It has been 16 months since Gordon Hayward opted to take his talents to Boston, jilting the Jazz in an awkward hemming and hawing Forth of July decision. Ultimately the fit with Brad Stevens and the Celtics was a better fit than what the Jazz or Heat had to offer.
I could understand some hard feelings over the exit, but so much has happened since then. Hayward got hurt in gruesome fashion, Donovan Mitchell became a star, and the world seems to have turned the page. But not Utah fans. They are very much still holding a grudge. I guess we’re not exactly ones to judge on grudges (see: Allen, Ray). But I thought it would be fun to hear things from their side.
So I turned to my counterpart at SLC Dunk, the SBNation Utah Jazz blog to ask him some questions. Here’s my Q&A with Mychal Lowman.
1. The Jazz have a budding superstar, a pogo-stick lock down center, and one of the best coaches in the league. So why are you still mad at a guy that left over a year ago?
This is hard to explain to those who have been fans of a big market team their whole life. Being a fan of a small market team is akin to growing up a greaser in “The Outsiders.” As a small market fan, you’re raised with the idea that your team doesn’t get the big break. They won’t be the most exciting on SportsCenter. You’ll have trouble finding their merchandise. Free agents don’t sign with your team. The location of your team is used as lazy jokes by casual fans. The rules are stacked against you when it applies to salary cap. The town doesn’t have a nightlife. In short, it’s easy to not only feel like an underdog, but underserved as a fan of a small market team.
That’s the background of a small market fan. Then you have to know the background of the Utah Jazz selecting Gordon Hayward. Not the story of how they selected him over Paul George--we can rehash that out for days--no, we’re talking about how the Utah Jazz came to even have the lottery pick to select Gordon Hayward. The Utah Jazz at the time were a lottery team stacked with prime Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. They had acquired the New York Knicks’ unprotected draft pick through another team’s misguided salary dump years prior to the Deron Williams’ era. This was a Danny Ainge move before Danny Ainge. In Jazz circles, that pick was referred to as “The Precious.” Even after Gordon Hayward was drafted, many Jazz fans online would refer to him as such. The Jazz were looking like they could get the top pick in the draft until the Knicks inexplicably went on a winning streak after the All Star game in 2011. That pointless winning streak of the Knicks dropped the pick to number nine. The Jazz went from having a more polished player like John Wall to a project with Gordon Hayward. The selection of him didn’t go over well. That’s why he was booed when selected as a draft pick. It wasn’t booing him, it was booing the front office that built this pick up, never traded it, and it ended up being a project.
The Utah Jazz ended up pouring all their resources into him over the next few years except a good head coach. That fractured relationship probably started the fissures that led to his ultimate departure. Even Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski talked about how during negotiations with Utah’s then braintrust of Kevin O’Connor and Ty Corbin, Hayward had to get his money on the market and not initially from Utah. Usually teams are able to work it out, but that Restricted Free Agency left scars on the relationship that Gordon Hayward evidently never could shake even when the new competent braintrust of Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder was in power. Gordon Hayward had a right to be frustrated, but the fans ALWAYS had his back. Fans turned on Ty Corbin and grew frustrated of him not playing Hayward and the other young players. The fans were in Hayward’s court.
But Utah fixed it. They got a better front office, better coaching staff, and training staff. They built a new training facility designed to court him. They even traded for George Hill, signed Joe Johnson, traded for Boris Diaw, signed his buddy Joe Ingles to a big deal, played Dante Exum less minutes in favor of his college buddy Shelvin Mack, traded for Ricky Rubio, and for what? For Gordon Hayward to hold old grudges and leave them empty holding the bag. If he knew he even had the inkling of getting out, he didn’t articulate it well enough. Utah felt he was staying because he acted like he was staying. Utah was unable to get anything in return for a star player in his prime as result.
