Should the Knicks Look to Acquire Gordon Hayward?

Kris Pursiainen

"I guess the New York Knicks got the last laugh after all. The much ballyhooed lottery pick that New York surrendered to the Utah Jazz, as part of the 2008 Tom Gugliotta trade, may have been much ado about nothing.

When the Jazz selected Butler’s Gordon Hayward with the ninth overall pick, not only did the organization stun its fan base, the media, and a plethora of so-called draft experts, it may have made one of the worst blunders in franchise history."

This draft pick assessment is from this article, published in June 2010. The general manager of the Utah Jazz at the time, Kevin O'Connor, defended passing on centers Ed Davis and Cole Aldrich by describing Hayward as the best player available at the time and added to "check back in two years" to make a judgement on his selection.

Almost ten full years after the Jazz's selection of Hayward, all that needs to be said is that O'Connor was right to pass on the two big men for him (I won't mention that Fresno State's Paul George was taken with the draft's next pick). The organization was able to develop the Horizon Conference Player of the Year out of Butler to an all-star level, seeing him make the All Star Game in the 2017 season with averages of 22.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game leading up to his selection. 

Hayward went on to sign in Boston that summer on a four year "max" agreement totaling up to over $127 million. Hayward suffered an injury less than halfway through the first quarter of his first game in Boston, causing him to miss the rest of the season. He played in 72 games the next season, posting averages of 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in approximately 26 minutes per game. This season, Hayward again dealt with injury, causing him to miss time - but wound up with averages of 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in the 45 games that he did play. 

This brings us to the present day - and where this train of thought began. The Celtics have three first round picks in the 2020 NBA draft, along with a second rounder; one of the recent additions to the Knicks' front office, Walt Perrin, was with Utah when they selected Hayward at #9; the Knicks have been rumored to be targeting a star player. One may now see why I began thinking of trade ideas involving Hayward: the connections, the talent, and the name. 

If RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson are pieces this team is serious about building with moving forward, they are going to need better spacing than Julius Randle can provide them. Barrett himself shot only 32% from three-point land on only 3.5 attempts per game; despite the ample room to grow, the improvement Barrett might display in the coming years will not be enough. Replacing Randle with a stretch-four like Danilo Gallinari has been brought up, but not from an "official" standpoint in terms of rumors. If getting a wing who can shoot the ball is something Leon Rose and the new-look Knicks front office are considering, should they consider the Boston forward as an option?

Let's start by talking money. Hayward has a player option for next season worth over $34 million. Hayward's 15% trade kicker would be covered by the Celtics in a deal, leaving the remainder to be paid to Hayward by New York. If the Knicks were not to opt into the final year of most of the two-year deals negotiated last summer, they would have the room to take on Hayward. Hurdle one: cleared. 

The sheer number of dollars may seem like a deterrent for making a deal for Hayward, but it is worth noting that this offseason's free agency class is weak, especially in comparison to next year's. If no respected stars become available for trade, would spending on and adding Hayward to the Knicks' young core of Barrett, Robinson, Ntilikina, Knox, and whomever they select with their lottery pick put the team at a respectable enough standing to draw big-name free agents in 2021? 

Gordon Hayward was excellent as a spot-up shooter last season, ranking in the 91st percentile in points per possession from those opportunities. He converted on 48% of his spot-up looks and shot over 39% from behind the arc on 4.2 attempts per game. This is a skillset that would be of great benefit to the Knicks' young players if the team were to swing a deal for the forward. His ability to pass the ball, especially in pick and roll sets, would also help center Mitchell Robinson realize more of his potential around the rim; Hayward ranked in the 79th percentile in points per possession on plays when he initiated a pick & roll and got the ball to the roll man.

When watching Hayward this past season, it was impossible not to notice the smart plays he made off the ball as well as on it. Two-thirds of the plays in which Hayward cut to the rim and got a shot off resulted in points being scored, per Synergy. He makes smart passes and rarely forces up a bad shot, two habits which the Knicks struggled to get Julius Randle to adopt this past season. On the defensive end, Hayward ranks 20th in the NBA this season in defensive win shares - a number that may be inflated from the Celtics' strong team defense, but one shouldn't be completely discarded.

Simply put, Hayward is a good player who has shown he is well-equipped to fit in the modern NBA. His versatility and shot-making ability would allow him to fit in several different types of lineups, and I believe he would be in a position to help the team win games as well as assist in the development of the team's young talent. With Hayward on the team and a quarantine's worth of valuable training time for the "kids", the Knicks would certainly finishing next season with a more competitive record than those of recent years, even if not to an extent that would land them a playoff bid. With Hayward's contract fully off the books, the Knicks are back in a position to sign free agents in an offseason full of star talent. If his passing and floor spacing unlocked enough of the young core's potential to impress those stars, one or two of them might seriously consider bringing their talents to the Big Apple and joining the improved group of young prospects. Hurdle two: cleared, assuming that Rose is able to find the right players to put around Hayward, Barrett, Robinson, and the others. 

The third and final hurdle? What it would actually take to get Hayward here in New York. The Celtics don't need to clear cap space for any star free agents this summer, due to the fact that there are none available. Hayward would provide more value to the team next year than any free agent the team could add in his place. The Knicks also do not currently employ a basketball player who is better than Hayward, leaving them without much to offer Boston in a potential deal. If a deal were lined up that resulted with Hayward wearing orange and blue, it would be because New York is sending too many assets to Boston for only a year of his services in return. 

Unless Boston is actively trying to rid their payroll of Hayward's deal, the Knicks would likely be better off trying to sign a player like Fred Van Vleet to help their prospects win games than giving up more assets than they can afford to for Hayward. Van Vleet, on an inflated deal as compensation for coming to the Knicks (see: Randle, Portis, Gibson, Payton) would likely command about half of Hayward's salary. It would simply make more sense to look to distribute the available cap space elsewhere if the team was looking to move on from the players brought in last year by former team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. Despite the connection with the franchise's new Assistant GM, the fit of his skillset, and the winning experience Hayward would bring to the team, it would be best for the team to avoid the short-sighted move of swinging a trade for him.