The NBA season officially ended on Monday night, with the Golden State Warriors winning their second title in three years against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Of course, the NBA never really stops. The 2017 NBA Draft is coming up next week, and the free agency period will start soon after.
Golden State superstars Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are both set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, but they’re not going anywhere. Among players who may actually leave, Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward tops the list.
Hayward is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in points (21.9) and rebounds (5.4), while also adding 3.4 assists, a steal, and a 47-40-84 shooting split. He made his first All-Star Game appearance and barely missed out on an All-NBA selection. The fact that he missed out on the latter puts Utah in a pickle.
If Hayward had made an All-NBA team, he would have been eligible for the Designated Player Veteran Exception (or “super max”) this summer, allowing Utah to offer him a five-year deal worth north of $200 million. They can still offer him the most money — Utah can offer up to five years, $175 million while outside teams can only offer four years, $130 million — but that’s only if Hayward pursues it.
As Albert Nahmad of Heat Hoops noted in his piece on Saturday, Utah would have virtually no financial advantage if Hayward pursues a 3+1 deal (three years plus a player option for the fourth year).
And while the Jazz can offer Hayward a five-year guaranteed payout that no other team can, it’s not necessarily his best option. That could be a four-year deal, with a player option after three years – which would allow him the flexibility to opt out and re-enter free agency as a 10-year veteran eligible for a Tier 3 max contract in the summer of 2020; positioning him for a possible $225 million kicker on the back end that he might not be able to command two years later. Entering free agency at age 30 is a far different proposition than at age 32.
And since every team in the league can offer him such a 3+1 deal this summer (which could total up to $98 million for the Jazz over the first three years, versus up to $95 million for all other teams; a less than $3 million difference which, in some cases, is small enough to be more than offset by state tax differences), Hayward could find himself in the rather unique position of having his optimal financial payout guaranteed to be virtually identical no matter where he chooses to play. And if that’s the case, a move east — where the team of his choosing could potentially be just one aging player’s decline in production away from being the premier team in its conference — could prove rather enticing.
This is where the Miami Heat come in.
Marc Stein of ESPN and Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald have both reported that the Heat and Hayward have mutual interest. With the Chris Bosh ordeal effectively finished, the Heat are projected to enter the summer with more than $38 million in cap space, more than enough to throw Hayward a max deal.
Miami would love to add the versatile star, but do they have a realistic shot at signing him? Let’s explore why a relocation to South Beach would and wouldn’t make sense.
WHY IT MAKES SENSE
Hayward wants to win. That’s his No. 1 priority when considering his options this summer, as it should be considering he’s entering his prime. Old-school NBA fans may not want to hear or read this, but if Hayward wants to maximize his chances at winning, moving to the East would make the most sense.
It would give Hayward an easier road overall. The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a stranglehold on the East for the last three years, but they look more vulnerable than the Golden State Warriors do. LeBron James is the NBA’s best player, but he does have plenty of mileage. There could be a slip coming … in theory, anyway.
A core of Hayward, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside wouldn’t be enough to knock off Cleveland yet, but that trio could be good enough to be the foundation of the East’s second-best team. Pat Riley has proven over his career that he can add complementary talent around a star; it’s not hard to imagine the Heat living in the Eastern Conference Finals and at least pushing LeBron & Co.
The Warriors aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. You’d probably have to bank on an injury or two (or seven) to catch them slipping one year. They’re the class of the NBA, so in terms of playoff advancement, avoiding them for as long as possible would be Hayward’s best bet.
Of course, that isn’t all. The James Harden-led Houston Rockets are also in the West. Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs won’t die. If the Clippers bring back their stars, they’ll be there.
You can’t go through that buzzsaw and face the Warriors before the Finals if you aren’t playing in the West.
WHY IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
The Heat deserve credit for finishing the second half of the season with a 30-11 record. They weren’t 60-win pace good, but with all the injuries they dealt with to begin the year, it’s fair to argue that they were a little better than a .500 club (41-41).
With that said, the Jazz were arguably hit harder by the injury bug in a tougher conference, and they still managed to win more games:
NBA top 5, wins lost due to injured players (Lost-ws metric)
1 UTA (9.4 wins lost)
2 DEN (9.1)
3 TOR (8.3)
4 MIN (7.4)
5 MEM (7.4)
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) April 14, 2017
Hayward would be heading to a weaker conference, but he’d also be joining a weaker team. The Jazz not only offer a better roster on paper, there’s also a matter of continuity and, well, money. There’s a reason why the Jazz are still the favorites to retain Hayward.
If Hayward were to head East anyway, joining the Boston Celtics would make more sense. Besides the obvious connection with head coach Brad Stevens, Boston presents a better roster with a better collection of assets that can be used to improve its roster.
Hayward could very well put the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Celtics just got there without him. As currently constructed, the Celtics are closer to contention than the Heat are. Considering the treasure trove of future picks the Celtics have, they’re also set up better to extend their window than the Heat are.
There’s reason for Hayward to be interested in Miami. There’s a solid foundation in place, headlined by an elite coach backed by a proven front office. The prospect of living in Miami has obvious perks, and the lack of a state income tax makes the money Hayward would be losing almost negligible if he takes a 3+1 deal.
However, Utah could still offer the most money, a better roster, and a pretty darn good coach/GM duo in Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey. Boston currently offers a better roster than Miami, an elite coach in Stevens, and the assets and flexibility necessary to add talent in the short- and long-term.
You can never count out Riley when he gets a star in a room, and the interest between the two parties is real. It’s just hard to see Miami beating out Utah and Boston once you consider everything they offer.
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