The Utah Jazz will never fully enjoy the fruits of the rebuilding process that began Feb. 23, 2011, when the team traded Deron Williams. Gordon Hayward‘s decision to leave for greener pastures guarantees that.
A couple of months ago, the Jazz seemed positioned to be a franchise to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. They were a rising, young team that broke through with a 51-win season despite dealing with injuries to key players, ending a four-year postseason drought and winning a playoff series for the first time since Williams’ departure.
Of course, that required re-signing the Jazz’s lone All-Star selection since this rebuilding project began.
The Jazz aren’t back to square one — second-team All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, 25, is one of several talented young players who remain in Salt Lake City — but Hayward bolting for Boston leaves a huge hole on the roster. The Jazz developed Hayward into a go-to guy, particularly in the three seasons since coach Quin Snyder arrived, and built the offense around his evolving skill set.
General manager Dennis Lindsey will explore every avenue, but it’s essentially impossible to immediately find a suitable replacement for a No. 1 scorer, especially for a small-market team without much wiggle room under the salary cap.
The Jazz entered the offseason cautiously optimistic that they could keep Hayward, well aware of the attractive options he had to spend his prime, yet they were confident they’d put plenty of reasons in place for him to want to stay in Utah. Leading into free agency, Lindsey took a proactive approach in upgrading the roster. He twice traded up in the first round of the draft, most notably to get into the lottery to select Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell. Lindsey ensured the Jazz would have a proven veteran point guard, trading for 26-year-old Ricky Rubio instead of risking losing (or overpaying) 31-year-old George Hill in free agency. Utah quickly worked to get a four-year, $52 million deal done with Joe Ingles, a sweet-shooting glue guy who happens to be one of Hayward’s best friends.
Gobert is just about to begin the four-year extension he signed last fall, a less-than-max deal that is a bargain for a big man whose ability to dominate doing dirty work complemented and enhanced Hayward’s consistently expanding skill set. The Jazz contingent, which included Rubio, Ingles and Gobert as well as Lindsey, Snyder and others, presented a compelling case during Monday’s meeting at Hayward’s home in San Diego. A major focal point was a specific plan to continue Hayward’s dramatic development, including accompanying tweaks to the offense as his game grows.
The Jazz could offer Hayward something the Celtics couldn’t: the opportunity to be the unquestioned No. 1 offensive option. Utah believed Snyder had just as strong of a relationship with Hayward as Boston’s Brad Stevens, his college coach. But Boston could reasonably paint the picture of a brighter future: a roster basically intact after a conference finals appearance, a pair of top-three picks already in place, more high-lottery picks on the way and a much easier path to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference.
There really isn’t anything else Utah could have done in recent months to improve the odds of Hayward’s return. The Jazz front office’s fatal mistake, in hindsight, was made a few years ago when Hayward was a restricted free agent.
The Jazz could have given Hayward a five-year maximum contract then. In that case, as it turns out, his salary in Utah would have been a relative bargain through the 2018-19 season. Instead, the Jazz allowed Hayward to explore the market and opted to match the max offer he received from Charlotte, a four-year deal that included a player option for this season.
A few years later, that looks like a terrible decision. At the time, many scoffed at the thought of paying max money to a guy who just put up pretty good numbers (16.2 points per game with a subpar eFG% of .454) on a 25-win team that just fired its coach.
Hayward’s numbers have soared in the three seasons since under Snyder (topping out at 21.9 points per game with an eFG% of .536 last season), with the Jazz’s win totals making similar jumps. Utah hoped Hayward and Gobert could be the modern-day version of Stockton and Malone, a star duo with staying power that could make the Jazz consistently competitive for an era. They were the poster boys for a developmental program that Jazz staffers proudly considered to be on par with the NBA’s best, a must for a small-market franchise hoping to contend.
With Hayward gone, Utah fans have to hope the franchise can develop another co-star to pair with Gobert. In the painful aftermath of their All-Star’s exit, patience again will be required.