The Jazz announced Saturday that they have retained restricted free agent forward Gordon Hayward by matching a four-year, maximum $63 million offer sheet extended by the Hornets.
“As we have said since the start of last season, we have always seen Gordon Hayward as a significant part of the future of the Utah Jazz,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said in a statement. “Gordon is a young, multi-faceted player and a high-character individual who we are pleased will remain a member of the Jazz for many years to come."
The contract's average annual value of $15.8 million places Hayward among the most handsomely paid wings in the league. The only shooting guards or small forwards to earn more than $15.8 million in 2013-14 were Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Rudy Gay, and Kevin Durant.
Hayward, 24, averaged a career-high 16.2 points, 5.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game in 77 starts in 2013-14, his fourth season in Utah. The 2010 lottery pick paced the young, rebuilding Jazz in scoring during a 25-win season that led to the departure of former coach Tyrone Corbin and the hiring of Quin Snyder to replace him.
SI.com ranked Hayward at No. 10 on our "Top 25 Free Agents of 2014" list, noting that his shooting numbers suffered last year following the departures of Jefferson and Paul
Millsap in free agency last summer. Asked to carry an offense for the first time in his career, Hayward shot a career-low 41.3 percent overall and 30.4 percent from deep.
Reports had indicated for months that the Jazz entered free agency with the intention of matching any offer made to Hayward, who also reportedly met with the Cavaliers last week. Utah's committed salary is projected to be well underneath the salary cap line for next season, making their Hayward decision a straightforward call. The only major salary on their books currently is the four-year, $48 million rookie extension given to Derrick Favors last fall. Hayward, Favors, 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke and 2014 lottery pick Dante Exum are among the Jazz's core pieces.
"I am excited to have the opportunity to coach Gordon,” Snyder said. "He is a talented and versatile player, and will play an integral role in our effort to build the Utah Jazz into a championship-caliber team. We look forward to seeing him continue to develop as a leader on our team."
Charlotte had hoped Hayward would join a core group that includes center Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker, 2012 lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and 2013 lottery pick Cody Zeller. Hayward and Kidd-Gilchrist would have penciled in as the starting wings, with the former's all-around game complementing the latter's defense-first reputation.
Perhaps the new strategic guideline for foundational players on the brink of rookie extensions should be this: It's better to overpay by 25 percent on an early extension than it is to wait and get stuck overpaying by 50 percent in restricted free agency. Last fall, Utah elected to lock in big man Derrick Favors to a four-year rookie extension while waiting on Hayward, their top wing of the future. That first decision looked good at the time and continues to look good almost a year later, while the second decision has cost them a pretty penny.
Hayward is a solid player on the upswing who, nevertheless, is unlikely to be a superstar. As mentioned above, he is now being compensated as if he were a perennial All-Star. His $15.8 million average annual salary is significantly greater than comparable players like Nicolas Batum ($11.5 million), Danilo Gallinari ($10.5 million) and Luol Deng ($10 million). Utah made its decision not to extend Hayward early knowing that its stripped-down cap situation would put them in position to match any and all offers, and they promised to retain Hayward, no matter the cost.
Kudos to GM Dennis Lindsey for delivering on his promise, as Hayward's departure would have set the Jazz back considerably, but it was clear last fall that Hayward would be a prime restricted free agent target this summer. In fact, Hayward managed to pull in a max offer sheet even though LeBron James, Deng, Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce all changed teams. Hayward got paid even though the Rockets allowed Chandler Parsons to enter restricted free agency a year earlier than expected, and he changed teams. Hayward got paid even though his 2013-14 season was less than spectacular. Just because a team can match a max offer doesn't mean it should flirt with the possibility, especially if it can be avoided.
It's possible, although unlikely, that Hayward winds up living up to the terms of this deal. A safer bet suggests that he develops into a $12 million player and evolves as a leader to help justify the balance of Utah's spending. Should that happen, this deal will avoid the "disaster" designation, but it still has all the markings of a miscalculation.