is that the Celtics will still have to get through the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors if they hope to win a championship. Even if they have two virtual “byes” in the first two rounds of the playoffs, there’s still a number of obstacles standing in Hayward’s way from reaching what purportedly was his principal motivator for joining the Celtics.
Not to mention, recently Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas made it abundantly clear that he will be expecting a max contract once his current agreement expires at the end of this year. With both Gordon Hayward and Al Horford on hefty contracts, the Celtics may be facing some tough financial decisions very soon, which could result in massive roster overhauls or perhaps even a change of the guard at the point guard position.
It’s far from unrealistic to suppose that — Hayward addition aside — the Celtics roster could take a significant hit in the next year or so as they try to pay the guys of most consequence.
Last of all, the simple fact of the matter is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Perhaps the Jazz should have included Deron Williams in their free agency presentation, so that he could relate his woeful tale of leaving the Jazz only to then watch his career unwind from there.
OK, so I’m being somewhat facetious and, yes, those are two completely different and unique situations, but it honestly wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Hayward struggle in a new environment especially alongside a ball-dominant player like Thomas. Sure, he’s familiar with Coach Stevens, but it’s still going to take considerable adjustments for him to be successful.
Time will tell how Hayward’s tenure in Boston plays out, but the fact of the matter is, despite how much his departure and horrible mishandling of his decision hurts, Jazz fans absolutely should not give up on this team.
First and foremost, there are still plenty of talented and capable players on the roster — beginning with Rudy Gobert. The All-NBA and All-Defensive center in a lot of ways overshadowed Hayward this past season as a leader, in accolades and potentially as an impact player. He’s going to have a massive chip on his shoulder and I hope beyond all hope that Hayward will one day realize just what a mistake he made leaving the Stifle Tower behind.
Recently added point guard Ricky Rubio is due for a career resurgence and Quin Snyder’s system appears to be the perfect setting for it to happen in. Rodney Hood, Dante Exum and Derrick Favors all will have a major opportunity to step up and how could we so easily forget about Joe Johnson, who in many ways was the hero of the Jazz postseason, not Gordon Hayward.
The Jazz still have plenty of developing to do and plenty of promise in their young guns, most notably in recent draft pick Donovan Mitchell, who has the early makings of a future star. Not to mention, despite the impossible hand he’s been dealt this offseason, Dennis Lindsey is a capable and talented executive and I’m confident that he’ll be able to get the Jazz back on track.
In truth, even having Hayward on the team in 2017-18 likely would not have been enough to propel the Jazz over the Golden State Warriors for a championship and the team would have had to figure out additional improvements to make for the years beyond to take that next step.
Sure, losing Hayward definitely hurts, but regardless Utah would have had major adjustments to make next summer, especially with Favors entering unrestricted free agency and Dante Exum and Rodney Hood becoming restricted free agents. Those already inevitable plans for adaptation will still take place, with the major difference being that Hayward won’t figure into them. Who knows, perhaps the Jazz will find a way to recover next offseason and Hayward’s departure will turn into a blessing in disguise.
Last of all, while this upcoming season is bound to be somewhat of a difficult one, fans have to remember that other teams have lost their star player before and have been able to find a way to recover. One year removed from losing Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder still won 47 games and were the sixth seed in a crowded conference. Now they’ve landed Paul George (for one year at least) and appear to be primed for an even better season next year.
Not long before that, the Portland Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and despite several experts predicting that the Blazers would nosedive in the standings, instead they turned around and earned the fifth seed in the West that following year and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Back in 2010, the Denver Nuggets parted ways with Carmelo Anthony, but still went on to qualify for the playoffs the next three years in a row, including finishing as the third best team in the West in 2013.
Now, I’m not saying at all that the Jazz are going to necessarily bounce back to the point where they’re a better team next year than they were this past year (in fact, I’d be shocked if such was the case), but I am saying that history has taught us that teams can recover after losing an All-Star. Other players step up, new players are brought in and teams move on and improve.
Fortunately for the Jazz, they have an exceptional coach in Quin Snyder and a great general manager in Dennis Lindsey that should help to even further facilitate those possibilities.
So, Jazz fans, it’s totally acceptable and understandable to be hurt and upset. And quite frankly, Gordon Hayward more than deserves to have that disdain directed his way for the egregious mishandling of his free agency decision. However, this isn’t a team that’s now at sea without a sail or in the wilderness without a compass.
It’s a group with excellent leadership at the helm and plenty of gifted, dedicated and dare I say loyal teammates who will be ready to do battle regardless of how poorly they were abandoned by their one-time leader.
And that’s more than enough reason to still be optimistic about the future of the Utah Jazz.