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Gordon Hayward leaving ruins a Jazz plan 6 years in the making

Utah did everything right to build its team, but even the best laid plans fall through.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward is gone. But it’s not just a player that the Utah Jazz are losing in his departure — it’s a setback, perhaps a crippling one, to a plan six years in the making.

That’s why the this decision hurts in Utah, because even the most well-executed plans can still fall short.

Let’s first take a step back in history. From 1984 to 2010, the Jazz made the playoffs 24 times in 27 seasons. It began with Adrian Dantley and Mark Eaton, progressed to the legendary Karl Malone-John Stockton pairing, and eventually advanced to the Deron Williams era. Of those 27 seasons, Jerry Sloan coached nearly all of them. Utah was virtually guaranteed to be a Western Conference playoff team, sometimes a contender and sometimes just a nuisance, every year.

In the 2010-11 season, that all ended.

Sloan retired halfway through the season. The Jazz dealt Williams at the trade deadline. For a couple years, the Jazz stuck around .500, but by 2014 they tumbled to a 25-win team. The team actively started making moves with the future in mind, letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk away while they reloaded on young big men.

Meanwhile, Hayward — drafted in 2010 — was slowly budding into a star. He led the team in scoring for the first time in 2014, averaging about 16 points per game. The same year, a late first-round draft pick named Rudy Gobert only played 45 games. That would quickly change.

As Gobert blossomed and Hayward grew into a lead scoring option, we all took notice. By 2015, the Jazz weren’t there yet — but they surged after trading away Enes Kanter at the deadline, going 19-10 to finish the season. As the Golden State Warriors dominated, long before Kevin Durant rumors ever circulated, it was easy to see the Jazz growing into a predator that could take them down.

The Jazz missed the playoffs again in 2016, wrecked by injuries and without a true point guard, but the potential was still there. In 2017, it finally paid off with a No. 5 seed and first-round upset of the Los Angeles Clippers. Utah was an organic rebuild, bringing in young prospects and a defensive mindset that saw them finish No. 3 in the league on that end last season. The Jazz, had they re-signed Hayward, were still a little ways off from the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Their sound defeat in the second round showed that clearly. But with another star, someone who could boost their scoring without taking away from the other end, it’s hard to say how high Utah could climb.

Hayward didn’t owe the Jazz his loyalty, and he was responsible for making the best decision for his career. In his mind, that was Boston, and it’s hard to argue with that. Still, all that the Jazz had built — carefully and meticulously over the past few seasons — received a gut punch when news from Hayward broke for real.

That’s why it hurts so bad.

Utah is not Cleveland following The Decision, of course. Hayward is an All-Star, but he’s not the league’s best player. Between Gobert, the newly acquired Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and a much richer Joe Ingles, the Jazz are still formidable. Teams will struggle to score against them, just like they have the past couple seasons. But their ceiling has come crashing down, and no one they could obtain can approximate what Hayward provides.

The Jazz will attempt to make up for his absence, of course. They may offer a loaded, player-friendly max offer sheet to Otto Porter Jr., daring the Washington Wizards to match it. (By all accounts, if it comes to that, Washington will.) Rudy Gay seems like a good, short-term fit — as much as Gay can be a good fit anywhere, given his checkered career and the injury that he’s rehabbing from. It appears that JaMychal Green’s future in Memphis is at least cloudy, although what Utah really needs is a small forward and Green’s ability to fill that role is questionable.

Still, Hayward was the plan. Next summer, with Gobert, Hayward, and the potential to acquire cap space, was looking like Utah’s best chance to strike. Another playoff season might have swung the Jazz in the right direction, earning their reputation as a free agency destination.

Instead, Hayward’s gone, likely turned off by a veritable Western Conference arms race and seeing the Celtics — already a No. 1 seed with even more ways to get better — as a better long-term future. There’s nothing Utah could have done about that. It can only try to regroup now that it has happened.

But it’s a sudden fall from two years ago, and a reminder that nothing is certain.