NBA free agency begins July 1. Until then, you’re going to see free agent profiles from all over the league. Where will the most notable names land? Why will they land there? For all the profiles we’ve already covered, click here.
To dip slightly into my upcoming top-50 player rankings, I currently have Gordon Hayward rated as the NBA’s 24th best player. He could jump up or fall a few spots between now and the finalization of that list, of course. But ultimately, that sets him in a pretty clear tier of players. He is a low-end All Star.
The typical trajectory of a low-end All Star’s career would have him racking up stats on a bad team, something Hayward has already done and seems unlikely to continue wanting to do, or serving as the second- or third-best player on a contending team. You could argue that that is the situation he is currently in. Rudy Gobert just made the All-NBA Second Team. Stick this group in any other era in the history of basketball and they might have a chance to win the championship over the next few years.
But, to go back to that list of my top-50 players, Gobert is currently ranked 16th. There are four Warriors ranked ahead of him.
That forces free agents like Gordon Hayward, and several more superstars we’ll cover later in the month, to ask existential questions about their own NBA existence. Are they satisfied playing for a team on which we can comfortably say that they have a zero percent chance of winning a championship in the near future? Can your career be personally fulfilling when you spent it knowing that you never had a chance to be the best? How important is personal fulfillment compared to personal enrichment? How much do you care about your relations with the people you work with, and are they strong enough to improve that level of personal fulfillment enough to accept your championship-less fate?
These are very difficult questions Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry and Dwyane Wade will have to ask themselves. But based on the information available to us, they won’t be for Gordon Hayward. He will sign with the Boston Celtics.
Let’s go through those questions to see how I arrived at that conclusion.
Can your career be personally fulfilling when you spent it knowing that you never had a chance to be the best?
It’s time for a thought experiment. Pretend the Warriors no longer existed. Maybe LeBron went back in time to kill Dell Curry before Steph was ever born. Maybe Kevin Durant wants to try out tennis. I don’t know, use your imagination. None of the players currently on their roster exist in this universe. Would the Jazz ever be favored to win a championship? How high would they rank on an initial set of power rankings?
The looming threat of the Warriors might force other star free agents to change teams. If they’re gone, that means that the Clippers likely stay together. Los Angeles took the Jazz to seven games in the first round without Blake Griffin. Maybe the age curve makes Utah better and the Clippers worse next season. But the two teams are close enough that a swing in variance could still hand Los Angeles that series.
The Cavaliers, Spurs and Rockets were all better than the Clippers last season. You’d have to imagine that as long as LeBron James’ prime lasts, Utah would have an enormously difficult time beating him. A generous guess would be that it lasts two more seasons. So LeBron is out of the picture by the 2019-20 season.
By then, Minnesota and Milwaukee will be fully formed juggernauts. The Sixers won’t be far behind. The Lakers might have returned to prominence. And the Knicks might be sniffing prominence for the first time in what seems like forever. Anthony Davis still exists and he’s a great deal better than any Utah player. Even Portland was better than the Jazz last season once they added Jusuf Nurkić, and they’re just as young.
Forget about being a title favorite. I can’t even imagine the Jazz being one of the league’s three best teams at any point in this stretch short of some sort of draft miracle. But Boston?
They had a better record than Utah without Hayward. They can add him at the cost of only one rotation player (someone from the Marcus Smart-Avery Bradley-Jae Crowder group most likely, with an outside chance for Terry Rozier if Hayward would take a slight discount). And, they play in the East. Plus, they have the assets to add enough talent to feasibly compete for a championship.
The Celtics probably wouldn’t beat the Warriors even with Hayward. But add an All-Star and a No. 1 pick to a team that won 53 games this season and they’d probably approach 60 next year. The margin of error gets much smaller for Golden State at that point. One injury could push Boston to a championship. As the above indicates, the same can’t be said for Utah. And when Golden State gets too old to win championships? Boston will be in the conversation for championship favorite if Markelle Fultz, Jaylen Brown and their 2018 pick from Brooklyn are as good as we expect.
