Hayward Watch: Threats in the Eastern Conference

May 18th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com

With the basketballs back on the rack and the locker stalls cleaned out, the next six and a half weeks in Utah Jazz territory will primary be about three things:

Gordon. Daniel. Hayward.

As a series of newly unveiled, fan-funded billboard around the Salt Lake Valley will attest, the anxiety around Hayward’s imminent free agency is high among Jazz faithful. The All-Star forward will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, when he can agree to terms with Utah or any other NBA team. Unlike in 2014, the Jazz don’t have matching rights, so if Hayward agrees with another team, his seven-year run in Utah is over.

How much do Jazz fans need to worry? Here’s a look at the threat level behind all 29 of Utah’s competitors, starting today with the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta Hawks

Cap situation: It really all depends on Paul Millsap. If he walks, the Hawks will have the ability to create a max slot, but only if they make restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. wait for his payday. If Millsap opts in, or if he opts out but the Hawks keep his rights, Atlanta will probably operate as an exceptions team.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: The Hawks aren’t terrible (although they finished closer to the 11th seed than to #1 Boston).

Why they shouldn’t: OK, all joking aside… not much of a threat here. For the Hawks to have any financial shot at Hayward, they’d have to sacrifice their lone remaining All-Star. Even with Millsap, the Hawks had a 43-win team last season, so without him, Hayward would be signing up for another tough rebuild.

Threat level assessment: Eh.

Boston Celtics

Cap situation: With $6.1 added in for their No. 1 overall pick, Boston is just shy of a max slot even if they waive Tyler Zeller and make playoff hero Kelly Olynyk wait for his payday. But they can easily get to Hayward’s $30.3M number by offloading a role player or two.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Some of the most commonly cited reasons are probably overplayed, but we’ll get to that in a second. If you’re not at least a little bit afraid of Boston, you’re not paying attention. They have a talented roster that scored 53 wins and subsequently has ridden the No. 1 seed all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. They’re one of a very few teams who can offer Hayward a better baseline level of quality than the Jazz can, at least as measured by record, and their cap and pick situations will allow them to sell Hayward on the idea that, at 53 wins, they’re still on their way up the ladder. Regardless of how chummy you believe Hayward is with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, that’s a pretty compelling pitch to a player who has said his decision will come down to winning.

Why they shouldn’t: The Stevens relationship might be overblown if you consider that Utah’s own Quin Snyder has coached Hayward in 240 regular season and playoff games, plus helped him reach an All-Star level and convert the Jazz into a 50+ win outfit in its own right. I’m sure Hayward is nostalgic for his Butler days, but he’s also a pro who undoubtedly respects what Snyder and the team have meant to his career arc. Also, Utah was better than Boston in terms of net rating, even with the highest Wins Lost to Injury metric in the NBA. So the case could be laid out to Hayward that, when you back out all the games missed by key players, the Jazz are already ahead of the Celtics. And I don’t think Boston winning the draft lottery will really be a factor. Hayward knows as well as anyone that even high lottery picks need some time to learn the NBA game, and by the time a Markelle Fultz type of guy cracks that code, some of Boston’s key guys will have come up on free agency.

Threat level assessment: Keep a very close eye on the sneaky leprechaun.

Brooklyn Nets

Cap situation: Brooklyn could open up a max cap slot just by waiving their non-guaranteed contracts and declining the team option on KJ McDaniels. Or alternatively, they could keep one or two of those guys and then find a taker for the very affordable Justin Hamilton, a product of Utah’s Lone Peak High School. So yeah, they can get to $30.3M if they want to.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Hayward could have access to all of the kombucha spots and vintage vinyl stores he could ever imagine. OK, and the area is pretty cool.

Why they shouldn’t: Unless Hayward really wants a place with plenty of bike paths to ride his fixie, there’s nothing to worry about here. Brooklyn is coming off a season as the NBA’s worst team, and they don’t seem to have a clear path back to relevance for some time. Hayward’s not going to want to do another full rebuild.

Threat level assessment: Hayward will pay as much attention to the Nets in free agency as pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge pay to cyclists in the bike lane.

