Well, it’s been an interesting couple days in Jazzland to say the least. Tuesday appeared to be coming to a close as one of the slowest and least newsworthy days thus far in the offseason until Charlotte beat man Rick Bonnell broke news right around midnight Eastern Time that Jazz RFA Gordon Hayward would sign a maximum offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets. The deal was officially inked yesterday, and Utah’s 72-hour window with which to match began ticking down.
To my mild frustration, many of the immediate hot takes against Utah matching the deal, as seems to frequently be the case during the rare instances where the Jazz are squarely in the national spotlight, lacked any sort of basic team context and contained a number of different totally illegitimate arguments.
Perhaps most confusing was the sentiment that this deal is right for Charlotte, but not for Utah. Not only does this view likely once again miss team context here in terms of future plans and payroll trajectory, it’s just plain wrong – the fact that Utah is likely two years away from being a contender while the Hornets appear ready to challenge for a top-four seed in a weaker East next year is in no way whatsoever a justification for such an argument, and is in fact closer to the opposite. The Jazz easily have the space to eat a small overpay plus give extensions to whichever young pieces are deserving, and remain flexible through the life of his deal given projected large increases in the cap – plus, a potential max extension for Dante Exum, should he turn out to be worthy of one, would not need to come until the year after Hayward is off the books.
But much of this has been covered in the time since by more reasonable analysts, with Grantland’s Zach Lowe and BasketballInsiders’ Nate Duncan1 both echoing most reasonable local sentiments that while the situation surely isn’t ideal, it’s a relatively standard match for the Jazz given every bit of context involved. SCH cap guru Dan Clayton also weighed in yesterday, and while his piece was centered more around explaining some cap FAQ’s after the new developments, it contained several excellent bits of analysis that roughly line up with my own thinking2.
One of the major arguments against matching the offer is that Hayward never projects to be a first option on a contender, one of the few bits from the “don’t match” camp that actually does appear to hold up to legitimate analysis given his failings in this role last season. If we assume this to be true going forward, Hayward projects as a second or third option, and the argument goes that over $15 million per year average salary is far too much to pay for a non-star player.
But is it? Given cap numbers announced officially on Wednesday, Hayward’s deal will take up roughly 23 percent of Utah’s cap sheet next season and, given fairly conservative estimates for subsequent years, should incrementally drop closer to 20 percent. I went team by team for each of the last three seasons3, marking down any team that paid over 20 percent of its available cap to any player who clearly wasn’t their first option. Keep in mind there were plenty of occasions where the actual first option on these teams made less than 20 percent of the cap, but this is a potential scenario for Utah also if Derrick Favors were to make the leap in the next couple years.
Of 90 individual team seasons, 50, or slightly over half, paid over 20 percent of that year’s salary cap to a second or third option (or in many cases to a guy who wasn’t even that). Of these 50, 33 made the playoffs, or 66 percent. 10 of the 12 conference final appearances made during this time were by teams that fit the bill, with the only exceptions being this year’s Spurs4 and the 2012 Thunder5. There were several cases of multiple non-stars making over 20 percent of the cap on the same team (the Knicks pulled it off all three years and still made the playoffs twice), and several of the teams typically paying huge money to a second or third banana (Miami, OKC, Chicago) have been some of the most successful teams in the league during this period.
Again, this data doesn’t prove anything. It doesn’t account for the specifics of each team, which vary wildly. But it’s pretty darn indicative that managing such a situation, and even thriving in one, is easily doable in today’s league if over half the teams in the league are doing it and two-thirds of them are making the playoffs. This isn’t an assertion that the Jazz are in an optimal situation here; it would have of course been preferable to get Hayward for less. But guess what? This is always the case. Show me a general manager in the NBA who wouldn’t prefer to pay his best players less and save cap room for other assets, and I’ll show you a guy who’s going to be out of a job in a hurry.
Their cap sheet may be the slightest bit tighter than they’d prefer at this point in the process, but this is a no-brainer match for the Jazz. In a new system with a role more suited to his talents, Hayward can absolutely be one of the most versatile combo guards in the league. Even if he “lacks one elite skill”6 and tops out as a solid second or third option (on a squad that will run a very Spurs-ian team offense that likely won’t emphasize that sort of pecking order), league trends in the last few years have shown that paying this sort of percentage of a team’s available cap to non-superstars is easily manageable for contending and even elite teams.