Re-signing with Utah is an admission that winning the championship is likely impossible. Signing with Boston makes it a possibility, however slight.
How important is personal fulfillment compared to personal enrichment?
Gordon Hayward did not make an All-NBA team this season. That takes a potential “super” max contract off of the table. In essence, that means Utah has practically no financial advantage over Boston when it comes to what they can offer.
If Hayward’s sole goal is maximizing the amount of money he makes on this specific contract, then yes, Utah having a fifth year and bigger raises at their disposal would be extremely valuable. But there’s no reason for Hayward to sign a five-year deal. If he plays this right and stays healthy, he can essentially create an eight-year deal for himself that takes him through his 15th season that maximizes his total earnings.
The max Utah and Boston can offer Hayward in Year 1 is the same amount 30 percent of a projected $101 million cap. That number is $30.3 million. The smartest thing for Hayward to do at that point would be to take that money for three years (with a fourth-year player option for safety). That would allow him to re-enter free agency after his 10th year. Not only would this push his max up to 35 percent of the cap (or, if it’s higher, 105 percent of his previous salary), but it would give any team he signed with Bird Rights on him. That means he’d get a fifth year on that next contract, probably his last for big money, and he’d sign it a year earlier.
Odds are Hayward has more leverage after his 10th year than after his 11th or 12th because he’d be younger. So that contract structure allows him to make virtually the same amount of money on the three years from this contract, but maximizes his earning potential in the five years for the next one.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor did the math here: the total difference between what Hayward would make with Utah over that eight-year period and another team is less than $3 million. That is less than one percent of the total value of his contract. Factor in the enormous market difference between Boston and Utah, and Hayward would probably stand to make a fair bit more money in endorsements playing for the Celtics as well. The Jazz have no real financial advantage here.
How much do you care about your relations with the people you work with, and are they strong enough to improve that level of personal fulfillment enough to accept your championship-less fate?
We don’t know much about Hayward’s relationship with the current Utah administration beyond the platitudes typically given to the press. But we know plenty about his relationship with the one that preceded it.
When Hayward became a restricted free agent in 2014, the Jazz refused to give him a max contract. They forced him to find one on the open market before they matched it. The Jazz would probably like that move back. Had they maxed Hayward out then and there, he’d be under contract for two more years. But the deal he signed with Charlotte included an opt-out after the third year, and restricted free agency rules for Utah to match that structure. But at the time? All Hayward knew was that it cost him bigger year-to-year raises, a fifth year on the deal in total and was something of a slap in the face to his ego. The Jazz told Hayward he wasn’t worthy of a max contract. He has since proven them wrong.
The previous coaching staff didn’t exactly ingratiate themselves to him either. He took only 9.4 shots per game before Quin Snyder took over the team. That has since ballooned to 15. He wasn’t given a full-time starting job until his fourth season.
Brad Stevens started Gordon Hayward in literally every one of his college games. He recruited him before Hayward’s growth spurt turned him into a highly sought after prospect. And the duo has already come close to toppling a giant before. They came one shot away from beating a far more talented Duke team in the 2010 National Championship Game.
Hayward might love playing for Utah. That has not always been the case. When a coach he presumably loves as much as Stevens is on the other line, that bad blood from the past definitely matters.
But how he feels right now is what will ultimately determine where he signs. And he might have enjoyed playing with these teammates for Quin Snyder so much that he decides to stay in Utah. That’s a factor we can’t accurately forecast. The ones we can, though, all favor Boston pretty heavily. I’m not even sure that Utah is Boston’s biggest competition for Hayward. If San Antonio or Houston wanted to get into the mix, both destinations would be pretty tempting.
But Hayward leaving Utah feels like the best bet among superstar moves this summer. Too many stars have aligned toward it.