Charlotte Hornets

Cap situation: Well over the cap, with no clear way of getting under at all, let alone by $30 million. That said, if they got Hayward interested, they could always see if Utah is interested in facilitating a sign-and-trade.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Hayward already signed a contract with Charlotte once: the 2014 max offer sheet that Utah matched. That at least adds some intrigue in that we know the Hornets once like Gordon and he liked them back.

Why they shouldn’t: Here comes the big “but.” Charlotte just isn’t that good anymore. They finished five games out of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and they’re overextended financially to a point where it’s hard to imagine how they get better anytime soon. And even if Hayward said yes, it’s a non-starter unless the Jazz are interested in taking salary back from the Hornets — why would they aid and abet Charlotte in stealing their own franchise star away from them?

Threat level assessment: Can’t afford him.

Chicago Bulls

Cap situation: Soooo many variables. Will Dwyane Wade walk? Will the Bulls keep Rajon Rondo’s whose salary is only partially guaranteed? Which of their four restricted free agents will they try to keep? The Bulls could get to about $60 million in cap space (less roster holds), or they could operate as an exception team instead.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Because Chicago is closer to Brownsburg, Indiana.

Why they shouldn’t: Outside of proximity to the parental set, it’s hard to find a reason to be really terrified here. As presently constituted, the Bulls are barely a .500 team, and to have any chance at sniffing Hayward’s pay range, they’d have to lost multiple rotation players. If they were to aggressively change course in June, say, by trading Jimmy Butler for the No. 1 pick, then that might signal their intent to clear max cap space, but then they’re a rebuilding team that Hayward probably wants no part of.

Threat level assessment: Not a fit.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cap situation: No chance of creating cap space.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: The King is the King. Who wouldn’t want to play alongside the greatest basketball player on the planet, a guy who is compiling a case to be considered the GOAT?

Why they shouldn’t: Because Cleveland is likely a tax-paying team next season, even the S&T option is off the table. The Cavs just don’t have a means of adding Hayward.

Threat level assessment: Already spent their allowance.

Detroit Pistons

Cap situation: Over the cap unless Aron Baynes (PO) and their restricted free agents walk. And even then, they can barely create enough space to make it advantageous to operate as a cap team instead of just keeping their $8.4M midlevel.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Another team that’s closer to Ma and Pa Hayward, but that’s about all I can muster on behalf of the 37-45 Pistons.

Why they shouldn’t: Detroit isn’t even a rebuilding team — they’re a team that was trying to be good and still came up four wins shy of .500. They also can’t afford Gordon without the Jazz being interested in a S&T package, and nothing they have in his salary range would really interest the Jazz.

Threat level assessment: Don’t see it happening.

Indiana Pacers

Cap situation: It would require letting some rotation-quality players walk, but the Pacers could get to $30 million.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Now we’ve arrived at the team I consider a stealth threat, and not just because Banker’s Life Fieldhouse is 14 miles as the crow flies from Hayward’s high school gym. Pacers star Paul George reportedly admires Hayward and would love to play with him. The pair, drafted back-to-back in 2010, would make possibly the most dynamic wing duo in the league: two guys who are elite scorers and have the ability to play lockdown wing defense. But more than anything it’s the human element that’s scary here. People forget that these dudes are human, and the opportunity for Hayward, a family man, to raise his two daughters close to his family has to be a little appealing, right?

Why they shouldn’t: That said, not every 27-year-old millionaire wants to live down the street from his mom and dad. Hayward seems comfortable in Utah (and has an extra house in SoCal), and with the monetary difference in what the Jazz could offer him, he could charter planes to take his kids to visit Grandma and Grandpa just about as often as he’d like. Also worth mentioning: to clear enough room for Hayward, the Pacers wouldn’t have a ton of ways left to put talent around those two and standout center Myles Turner. Are those three enough to give Hayward the chance he craves to compete?

Threat level assessment: Certainly not unscary, that’s for sure.

