Gordon Hayward’s ‘homecoming’ a reminder Hornets must learn from past mistakes

Any bottled up vitriol couldn’t be unleashed, not with the subject in a position many grew accustomed to witnessing over a good portion of the past four years.

The man who inked the largest contract in franchise history until LaMelo Ball took the crown with his max rookie extension was back in the building, affixed in a familiar place for the anticipated homecoming: on the bench in street clothes. A fitting scene if ever there was one.

Gordon Hayward never made it onto the Spectrum Center court Sunday night, taking a seat for Oklahoma City’s 121-118 win against the Charlotte Hornets due to a strained left posterior tibialis sustained Friday night in Indianapolis. For more than a few observers on hand, Hayward’s absence was on the same parallel as a solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 — an expected event based on previous history.

“I knew if there was one game he was going to miss,” a source who worked closely with Hayward during his time with the Hornets said, “it was this one.”

With a week left in a bottomless regular season and the Hornets strictly playing for pride, there’s very few things for their fans to look forward to. But Hayward’s return was supposed to be one of those occasions, allowing patrons to let their angst loose on the man with the four-year, $120 million pact, voicing displeasure with the many fruitless seasons with the Hornets.

Instead, Hayward missed his first game since being inactive for the Thunder’s initial three outings following the Feb. 8 trade. He didn’t even hoist any pregame warmups, arriving out of the visitor’s tunnel following the national anthem and player introductions.

So, he was barely around before the Hornets showed a tribute video featuring highlights of his days in purple and teal, drawing a surprisingly positive smattering of applause. That was the extent of Hayward’s sighting, though, and he’s almost become a forgotten man around the league after averaging 4.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 23 games for Oklahoma City, starting only twice.

Oklahoma City’s Gordon Hayward watches from the bench in street clothes during the Thunder’s 121-118 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night.
Oklahoma City’s Gordon Hayward watches from the bench in street clothes during the Thunder’s 121-118 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night.

Now, Hayward isn’t viewed as one of the main guys, alleviating any pressure to perform up to the standard of the massive contract he inked with Charlotte. The Hornets had to turn that page in order to move forward and usher away the steady gray clouds hovering around the corner of Trade and Caldwell streets.

At least they got something of substance for back him.

And the package has turned out to be better than many initially thought, allowing both sides to move on from a failed partnership. Trading the oft-injured 34-year-old to the Thunder landed three pieces, highlighted by Tre Mann and Vasa Micić.

Mann has filled in nicely for an injured Ball and could be a solid backup option behind the Hornets’ star point guard. He became the second player this season to post 15 points and distribute five assists without missing a shot from the field including 3-point range or the free throw line.

“It was a lot of emotions in this game coming into it,” Mann said. “I just wanted to go out there and compete as hard as I could and try to get a win. But it was really fun playing against those guys, just trying to go out there and compete as best as I can was really my whole mindset and try to get a win.”

Micić is an intriguing piece who’s morphing into a double-double machine, with a 17-point, 10-assist effort against Oklahoma City the latest example. At age 30, he’s not a prototypical rookie and is leaning on the craftiness he exhibited in Europe to settle in with the Hornets.

Charlotte Hornets guard Vasilije Micic (22) during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center.
Charlotte Hornets guard Vasilije Micic (22) during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center.

“I’m more comfortable every day,” Micić said. “I’m a little bit sad we have a few games left, but me personally every game is like a final for myself. Just in terms of how I want to prove myself to myself and then to people in the game to get an opportunity, including the coach and staff and everybody on the team. So, I think it’s always, I’m trying to play more relaxed.

“It’s hard when you don’t have a lot of minutes, but in this moment with circumstances going on on our team, I do have these minutes and I’m just hoping it looks good from the outside.”

Besides Micić and Mann, the Hornets also acquired Davis Bertans, a solid shooter who can space the floor. Add in Aleksej Pokuševski, who was signed off waivers after the Thunder released the former first-round pick in February, and the ex-Oklahoma City contingent totaled 61 points against the Thunder.

“They all did a good job,” coach Steve Clifford said. “Offensively, we played really well except for the turnovers.”

If nothing else, Hayward’s tenure with the Hornets should serve as a stark reminder to invest wisely in acquiring talent on the free agent market.

Charlotte is not known as a premier destination and the Hornets will have to pony up more dollars to get the better players to even consider the Carolinas as an option, given the organization’s futility. The franchise has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, and that’s not exactly the best selling point for prospective players seeking a perennial winning situation.

Mega contracts also aren’t a strength of the Hornets, who should’ve learned their lesson after finally getting the books in order and eliminating some of the sting of doling out big bucks to Nic Batum, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist among others. Hayward’s deal falls right in line with those, and must be a learning tool for the Hornets as they rebuild the roster around Ball and Brandon Miller. Because they can’t afford another financial faux pas.

With Hayward off their books, the Hornets can finally flush that chapter and look forward with a semblance of hope beyond this season, taking outings like their matchup against Oklahoma City as a barometers for what the future may hold if everything aligns right for a team that’s struggled to put it all together no matter who’s been on the floor.

“This moment gives us a chance to understand that we are a really good team and they are missing their two most important players in (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams),” Micić said. “But still, I was there. I know how they play, how they practice. This team is a really good team and we gave everything we had. And I think it was a good game for us.”

Micić won’t get any argument from Mann.

“I definitely agree,” Mann said. “That’s a really good team. Whether they have Shai and ‘Dub’ or not, they are still a really good team, really well coached, have some really good players. So, I feel like that’s still a game where we can prove to ourselves that we can play with anybody.

“Cliff’s been saying it since we got here: we can win any game. That’s how confident he is in the talent that we have. But we’ll figure it all out. We’re not there yet, but that’s the goal, to get there.”