The Utah Jazz were dealt a brutal blow on Tuesday when star forward Gordon Hayward announced he was leaving Utah to sign with the Boston Celtics.
Just months after its most promising season in years, winning 51 regular season games and upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz have taken several steps back.
For the Jazz, the loss of Hayward could come back to a fateful gamble they took in 2014, when Hayward was a restricted free agent.
As ESPN’s Tim MacMahon notes, rather than locking Hayward up right away, the Jazz let him explore the market, knowing they could match any offer he received. Hayward returned with a four-year, $US63 million offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets, with a player option for the fourth year, which the Jazz matched.
There’s no telling whether the Jazz letting Hayward search the market affected his views toward the franchise. Many reports indicate Hayward liked the Jazz organisation and head coach Quin Snyder. In fact, Hayward’s agent Mark Bartlestein told ESPN that the Jazz matching the offer for Hayward was a great statement of commitment.
But at the very least, that deal gave Hayward an out for the 2017 offseason, at a time when the Celtics, with Hayward’s college coach Brad Stevens, had the cap space to sign him.
If the Jazz had maxed out Hayward right away, not only could the move have been a sign of good faith, perhaps making it harder for Hayward to leave, he also would still be under contract today. The Jazz could have found more ways to tinker with the roster, perhaps even re-signing point guard George Hill, who ended up signing a three-year, $US57 million contract with the Kings this offseason.
Of course, the Jazz’s decision in 2014 was defensible. In 2013-14, Hayward had just averaged 16 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game on 41% shooting, 30% from three. Those are solid numbers, but Hayward looked better suited to be a second or third option on a contending team, not the first. The Jazz may have been hesitant to lock into a max deal for a borderline star. Instead, Hayward blossomed into one of the best two-way wings in the NBA, capable of leading a team in scoring, making plays for others, and defending opposing stars.
Letting Hayward search the market in 2014 may not have hurt the two sides’ relationship, but it put the Jazz in a perilous position. Three years later, Hayward is a member of the Celtics and the Jazz don’t have a star.