Unrestricted free agency allows NBA players to choose where they would like to work. Has so since 1988, when Tom Chambers left the Seattle SuperSonics for the Phoenix Suns. Dozens of players change uniforms every summer. Yet, every time one of a certain stature does so, there’s a backlash.
Gordon Hayward is the latest example. Former Utah Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert mouthed, “These hoes ain’t loyal,” in an Instagram video posted shortly after Hayward announced his decision to join the Boston Celtics on July 3. Fans burned their No. 20 jerseys under the hashtag #Betrayward. Local reporters and columnists took issue with the confusion around his departure. And Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said, “There’s probably a few adjectives” to describe the way Hayward left.
Now, ex-Jazz teammate Trevor Booker, who left Utah for the Brooklyn Nets in unrestricted free agency last summer, felt the need to interpret the reasoning behind Hayward’s exit for him, even though the 27-year-old did well to explain it himself on deadline in a 2,000-word column for The Players’ Tribune.
Here’s what Booker told The Salt Lake Tribune for a retrospective “look inside” Hayward’s free agency:
“Gordon’s a guy who doesn’t really want to be the man. … I’m not sure he wanted a franchise on his shoulders. Gordon’s a great player, and one of the best players in the league. But I wasn’t really surprised at his choice. I heard the rumors.”
Those comments reflect what Booker told HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy with less zing two days earlier:
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised he left. When I was there, I heard rumors — I don’t know how true they were — but I heard rumors about him wanting to leave. Boston picked up a tremendous player. Gordon can really play. I still think he’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He can really hoop, but I wasn’t surprised to see him go. I was hoping he would’ve stayed, because the Jazz were already legit, and with everybody growing around him, they could’ve really made some noise.
“But I’m not sure if he wanted to be that star with all the pressure on his shoulders. So, I think that might’ve had something to do with him going to Boston, where he can rely on Isaiah Thomas and whoever else to back him up and take that pressure off his shoulders. Maybe Isaiah, because he’s a superstar, where in Utah, he’s playing in the Western Conference, and it was a little bit tougher.”
Keep in mind, Hayward began his Players’ Tribune piece by writing, “This has been the toughest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life,” and he maintained that he hadn’t made up his mind until the final hours before the announcement on July 3, despite multiple reports to the contrary.
This is to say nothing of the fact the Jazz could’ve given Hayward a five-year, $80 million deal in 2014, when instead they matched his four-year, $63 million offer from the Charlotte Hornets, which included the fourth-year option he opted out of on June 30. Had the Jazz been as loyal to Hayward in 2014 as they expected him to be to them three years later, they might still have him signed through 2019 at a bargain price. Hayward probably has a few adjectives of his own to describe how that all went down.
Meanwhile, Booker hadn’t played with Hayward since 2016, when the veteran forward left a Jazz team on the rise to sign a two-year, $18 million deal with the league’s worst team. Role players can always fall back on a bigger contract offer or increased minutes as the deciding factor upon changing teams, but free agency is different for stars, who are offered maximum money and opportunity at every stop.
Still, when said star prefers one opportunity over another, and is willing to accept less guaranteed money to seize it, there’s a sense of resentment, which is understandable from fans, teammates and even GMs whose pitches fell short. But from players around the league? “Gordon’s a guy who doesn’t really want to be the man,” and, “I’m not sure if he wanted to be that star,” seem a little out of place.
This presumes Hayward wants neither to be a star on the Celtics nor to feel the pressure in Boston. Two thoughts immediately spring to mind that run contrary to Booker’s contention: Hayward became the Celtics’ best player immediately upon going to Boston, and there is far more pressure joining the Eastern Conference finalists than there was standing pat with the Western Conference semifinalists.
In fact, even the Jazz argued Gobert is better than anybody on the Celtics’ roster in their free agency pitch to Hayward, per the same Salt Lake Tribune inside look that featured Booker’s commentary.
By leaving Utah for Boston, Hayward assumed the pressure of leading the Celtics, who will be considered a disappointment if they do anything less than challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for the East crown, but he also bears the weight of the backlash. If you think otherwise, look no further than Kevin Durant, who would have been roundly mocked had he not won Finals MVP on his way to a title. Hayward’s road to the Finals may be easier in Boston, but there was never this much pressure in Utah.
Hayward chose to be the man in Boston, and that’s his right in free agency. The only difference between stars and role players changing teams is the brightness of the spotlight and the intensity of the pressure. Booker may feel the weight of both when Brooklyn meets Boston four times this season.
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