The free agency of star forward Gordon Hayward will come to define the Utah Jazz’s offseason. Where should the franchise proceed if he leaves for another team?
After a season surpassing expectations, the Utah Jazz are in for a tumultuous and potentially franchise-altering offseason. Many pieces will be in motion, but the singular most important storyline to follow over the summer months will be Gordon Hayward‘s free agency.
Hayward will almost certainly decline his player option for next season at $16.7 million, a sound move considering he’s a lock to receive a four or five-year max contract at upwards of $25-30 million per year.
In his first All-Star season, Hayward averaged a career-high 21.9 points to go with 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Only eight other players achieved those numbers last year, and when you factor in his 39 percent three-point shooting, no one else matched his production.
The numbers are impressive on their own, but Hayward functions as the engine for virtually everything the Jazz do on both ends of the court, making him incredibly valuable to Utah. When he plays on the ball, they can use his excellent dribble-probing and passing ability to create looks in the half-court, or use his gravity on the perimeter to set up mismatches for others.
On defense, his multi-positional versatility allows the Jazz to switch through and defend a number of looks from opponents, all the while being able to grab a board and lead the offense down the court.
Hayward has traditionally played exclusively at the small forward position, but after bulking up to 226 pounds, he was able to slide down and play at the 4 from time to time. According to Basketball-Reference, he spent 30 percent of his time as a power forward last season, having never played more than five percent of his minutes there before.
As he’s grown as a player, Hayward has added more and more talent to his repertoire, to the point where few in the league can replicate his diverse skill-set, as Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer explains:
“He’s a well-rounded scorer, ranking in the 80th percentile or higher in the following Synergy scoring categories: pick-and-roll, spot-up, off-screen, transition, and cuts. Hayward scores 1.4 points per possession in transition, which leads the NBA of players to accumulate at least 100 possessions; and he tallies 1.04 points per possession in the half court, which ranks between Kyle Lowry and Stephen Curry.”
Of course, the Jazz certainly aren’t the only ones who could use an asset like Hayward.
Finding a fit for Hayward is easy in theory — his well-rounded game makes him a good addition for any team, particularly one with cap space and some ancillary pieces. So far, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have been the main teams linked with him.
The Celtics present the most threatening case on paper, as they just finished a season with the most wins in the Eastern Conference, have a young nucleus of players to surround their stars with, and can move to get the cap room to pay Hayward whatever he would desire.
To top it off, Boston also has one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming coaches in Brad Stevens, who also happened to head up the program at Butler University while Hayward was there. A Celtics roster with Hayward is probably a more talented one than the Jazz’s as presently constructed, with the added bonus of playing in the less-talented Eastern Conference.
Miami represents a more interesting case, having ridden a midseason surge to fall just short of the playoffs in the East with a roster full of unheralded veterans and castoffs. Thanks to the removal of Chris Bosh‘s contract from their books, they have ample cap room, albeit with a murkier path to contention than Boston.
Of course, both teams do have their drawbacks. Reports surfaced recently suggesting that Hayward could be wary about the prospects of playing with a ball-dominant point guard like Isaiah Thomas, and as mentioned before, Hayward does not make the Heat a contending team on his own.
Of course, heading East could be a solid move to escape the dominance of the Golden State Warriors, who look to be set up for multiple titles over the next few years.
Little has come out regarding Hayward’s own leanings, and the Jazz front office should feel confident, but there needs to be a contingency plan in place for his potential departure.
If Hayward leaves, the immediate effect on the Jazz will be a setback of the organizational timeline by several years. Instead of the 27-year-old forward, the best piece to build around would then become Gobert, whose $96 million extension will kick in next season at age 24.
Gobert is certainly an able centerpiece. The Jazz’s defense goes as he goes, and although his burgeoning offensive game may never make him a first-option scorer, he can unlock other players through his gravity and screen-setting.
His 2016-17 season graded out extremely favorably in the advanced statistics department, as Andrew Bailey of FanRag NBA lays out.
“Gobert was second in the league in Win Shares this season. Not Defensive Win Shares, total Win Shares. He trailed only James Harden there. He was first in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus by a healthy margin, and came in eighth in overall Real Plus-Minus. Cobbling together a roster around him in free agency makes sense.”
Utah will have five free agents this offseason, representing 43 percent of their minutes played and 44 percent of their points scored. Having this much flexibility is both a blessing and a curse; on one hand, a potential roster overhaul will be easier to complete, but it also leaves the Jazz with a lot of holes.
In the short term, the Jazz will need to recoup the minutes, if not the production, that Hayward put out at the forward position. Re-signing the 29 year old Joe Ingles doesn’t make much sense for a team building for the future, but that leaves the Jazz with just the aging Joe Johnson to take minutes at the 3.
Given that Gay is coming off a serious injury and Gallinari is on the decline, these players are more stopgap measure than long-term contributor. Miles, who shot 40 percent from behind the arc last year, or a cheaper option like Dante Cunningham, could make sense, although neither player has been a starter on a contending team before.
If Hayward is gone, shelling out upwards of $15 million per year to an injured, 31-year-old George Hill doesn’t make much sense either, which leaves another hole at the point guard position.
Hill and Ingles become borderline no-win situations for the Jazz in a timeline without Hayward. Re-signing them keeps the most talent on the roster as possible, but it also caps the Jazz’s short-term ceiling at a low playoff seed with little financial flexibility. Perhaps the best solution could be Utah’s front office picking one of the two to invest in as a future veteran piece while letting the other walk.
With four draft picks this year, including two in the late first-round, the Jazz can expedite their reloading phase with some shrewd selections, as Dennis Lindsey has been known to make before.
Semi Ojeleye and Terrance Ferguson, who are projected by Draft Express to be the 24th and 25th prospects taken, could be possibilities on the wing. The former, a 22-year-old junior who can play both the 3 and 4, makes the most sense as an immediate plug-and-play.
If they choose to cut bait on most of their win-now assets (including Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, whose contracts expire after next season), Utah will be placing a heavy burden on previously unproven pieces like Dante Exum and Trey Lyles.
In addition, younger vets like Rodney Hood or Alec Burks, who took a step back this season, would be called on to absorb some more minutes as well.
The Jazz could come out with a more defined and expanded role for their young pieces, or be turned on course to a longer-view rebuilding process. Either way, at least there is a plan in place, as opposed to the chaotic state the team would be left in directly following Hayward’s departure.
Losing Gordon Hayward would be a huge setback to a Jazz team on the cusp of championship contention, as there are few players in the league that can match his production and versatility.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world, since the roster without Hayward is still a well-constructed one, but it would serve to undo much of the work that has gone into producing the Utah Jazz as they stand now.