Free Agent Stock Watch: Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward has had no choice but to step into a leading role for the Jazz this season. Utah cleaned house this past summer, allowing Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and others to leave via free agency, and the team used the cap space to absorb Golden State’s toxic contracts in exchange for two first-round picks and three second-rounders. It was a clear indication that the Jazz are looking down the road, particularly since only one of those picks comes Utah’s way anytime before 2016. The Jazz ensured Derrick Favors would be a part of their future, inking him to a four-year, $48MM extension before the deadline to do so in October. Utah didn’t do the same with Hayward, a fellow 2010 draftee, setting him up for restricted free agency this summer, when he’ll be one of the top 10 players available.

Just how available the 24-year-old will be remains to be seen, since the Jazz have the power to match any other team’s offer and Hayward has said that signing a new deal to stay in Utah is his preference. The comments coming from Hayward, agent Mark Bartelstein and Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey in the wake of their failure to reach an extension deal were universally rosy. Lindsey expressed his admiration for Hayward and Bartelstein, who heaped similar praise on the Jazz. All of the three will surely look out for themselves this summer, but without any reports of private resentment behind their public statements, it seems as though the working relationship between the three is fully functional, at the very least.

The Jazz aren’t the only ones signing Hayward’s praises. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who doubles as the team’s primary front office decision-maker, said this past autumn that he has a “man-crush” on the former Butler star. The Celtics employ Hayward’s college coach, Brad Stevens, and they showed interest in trading for the versatile swingman before the trade deadline. Many in the league have seen Boston as a strong candidate to pursue Hayward this summer. One NBA GM told Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher before the October extension deadline that “the Jazz had better lock up Hayward,” a signal that there would be leaguewide interest this summer. League executives told Sean Deveney of The Sporting News in February that they generally feel as though the Jazz plan on re-signing him unless they wind up drafting a marquee small forward, in which case they believe that Utah will consider sign-and-trade possibilities.

It’s no secret that the Jazz covet combo forward Jabari Parker, a Mormon who would have inherent popular appeal in Utah, and small forward Andrew Wiggins looms as a possible draft pick for the Jazz, too. Still, Utah has started three small forwards for much of the season, grouping Hayward, Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson together. Parker could slide in at power forward, and Wiggins, a strong defender, could cover the opposing team’s most potent offensive wing player, allowing the team to hide Hayward. The Jazz give up fewer points per possession when Hayward isn’t playing this season, per, and that’s been true three out of the four years he’s been in the league.

Hayward nonetheless contributes in a multitude of other ways. He’s one of only five players in the league to average more than 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game this season, as Basketball-Reference shows. The others are Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Michael Carter-Williams, putting Hayward in heady company. The opportunity to play outsized roles on teams with poor records surely has to do with the inclusion of Hayward and Carter-Williams on this list, but it nonetheless suggests Hayward’s wide-ranging value to the Jazz.

Hayward and Bartelstein apparently never asked for a maximum-salary extension from Utah, though they and the team were reportedly in talks for a deal worth more than what Favors received. Assuming the team was and remains willing to exceed $12MM salaries, and that Hayward and Bartelstein are still willing to accept less than the max, it would make for a small window of negotiation between $12MM and roughly $14MM. I’d be surprised if they couldn’t get a deal done, though there are a lot of “ifs” in that scenario.

The Jazz have no shortage of cap flexibility in the years ahead, with about $27MM in commitments for next season and only Favors under contract after that. Enes Kanter and Alec Burks will be extension-eligible this summer, but neither is likely to command the same sort of money that Hayward and Favors are about to make, and Utah should be able to keep all four if it wishes. Retaining Trey Burke and this year’s first-rounders might become an issue down the line, but Burke’s second contract would only overlap with the last season of Favors’ deal, so it shouldn’t be that much of a concern at this point.

Hayward is clearly a hot commodity around the league, but it would be a surprising about-face if he doesn’t wind up back with the Jazz, who hold most of the leverage with their right to match offers. Even if they didn’t, Hayward seems to feel comfortable in Salt Lake City and is giving every indication he intends to stay there for years to come.

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