Harper | Gordon Hayward leaves Utah for greener pastures

Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward goes up for a dunk against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 3, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The most obvious speculated move in the NBA became the worst-kept secret in the NBA on Tuesday. For months people around the league, all outside of Gordon Hayward’s camp, assumed the Utah Jazz forward would move to the Boston Celtics in free agency. News leaked out that Hayward had chosen the Celtics for his next contract early in the day on Tuesday. However, the news not being revealed in a Players Tribune article — the way Hayward and his camp had planned — left them scrambling to control the message.

They refuted the reporting, claiming Hayward hadn’t made a decision. The public and media were disarmed by finding out reconsideration could mean the decision would get delayed for another day. All the while, Hayward (or his ghost writer) banged away on the keyboard for over 2,000 words explaining why he chose Boston over Utah. The words were heartfelt and genuine because that is the type of thoughtful, introspective person Hayward is. The handling of that message and the breaking news ended up making those words appear hollow to many Jazz fans.

Ultimately, the allure of an easier lay of the land in the East serves as a justification for it. But reuniting with college coach Brad Stevens appeared to be too enticing for Hayward to stay in Utah. The team that drafted him and developed him put together an incredible situation. It just didn’t end up being enough to keep him.

As the Jazz continued to build and develop, they plugged the holes in their roster as well as one could ask. A young team in 2015-16 battled injuries and ended up missing the playoffs in the final week of the season. The Jazz were too inexperienced to handle the injuries thrown their way, so general manager Dennis Lindsey fixed that last summer. He acquired George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw. When healthy, the Jazz projected to win over 60 games with their production. They settled for 51 wins, a 5-seed, and getting swept in the second round by the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors loom in the West for years to come. The Celtics intend to rise in the East and eventually take down LeBron James. Hayward’s move to the East when so many good players have found their way West during this offseason makes sense on a lot of levels. His chances for more recognition with awards and playing in a much bigger market also add to justification for why he’d leave the Jazz for Boston.  The Celtics just took the 1-seed in the East — albeit a very hollow 1-seed when they could barely compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the potential to keep building a team that eventually becomes the real best team in the conference exists.

Had the Celtics not landed Hayward, they would have been able to pivot, remain competitive at the top of the conference, and still have a bevy of first-round picks to help them build up. Since Boston did get its guy, it will keep building toward the goal of returning to the NBA Finals. With the Jazz losing their star, a playoff lock and a chance at the 2-seed in the West are out. Now they wonder if they will remain in the playoffs after so many improvements in the West.

The next move for the Celtics

Isaiah Thomas believes the Celtics just got the piece they need to put them over the top in the East. No, LeBron James didn’t announce his retirement yesterday. While the Celtics are clearly better off than they were before, they have some work to do to match what Thomas expects from his team. Bringing in Hayward gives the Celtics another legitimate All-Star. The addition of Al Horford last summer had its good and bad qualities. Adding him to move the Celtics past Cleveland didn’t prove to be a win in that particular matchup. Ultimately, that has to be the goal for the Celtics with all of their moves. How do they leapfrog over the Cavaliers?

Danny Ainge has added Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Ante Zizic to the roster so far. In the process, Boston needs to lose Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, Gerald Green, James Young, Demetrius Jackson, and Jordan Mickey by waiving or renouncing them. Either Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart must be traded to create max cap space for the Celtics. Hayward gives them a better player than any of these losses could have provided. The potential for Tatum to be a good player in this league certainly exists. Zizic could give Ainge and Stevens a solid rotation big man. But the depth of the roster has definitely declined in the process of making this move.

The Celtics are left with a depth chart that looks roughly like this:

Point Guard — Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier
Shooting Guard — Avery Bradley
Small Forward — Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown
Power Forward — Jayson Tatum
Center — Al Horford

Throw either Crowder or Smart into the mix on the wings, depending on which one gets moved in a trade. This looks very thin. The Celtics will have their room exception ($4.3 million) to use in trying to sign one more piece. They have second-round picks Semi Ojeleye, Kadeem Allen, Jabari Bird, and Abdel Nader (2016) to add to the mix if they want. However, that’s a lot of low-level rookies trying to round out a team hoping to make the NBA Finals next season.

Ainge will look for veterans who can fill in the roster in a free agency market that is drying up. The real work for the Celtics’ president comes next summer when there are even more big swings he can take. Ainge has been frugal with his assets. He had the opportunity to trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, but Ainge never found a deal he and the other side of the table felt comfortable doing. In the future, Ainge needs to loosen up his grip on the future first-round picks he has stockpiled. The reason you accumulate trade assets like this is so you can trade them for a superstar.