Miami Heat

Cap situation: Here’s another team with a huge set of variables, and the biggest one is Chris Bosh. If a doctor jointly selected by the league and the union decide that Bosh’s medical condition is a career ender, then his $25.29M comes off their books1. Even without that relief, the Heat could get close to $30.3M in space, but not quite there without trading some players.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Miami has been mentioned as a possible destination for Hayward, perhaps because it’s a sexy destination. Miami did finish the year with quite a bit of momentum, closing 31-10 over the latter half of the season and finishing outside of the playoffs only by the margin of a tiebreaker.

Why they shouldn’t: Is a Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Hayward core enough to excite him?

Threat level assessment: South Beach is South Beach, but by the measure Hayward has said matters to him the most, I don’t see this one making much sense.

Milwaukee Bucks

Cap situation: Over the cap unless Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes walk. If both opt out, The Bucks still only have around half of what they need to offer Hayward the max.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Milwaukee has one of the more exciting roster of up-and-comers in the NBA right now.

Why they shouldn’t: However, it could be argued that their three best players are all naturally wings: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker2. Hard to imagine where Hayward fits there, unless the Bucks just decide that with enough length and skill, they can just be a glorious, positionless, chaotic mass of arms.

Threat level assessment: Probably doesn’t make sense for them to mortgage everything just to field an all-wing team. That said, if anyone could make an interesting S&T offer, it would probably be these guys3.

New York Knicks

Cap situation: They currently have about $17 million4 before dealing with restricted free agent Ron Baker and deciding whether to keep three minimum-salary guys. A lot depends on what happens with Carmelo Anthony.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: LOL. Jeff Hornacek?? Skyline views?? The chance to grab lunch with one of his favorite Salt City Hoops columnists??

Why they shouldn’t: OK, maybe that was harsh, but really: the Knicks are a mess on the court and a bigger mess in the front office. They’re a 31-51 crew with leadership that just alienated one superstar and may already be wearing on Kristaps Porzingis’ patience, too. I don’t think Hayward wants anything to do with this.

Threat level assessment: Let’s just go back to “LOL.”

Orlando Magic

Cap situation: Can get to about $20M less holds if they waive CJ Watson and Stephen Zimmerman. Clearing $30M would require trades.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Epcot’s nice.

Why they shouldn’t: Another bad team that doesn’t have much of a realistic shot at Hayward. If Hayward cared more about the non-basketball factors than about winning, the Magic could maybe get in the room with him. But they’re a 29-win team, so he probably won’t care that much about the nicer weather and the proximity to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Threat level assessment: Expelliarmus5.

Philadelphia 76ers

Cap situation: They have a ton of cap space — as much as $60M less holds, depending on decisions they make about their option guys.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: The Sixers were decent enough when Joel Embiid played that I suppose they could make an argument to Hayward that it wouldn’t be a full rebuild. Add Ben Simmons and this year’s No. 3 pick to the mix and they actually could have an interesting core in a couple of years. But…

Why they shouldn’t: That’s in a couple of years. Simmons and their ’17 selection will need some time to get acclimated, and even Embiid is still shy of 800 NBA minutes. Their project is still in the early phases, as interesting as it is.

Threat level assessment: As Ben Franklin would say: “No.”

Toronto Raptors

Cap situation: Kyle Lowry is going to opt out, but his cap hold eats up any real space the Raps could have. Even if he walks, Toronto would have to do some maneuvering (read: give some guys away for free) to get to $30M.

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Toronto is definitely a competitive team. Plus, all those Tim Hortons…

Why they shouldn’t: A Raptors club with Lowry can’t afford Gordon, and a Raptors club without him probably isn’t good enough.

Threat level assessment: Dream on, hosers.

Washington Wizards

Cap situation: Raises for Otto Porter and Bojan Bogdanovic (both RFAs) will likely take them way over.  

Why Jazz fans should be afraid: Washington isn’t altogether uninteresting in basketball terms. They were one terrible quarter away from advancing to the ECF, and even if they had to trade a star to create cap room, they’d still have two of Porter, John Wall and Bradley Beal left.

Why they shouldn’t: That said, it’s hard to find a scenario where they could even get in the conversation, financially.

Threat level assessment: Crazier things have happened… in Washington, D.C., in fact.

We’ll continue this threat assessment later by examining the Western Conference for Hayward poachers.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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