The Hayward Conundrum 

The most exciting play that happened during the lopsided Game 4 of the UTA-GSW series didn’t involve a shot, a block, a steal, a dunk, nor a Kelly Olynyk laying the smackdown on someone.

With the clock ticking down and the game already in hand, fans in Utah were still on their feet and cheering for a Jazz team that had a very successful season by their own standards. After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, Utah exceeded Las Vegas’ OU line (47.5) for their regular season win totals this year, became one of the best defensive teams in the league, and was able to face the best in the West to see just how far they are from realistically competing.

Sure, the box scores look ugly with Golden State winning every game by an average of 15 en route to a sweep. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder if Utah could’ve made this a far more interesting series than it actually is if only:

A) George Hill was healthy,
C) Two of the greatest shooters ever were not donning the same jersey.

Or… maybe those things would not have truly matter against a deep and scary Warriors squad.

Maybe Hill would only prolong the inevitable for the Jazz? Maybe even without a KD, the Warriors would still have enough to make quick work of Utah? Maybe if we tie Curry and Klay to a chair, they could still make an impact in the game by morphing to Javale McGee like what Bran Stark did to Hodor?

Or maybe the rest of the NBA will just have to accept the harsh truth: That the gap between Golden State and the rest of the West has never been wider than it currently is.

The Clippers are cursed and could blow up their CP3-DeAndre-Griffin core. The Rockets have the firepower to match but lack the defense to actually beat them. San Antonio‘s Kawhi Leonard can’t guard five players at once. Russell Westbrook can average a quadruple double and that wouldn’t be enough to carry OKC. Minnesota could be years away from competing before Thibodeau runs them to the ground. The same can be said for Denver minus the Thibodeau factor. Memphis, Portland, and Dallas are strapped with awful contracts. Anthony Davis and Cousins need more help (and a new coach) in New Orleans.

By crossing out Sacramento (lacks management direction), Phoenix (young core), and my beloved Lakers (lacks management direction for their young core) in quick succession, we’re left with the Utah Jazz.

And my mind keeps playing the dying seconds of Game 4 as if it’s on a loop. With the crowd cheering for the Jazz, players and the fans know that this isn’t the last time they’ll face Golden State in a playoff series. Or is it?

Of all the teams in the West, only the Jazz are built specifically to be the anti-Warriors. Golden State relies heavily on pushing the pace before the opposing defense could set. But according to Basketball-Reference, Utah is the slowest team in the NBA based on Pace Factor (Warriors are the 4th fastest), which could disrupt GSW’s tempo whenever they face each other. The Warriors also attempt 36% of their total FGA behind the perimeter. However, Utah has the length to switch on their shooters as they only allow opponents to shoot 28% of their total FGA as 3Pt FGA, second lowest behind Miami.

While the matchup turned out to be a sweep (which can be partly blamed on lack of playoff experience), Utah still has the right coach (Quin Snyder) with the right system (slow-paced, defense first), armed with the right balance of youth (Gobert, Exum, Favors, Hood) and veterans (Hill, Johson, Ingles, Diaw), while having the right GM (Dennis Lindsey) who has a clear idea of the franchise’s direction (trending up) to prepare themselves for Golden State for years to come.

And as the final buzzer sounded, the crowd began to chant “GORDON HAYWARD” in unison. With players from both teams exchanging pleasantries midcourt, the chant grew louder and louder and louder. Players and fans know this isn’t the last time they’ll see their best player facing the best team in the league. Or is it?

Utah is facing quite a conundrum right now with the impending free agency of Gordon Hayward. And that’s a huge problem to have for the franchise. Try to see it this way: Hayward’s free agency plans could either continue the growth or hamper the future of the team.

As per HoopsHype, Hayward currently has a $16.7M Player Option for next season. And since a player like Chandler Parsons can command a $94M max contract due to the rising cap space, it’s safe to say that Gordon will opt out in pursuit of a bigger payday as well. At 26 years old, Hayward is fresh off his first All-Star appearance in February while leading the Jazz to their first postseason appearance in five years.

Here’s a fun stat that shows his improvement:

If we look at the players who have at least 59% in True Shooting Percentage, 27% in Usage Rate, and less than 10% in Turnover Percentage, Hayward joins an elite list that features Jordan (3 times!), Kawhi, Klay, Kiki, Dirk, and Davis.

This just shows how crazy efficient he is in carrying the offensive load for the Jazz while still managing to take care of the ball.

And the scary part? He’s about to enter his peak. So yep, no question Hayward is getting Parsons-money this offseason.

