Gordon Hayward: Heading East a 'smarter move' for team, individual success

At least Rudy Gobert won't have to compete with Gordon Hayward for an All-Star spot next season. (AP)
At least Rudy Gobert won’t have to compete with Gordon Hayward for an All-Star spot next season. (AP)

When Gordon Hayward announced his decision to leave the Utah Jazz for the Boston Celtics, logic told us that moving to the Eastern Conference as every other All-Star seemed to be headed West must have played a role in his decision, even if he made no mention of it in his Players’ Tribune piece.

While the Celtics made “a shorter line to compete for a conference title and beyond” a central focus of their pitch, according to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, and Jazz fans quoted Winston Churchill — “Victory will never be found by the path of least resistance” — in social media posts marked “#betrayward,” Hayward naturally danced around the subject in what he described as a painstaking announcement:

[Follow Ball Don’t Lie on social media: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Tumblr]

There were so many great things pulling me in that direction. There was the winning culture of Boston, as a city — from the Sox, to the Pats, to the Bruins. There was the special history of the Celtics, as a franchise — from Russell, to Bird, to Pierce, and it goes on. There was the amazing potential of this current Celtics team — from ownership, to the front office, to a talented roster with Isaiah, and Al, and everyone else. And of course, there was Coach Stevens: Not just for the relationship that we’ve built off the court — but also for the one that we started building on the court, all of those years ago, in Indiana.

And that unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it:

And that’s to win a championship.

To win that championship, presumably, is far easier in the East, where only a dysfunctional Cleveland Cavaliers team presents a formidable challenge (for now) and there’s no NBA hell-scape to traverse just to get to the Golden State Warriors in Rounds 2 or 3. That Goliath can now wait until the Finals.

Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose Los Angeles Clippers have spent years fighting an uphill battle in the West and lost to the Jazz in the first round this year, understands this as well as anyone:

“I think Gordon Hayward’s the smartest one,” Rivers told the Associated Press earlier this month. “He got out of town. He went to the East. I really don’t understand the logic of this. It is what it is. It’s just going to be a harder conference, if that’s possible.”

All things being equal, it’s only natural to consider which job opportunity offers the greatest chance of success, and Hayward finally opened up about how that factored into his decision on “The Woj Pod“:

“When we’re going through this process, and you keep seeing some of the big-name guys, and it’s like the West is loading up more and more and more. It’s not like I’m going to go East, just so I don’t have to play them, because you don’t want to run from competition at all — that’s not how I am — but there is a sense that it’s probably the smarter thing, as far as you’re not going to have to battle it out with all these teams, just to make it to the second or third round and give yourself a better chance against a Golden State. So, it definitely crosses your mind, 100 percent.”

And all things weren’t equal. Hayward recognized, “Golden State is obviously the team to beat. Whether you’re in the West or the East, you have to play them at some point in time.” And he felt the Jazz “matched up pretty well” with the Warriors and might’ve even taken a game from them in the Western Conference semifinals had George Hill been healthy, but there’s no doubt the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors are less of a gauntlet than a Houston Rockets team that just added Chris Paul, an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that brought Paul George aboard, the Minnesota Timberwolves with Jimmy Butler and maybe even the Denver Nuggets with Paul Millsap.

“I don’t know if there was one thing,” added Hayward. “I think if I had stayed in Utah, we would’ve been really good, it would’ve been a great situation for me, my family would’ve been comfortable … but it was a different feeling in Boston that I had. It was like a gut feeling, and it felt like, with everything that we broke down, the city, the coaching staff, the players, just the feeling of putting on a Boston Celtics uniform and competing for a title, outweighed everything else for me. And in the end, it was kind of that gut feeling that I had — like, this is the place that I think I should be and I feel like I belong — that’s what won it over for me.”

Among everything Hayward broke down, however auxiliary a factor it may have been, was the idea that the road to the All-Star Game would be easier with George, Butler and Millsap all heading West.

“Yeah, and I think that you look at that division that the Jazz are in,” Hayward told host Adrian Wojnarowski. “That is a tough division. Oklahoma City, Portland, Denver, like, that’s going to be a really tough division, where you’re playing those teams four times a year. The All-Star thing, it’s going to be hard no matter what division you’re in, but certainly with the amount of stars who are in the Western Conference now, especially at the forward position, too, it’s loaded, and you better have a really good first half of the season if you want to get in. And a lot of that, to me, always comes down to how your team does. If your team is winning, then it’s going to be a lot easier for you. So, like I said, that for sure crosses your mind.”

With Carmelo Anthony also pushing for a trade to the Rockets, more than half of the East’s frontcourt All-Stars in 2017 may no longer stand in Hayward’s way. He will still have to compete for a spot against mainstays LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Love, as well as rising stars Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Hassan Whiteside, among others, but that’s nowhere near the murderer’s row of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, George, Butler, and the list goes on.

While it may seem petty for Hayward to factor awards into his decision, everyone should be able to appreciate the importance of recognition on your path to professional development. And it’s all the less frivolous now that the NBA has tied contract incentives into All-Star and All-NBA honors.

And, dare we say it, a few more All-Star nods may mean the difference between a Hall of Fame vote or two for Hayward. In other words, immortality might even be on the line. So, when Hayward added up all those other factors — Boston’s winning culture, the Celtics mystique, his college coach, a promising roster and front-office continuity — the state of the East made the decision all the easier. Just as we thought.

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!