Despite having the most memorable Jazz season in the post-Jerry Sloan era, Utah’s cache has been cut in half with the departure of Gordon Hayward. But it didn’t have to be this way, and it’s partially the organization’s fault that it is.
In the summer of 2014, the Jazz had the chance to offer Hayward five-year, $80 million max deal in free agency after they failed to agree to terms on an extension for the swingman’s services earlier that fall. Instead, the Jazz opted to let Hayward test the market.
That’s where things went down hill.
Yes, the Jazz went about things the right way. They built their team up through the draft and hired the perfect coach for their talent. But part of Hayward’s sudden departure has to fall on them. They could easily have, at least, one more season of Hayward in Utah. Now? We’ll never know what this team could’ve truly become.
The Jazz didn’t know what they had in Hayward
At the start of the 2013-14 season, the Jazz opened contract extension talks with Hayward — just as any team would do with a soon-to-be restricted free agent. To that point, Hayward was closer to a prospect than an All-Star. He increased his scoring load from 5.4 points to his rookie season to 14.1 points per game in his third season.
But it was difficult for him to find minutes behind Marvin Williams and he only started in 27 games that season after starting in 58 the season before. Hayward showed improvement, but the Jazz didn’t believe it was worthy of more than about $48 million through the life of the deal — the same extension the Jazz signed Derrick Favors to.
Paul George had just signed a four-year, $80 million extension with the Pacers and Hayward was looking for something closer to that — but not the max, per Jazz reporter Jody Genessy.
Hayward’s side was reportedly hoping to secure more than Favors’ salary but somewhere less than the $80 million maximum deal fellow 2010 draftee Paul George received this offseason.
At the time, Hayward’s agent Mark Bartelstein said a max deal was the easiest deal to get done, but it wasn’t what Hayward’s camp wanted. “We’re talking about something different. It can be difficult,” he said.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Jazz were right to be hesitant to just throw a near-max deal at Hayward. They had just paid Favors, who had serious two-way potential but was probably a secondary or tertiary member of a core at best. Hayward hadn’t shown he had the chops for being a top scoring option and Alec Burks was due for an extension the very next season. It’s penny pinching, but for a small market team like the Jazz it’s important. They had to find a way to pay all three without getting too expensive.
Hayward seemed like he could have a promising future as a versatile NBA swingman, but nothing was guaranteed yet with his career.
They missed out on the five-year max
Hayward improved once again that season after betting on himself and passing the Jazz’s initial extension offer. He only shot 30 percent from three and 41 percent from the field, but increased his scoring average to 16.2 points per game while taking on a more prominent role with the team.
Now, this is where the Jazz made their big mistake. Hayward had improved in every single season up to that point, but Utah refused to offer him a five-year, $80 million max contract before allowing him to test the market. They misread things, thinking Hayward wouldn’t be able to garner a max offer from anyone — but both the Cavaliers and Hornets had plans on making Hayward their wing for the future on a max deal.
Such is the nature of restricted free agency. Bad teams with cap space and little to no building blocks take crap shots on young, talented players by throwing expensive offer sheets at them in hopes that their teams won’t match. See the Brooklyn Nets with Otto Porter this year or Allen Crabbe last year.
The Hornets did the same thing with Hayward that year and offered him a four-year, $63 million offer sheet. It wasn’t a max deal and, frankly, turned into a bargain for the Jazz. But the kicker was the deal came with a player option in the fourth year, which left Hayward the opportunity to dart after three years of his deal and just a year after hitting his prime.
Teams who offer restricted free agents contracts often do this so the same free agents can test the market without restrictions as soon as possible. If they’re good? They’re hitting their stride in their prime and will be available to poach again after three seasons. If they’re bad? It’s not your problem unless they sign with you. And even if they do, your team wasn’t good anyway. It’s a win-win situation.
Sure, the Jazz reaped the benefits of the bargain initially by not teetering toward the luxury tax. But another $17 million on that deal with an extra year wouldn’t have done any harm for the Jazz and could have given them another two years with Hayward without a player option.
The Jazz were cheap, and they paid for it
Utah built their team into a 51-win upstart by building through the draft. They found a potential defensive player of the year candidate, one of the league’s more efficient wings and several key rotation players through that process.
But they lost one of those pieces yesterday because they didn’t want to offer an extra year of security on their initial offer to Hayward. They locked him up for the long haul, but did it with less security. That came back to bite them on Tuesday evening.