Look at Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard, those players have been honest with their franchises and have or had given them ample time to get value back for their contract. That’s what adults do. They communicate and avoid digging a pit for the franchises that invested millions of dollars, time, and care into them. The Jazz even had a possible deal in place with Kyle Lowry if Hayward alerted them earlier of his intentions. Instead Gordon Hayward trotted out a reality show while he got the attention. Boston fans may feel that he deserved to do that, but he handcuffed Utah’s ability to go after any one else. Add in the drama of the his ridiculous Thank You post that didn’t mention any current player with the Utah Jazz and only thanked Jeremy Evans, and it’s rough.
Having Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is great, but it could have been even better. With Donovan and Rudy, the Jazz have a playoff team. With Hayward, they could have had a contender, a bonafide contender in a stacked Western Conference. To a franchise that has never won a championship, that is unforgivable. He’ll be the biggest what if in Utah Jazz history. That’s saying a lot for a team that could have drafted Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins had they not sold their draft picks.
2. Say things turned out differently and Gordon decided to stay in Utah. How does that play out? Does Donovan develop slower if he’s not the offensive focal point?
We get this question a lot. If you run through the mental gymnastics of keeping Hayward, the inevitable response is: Donovan doesn’t develop if this happens. I disagree. Donovan Mitchell started on the depth chart in preseason behind Dante Exum, Alec Burks, and Rodney Hood. By game 1 he had leapfrogged all but Rodney Hood. By November, he had overtaken Hood. In this hypothetical situation, he would still be behind Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles as guards. Ricky Rubio started out the season dreadfully. Rubio only kept his starting job because Dante Exum had been hurt for much of the season and Raul Neto fought injuries throughout. The Jazz a year prior ran the year with a combo guard at the point with George Hill. Donovan more than likely would have usurped Rubio.
Donovan Mitchell has an insane way of learning. He got an entire locker room to respect him, veterans and young players. Derrick Favors was on his way out of the organization and didn’t want to be there. Donovan Mitchell changed that with his personality. He would have done the same thing with Gordon Hayward. He’s a special player. Quin Snyder has also shown in the past that he does not care where a player was drafted, what their age is, or prestige. He’ll play the guy. That’s how Joe Ingles jumped ahead of Rodney Hood on the depth chart.
Now do we get to see the heroics or the high scoring? No. But the things that make Donovan special would have been amplified with Gordon Hayward there. Donovan had his season with sub-optimal floor spacers like Ricky Rubio on the floor with him. Imagine having Crowder, Ingles, and Hayward spacing the floor for a slasher like Donovan. His abilities would have had a game genie. It would have been incredibly special. He probably develops his outside shooting slower as he’s not needed so much for that, but Donovan would have had an easier time developing and less pressure for sure.
Would Donovan be a Rookie of the Year type candidate? I don’t think so. But I do think he’d have received the same consideration as Tatum as a guy who when called upon could step up in a big moment. Those who think Donovan’s development would have been stifled are oversimplifying the type of player he is. He’s good because he learns quickly and has elite basketball IQ. He would have adapted and thrived in any environment with or without Hayward.
3. When (not if) the Jazz meet the Celtics in the Finals, what is your matchup strategy to contain a fully recovered and all star form Gordon Hayward?
Joe Ingles. The man broke bread with Gordon Hayward on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He knows this man better than he might know himself. Joe Ingles is the perfect foil: his best friend turned greatest foil. Joe Ingles has frustrated players like JJ Redick and Paul George in the playoffs. He has made life difficult for KD in big games. Don’t underestimate the talker from down under. The Dad Bod Gawd is the man for the task. And when he gets tired, there’s a player you might recall named Jae Crowder who has beef for fans chanting Hayward before Gordon was able to be a Celtic. That fire would burn hot for a seven game series for sure.
I’m going to back away slowly now.
Seriously though, thanks Mychal. That was very informative. Enjoy the game. Get out your boos and whatever else you need to be in your feelings. Have a great year.