The Utah Jazz can't be surprised that Gordon Hayward got a massive offer sheet from someone, and indeed, they aren't. They plan on matching the Hornets' four-year, $63 million offer that includes a player option after the third year and a 15 percent trade kicker.
And they should, because what other choice do they really have?
The Jazz know they are between a rock and a hard place. In a vacuum, the price is too much for a player who has nice upside, but floundered in a featured role last season. Without Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to make his life easier, Hayward shot a woeful 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. A year earlier, he shot nearly 42 percent from three-point range. Not having other good players to give him the right kind of passes, combined with having to take over more of the playmaking burden, exposed Hayward as a top option.
That doesn't mean Hayward is a bad player. It just means that, barring a leap that's possible given that he's still just 23 years old, he's currently best filling in gaps around other good players.
And that's OK. It's the kind of role he'd fill with the Hornets, which is why they want him. He'd be reunited with old friend Jefferson, who gave him so many easy kick-out passes for threes from the post. He'd play with a good lead ball-handler in Kemba Walker, who removes the burden of creating something from nothing at the end of the shot clock. He can then focus on providing secondary playmaking, shooting, running in transition with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and adding new wrinkles to Charlotte's playbook with his off-ball movement.
The price is steep, but Charlotte has money to spend and needs to make it as difficult as possible for Utah to match. Jefferson is not on a maximum deal, Walker is still under a rookie contract for one more season, Kidd-Gilchrist will be for two and key frontcourt prospects Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh are going to be for three and four, respectively. The Hornets can account for overpaying Hayward because they will be underpaying other members of their core. Given the decrepit state of the East, a core roster of Walker, Jefferson, Hayward, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, Vonleh and Gerald Henderson, along with excellent coach Steve Clifford, could easily be a top-four seed next year, and there's plenty of room to grow given that only Jefferson and Henderson are over 24 years old. This is a team looking to make a push up the ladder, and Hayward is as good an option to do so that's readily available.
Al Jefferson (left) and Kemba Walker (right), Photo credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
The Jazz's calculus is more complicated. It's easy to say that a rebuilding team cannot pay Hayward that kind of money, and there's some truth to that. Utah already gave big money to Derrick Favors, who is a solid big man prospect, but has yet to experience the obvious breakout many have expected for years. There's understandable worry about tying up $28 million per season into two players that are secondary core members at best.
But the alternative for the Jazz is even scarier. Taking a hard line stance on Hayward's value may feel good initially, at least until fans see what is left over. Without Hayward, the Jazz will have two green guards in the backcourt, a frontcourt pairing in Favors and Enes Kanter that hasn't worked for long stretches and nothing else. They are a woefully thin, inexperienced team in a brutal Western Conference, in a market where the 76ers-style teardown is difficult, if not impossible to execute. Teams in that position cannot let assets like Hayward go unless they get a strong return. The promise of eons of cap flexibility unlikely to turn into assets that can yield a player as good as Hayward is not a strong enough return.
And Hayward remains an asset even if he signs this contract. He's a good player at a shallow position in the league and surely will fare better with Trey Burke and rookie Dante Exum helping to ease his playmaking. He's only 23 and thus still has a lot of room to grow as a player. He's younger than Golden State's Klay Thompson, for example, who will surely sign a similar contract in the next 18 months and is currently being held out of any Kevin Love trade rumors. The trade kicker stings, but unless Hayward becomes a significantly worse player, he will have value.
And it's not like the Jazz's flexibility is completely disappearing. Other than Favors and Hayward, each core player is on a rookie contract. Just as Charlotte's rookie deals counteract Hayward's max deal, so too do Burke's, Exum's and Kanter's. Exum won't be up for an extension until after Hayward's four-year deal ends. There's a backcourt logjam on paper, but all three players are tradeable, and we don't even know that Burke, Exum and Alec Burks are sure keepers.
Teams in Utah's state of rebuilding just aren't in a position to worry about complications like cost or positional overlap. They must build assets and figure things out from there. If the Jazz lose Hayward, they will have lost an asset, making a near-impossible rebuilding project even more difficult. The rock isn't ideal, but the hard place is even worse.