I know what you’re asking: How did the Gordon Hayward situation become a conundrum when the Jazz can give him the max and resume their roles as the anti-Warriors? Why am I writing a lengthy blog post that is, at this point, 960 words too long to make something out of nothing? And what the hell does the word “conundrum” mean?

To answer your questions, let’s shift our attention towards the Eastern Conference. In Bill Simmons’ article with the Ringer, he makes a valid point that KD would be better off in the East as it presents a less treacherous path to the NBA Finals:

The East has Cleveland (FYI: Year 14 for LeBron next season), Boston’s Collection of Awesome Assets That Can’t Translate to an Actual Contender Yet, Whatever Toronto Is, Whatever Atlanta Was, Whatever Orlando and Milwaukee Might End Up Being, Whatever Pat Riley Might Have up His Sleeve and that’s about it. (Sorry, Knicks fans.) You want an easier road to the title, go East. Or sign with the Warriors.

Similar to Golden State’s situation in the West, LeBron James has owned the East as long as the Lannisters have had King’s Landing at the palm of their hands. Barring any major injuries, both the Cavaliers and James will enter their 3rd and 7th (!) straight NBA Finals appearance respectively. (Side note: I imagined that during his 6-year run, the NBA seriously considered renaming the Finals to “LeBron Vs“)

But here’s another harsh truth that NBA fans will have to accept: At some point, the 32-year old LeBron will have to slow down.

It’s humanly impossible for James, with all the mileage that he has during a 14-year career, to still perform like this for the next 4, 5, or 6 years. Jordan won his sixth championship at the age of 35, but he semi-retired for 2 years before coming back. Kobe was 35 when he tore his Achilles, and his career hasn’t been the same till he retired. And James, for every humanly impossible task that he has done in the past, will have to succumb to Father Time soon.

That’s not basketball, that’s just life.

Which means that there will only be a couple of years left before the Eastern Conference becomes wiiiiiiiiiide open again. This provides Gordon a unique opportunity as a free agent to get paid like a superstar and actually compete for a title like a real superstar (I’m still looking at you, Chandler Parsons). And lucky for Hayward, the Boston Celtics can make that a reality!

I can’t stress this enough, and I’m actually tired of saying this as a Lakers fan, but the Celtics have everything in order to be at the top of the East again. They have the Brooklyn pick which could turn into Markelle Fultz. They also have two superstars in place with Thomas and Horford. They have the money to give him the max. And they have Hayward’s former NCAA coach Brad Stevens, who has recruited him since Hayward’s days in middle school!

Does the free agency of Hayward finally explain why Boston has been adamant to trade for a wing player like Jimmy Butler and Paul George during the trade deadline? Possible. Does a big three of Thomas-Horford-Hayward enough to push the Celtics to the NBA Finals over the Cavs and the aging-LeBron? Also possible.

Trust me, Hayward has been keeping a close eye on what could happen in the East and the Celtics. KD met with Boston officials during his free agency and could’ve possibly signed with Boston if only the Warriors didn’t make a play because no one really says no to a team that’s custom-built for him. Now, Hayward faces the same Boston allure that KD faced in the offseason last year. The only threats that Boston would possibly compete within a LeBron-less East are the Wizards and Heat if ever Pat Riley can still acquire another star.

Toronto has the Kyle Lowry situation. Chicago has the Jimmy Butler situation. Indiana has the Paul George situation. Milwaukee needs Jabari to be healthy. Philadelphia can’t even play Embiid for half a year. I don’t even know what to make of Atlanta, Detroit, and Charlotte. Orlando is a mess. Brooklyn is an even bigger mess. And New York is the definition of a mess.

LeBron is basically the Troy to the East’s Iliad story, and the Celtics need a Hayward to be the Trojan Horse and crash the party.

Unfortunately for the Jazz, they don’t have a Westbrook type player that could make up for the possible losses of Hayward and George Hill, who will also be an unrestricted free agent. They may be currently built to be the anti-Warriors but they still have to face San Antonio, Houston, and even the Clippers, no matter how cursed they are. Not to mention that all roads will have to pass through Oakland for the next decade. And that’s just before getting to the actual NBA Finals! To summarize this post, if Hayward wants an easier road to the title, go East. Or sign with the Warriors.

Now if I remember correctly, as Gordon Hayward exits the court, he lifts his arms to the adoring crowd that has cheered for him all night and stood by him throughout his career. Players and fans know this isn’t the last time they’ll see Gordon Hayward in a Jazz uniform.

Or is it?

– David Gamboa

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