Next summer, the Celtics don’t have cap room to play with. Thomas and Bradley, both free agents in 2018, carry cap holds totaling roughly $25 million. With Hayward and Horford’s max contracts on the books, it leaves Boston with no wiggle room unless it wants to renounce the rights of Thomas and Bradley to pursue someone else. Even then, the Celtics would have to move a contract (Crowder if he sticks around this summer) to find themselves in the neighborhood of max money.

The biggest unrestricted free agents on the market will be Chris Paul, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, and Brook Lopez. Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook can become free agents that summer if they’d like. Does Ainge feel the need to keep flexibility within the roster and acquire another star in free agency? Or will he cave to the production of Thomas and pay him an exorbitant amount of money? Ainge could try to target a big man like Marc Gasol or Anthony Davis in a trade by dangling Brooklyn’s unprotected pick in 2018. But even then, Gasol and Davis are under contract for at least three more seasons. There isn’t an incentive for Memphis or New Orleans to trade their star big man unless the “assets treasure chest” is wide-open.

The Celtics have improved their standing in the East with the Hayward move, but a lot has to happen before we start considering them the near downfall of LeBron and the Cavs.

Where the Jazz go from here

Things are obviously much more dire for the Jazz in a post-Hayward world. While the Jazz will now pivot to Rudy Gobert being their most important player, the loss of Hayward is devastating. Back in 2014, Hayward becoming the coveted player this summer wasn’t a lock. Hayward entered restricted free agency and the Jazz essentially suggested the forward should find an offer sheet they would match. It can be a very solid negotiating tactic in restricted free agency, because a lot of teams won’t tie up big money for days as another team waits to match the offer sheet.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert speaks with reporters following NBA basketball practice Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Salt Lake City. The Jazz are 2-0 since Gobert's return and Utah has outscored the Los Angeles Clippers in the paint in both games by a combined 92-64. The Jazz lead the best-of-seven games series 3-2. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

In the case of Hayward, Utah was happy to match max money if that’s what it took to keep him. But in the process, the Jazz didn’t get to set the terms of the length of the deal. Hayward signed an offer sheet with Charlotte that included a player option for the fourth season of the deal. That created the window for this summer that allowed Hayward to bolt for Boston. While the Jazz have done most things correctly in building up what was becoming an excellent team, their gamble on not fully controlling Hayward’s contract ended up biting them.

The Jazz walk into this next era aiming to remain competitive. We should expect them to go even more extreme with their style of play. Utah plays the slowest tempo in the NBA. It uses length on defense to cut off the court. Gobert controls pick-and-roll coverage while making sure to keep the rim protected at all times. It allows the Jazz to defend the 3-point line aggressively and run opponents to less efficient zones. On offense, they use lots of movement and passing to create mismatches within a complicated playbook.

Their current roster still extends the defensive mindset. They’ve lost George Hill from the point guard position and brought in Ricky Rubio, who keeps the defensive IQ on the court high and creates even more deflections and steals in the process. Utah will re-sign Joe Ingles to a four-year, $52 million deal. It will use some combination of Ingles, Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood, and rookie Donovan Mitchell to play the wings. The plan was to hopefully move Derrick Favors and Alec Burks in trades this summer — that will now be reconsidered.

Utah won’t just start tanking because it lost its star player. Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder are wired too competitively to think that’s the next best option. They value playoff experience for young players. They want to keep guys like Gobert, Hood, and Dante Exum sopping up a winning culture. Keeping Favors and trying to outmuscle everybody with the big man combination could be an option. However, Favors has been upset by the Jazz’s willingness and previous plan to part with him, according to league sources. With his deal coming up in 2018, the Jazz may want to get something for him before he walks.

When the Jazz signed Joe Johnson a year ago, Lindsey hoped it was just the beginning of the Jazz being considered a free agency destination. Instead, the Jazz have to once again prove they have a promising young core that can win now and attract veterans in free agency in the future. They’ll have to continue to foster their culture and identity. Maybe a competitive season and a surprising grab of the 8-seed will help them leverage their potential $40 million-plus in cap space next summer. But that number depends on moving Burks’ contract and the contract extension situations for Exum and Hood.

Moving forward, we may see a Jazz team that resembles the Grit’N’Grind Memphis Grizzlies of years ago. Make the game ugly and be the team opponents know they can beat but don’t want to face. Build around Gobert in a defensive mindset and hope the offense is good enough to close out games.

The Jazz can continue their intelligent building we’ve seen for years. Maybe they can even borrow a bit from what Boston showed as the Celtics rebuilt following their last very good era. Keep acquiring assets and flexibility. Then pounce when the opportunity presents itself.

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