The Charlotte Hornets went for it late Tuesday night, agreeing to terms with Utah Jazz restricted free agent Gordon Hayward on a four-year, $63 million offer sheet, as first reported by the Charlotte Observer and Yahoo! Sports. When the sheet is signed Thursday, the Jazz will have three days to match it, and retain Hayward. If they don’t match, he would go to Charlotte.
But, by all indications from Utah’s braintrust, it’s going to match. And it really isn’t that hard a decision for them, for several reasons:
1. Utah was prepared. Utah’s stripped its team salary down to the studs over the last year, mainly by absorbing the unwanted deals of Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush and Andris Bierdins from Golden State last summer as part of the three-team deal that allowed the Warriors to sign Andre Iguodala as a free agent.
The Jazz got 2014 and ‘17 unprotected first-rounders from Golden State, using this year’s extra first on swingman Rodney Hood with the 23rd overall selection. (Utah also got 2016 and 2017 second-rounders from Golden State, and a 2018 second from Denver to help facilitate the deal.)
With Jefferson, Rush and Bierdins all coming off the Jazz’s salary cap, they shed $24 million in salary. That’s more than enough to take on Hayward’s estimated first-year salary of $14.7 million (the exact number won’t be known until the final 2014-15 cap is determined in the next couple of days) in his new deal. They’ll also have room aplenty to sign first-rounders Dante Exum ($3.6 million next season on his rookie scale contract) and Hood ($1.2 million).
In essence, Utah would trade the salaries of Jefferson, Rush and Bierdins in order to re-sign Hayward, add a potential stud in Exum and get a solid rotation prospect in Hood — all without getting anywhere near the cap or luxury tax thresholds. That’s an easy call. Exum and Hood are on rookie deals for the next several seasons, and if Exum is anywhere near as good as advertised, Utah will have a star player vastly outperforming his contract, a reasonable tradeoff even if Hayward underperforms his contract.
2. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, again. As cap deity Mark Deeks pointed out early Wednesday, the new limits on free agent deals — 4.5 percent raises annually for players signed from other teams, down from 7.5 percent raises under the old system — make the back ends of deals much more palatable now than they used to be. Thus, they are much easier to match.
Under the old system, with the higher annual raises, Hayward would have received about $65.6 million for a four-year deal from Charlotte, including $18 million in the last year of the contract. This deal will pay him $16.7 million in the last year of the contract. That makes him easier to trade if the Jazz decides he’s not worth keeping after another season or two.
3. Player value. (I originally wrote “asset value,” but I’m going to try and refrain from referring to people as “assets” in the future.)
Having spent four seasons developing, coaching and helping him improve his game, Hayward has more value to the Jazz than he would for any other team. Is Utah overpaying to keep Hayward, who had good numbers (16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists) on a very bad team last season? Certainly … and especially when factoring in Hayward’s subpar shooting (41.3 percent overall, 30 percent on 3-pointers).
But Hayward is 24. Utah offered him a $48 million extension last fall, an offer he, correctly in hindsight, rejected. The choice for the Jazz, then, is whether Hayward is worth an extra $3.75 million per season for the next four seasons. Given his age, his potential for growth and the team’s previous investment in his development, that doesn’t seem like a prohibitive amount of money. And replacing him would be difficult as it’s hard to see a substantive free agent that would be willing to go to the Jazz given their current rebuilding state.
4. Continued flexibility. Even if Utah matches the Charlotte offer, it will still be well under the cap, with a team payroll of slightly less than $54 million (including the contract of Steve Novak, who will be sent from Toronto in a deal for guard Diante Garrett and a future second-rounder when the July moratorium ends Thursday).
If Hayward’s production matches or exceeds his contract, all the better for Utah. But even if he doesn’t, Utah won’t be limited by his deal from making additional moves to improve its roster.
(This all makes one wonder why Charlotte didn’t pursue Houston’s Chandler Parsons, also a restricted free agent. The Rockets have also said they plan to match any offer sheet he receives, but Houston has much bigger salary obligations than Charlotte, of course, with Dwight Howard and James Harden on its books.
If the Rockets add another free agent, whether Chris Bosh or someone else, matching an offer sheet for Parsons would put the Rockets well into the tax. Maybe they would. It would have been worth it to the Hornets to make them do so.)
5. A sign-and-trade deal wouldn’t really help. If Utah were to agree to a sign-and-trade deal with Charlotte before Hayward signed the offer sheet, what do the Hornets have to offer Utah in return? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — an even worse shooter than Hayward? Rookie Noah Vonleh? Utah hardly needs another teenager on its roster, no matter his potential. Second-year big Cody Zeller and another player? Perhaps, but Utah already has invested in Derrick Favors and still has hopes for bruising Enes Kanter.
The Jazz has enough of a steep climb to try and get back into the mix in the Western Conference. Having to do so with a key piece departing will only extend the process. I can’t see the Jazz letting that happen.