They wish the wait wouldn’t have been so long, but the fractured lower leg changed everything. Sixteen months passed, and now the Utah Jazz and Gordon Hayward lurch into one of the NBA’s most undesirable encounters: The homecoming of the free-agent star.
This instance isn’t rich with acrimony as much as it simply registers as a nuisance. The Jazz aren’t dying to discuss Hayward and his Boston Celtics, nor is Hayward dying to discuss the Jazz. It isn’t personal but practical.
Utah has yet to play consistently well this season, nor has Hayward himself. Once they get on the floor, they’ll be fiercely competitive. The timing’s terrible, but no one wants to lose this one.
“I wish it was just treated like another game,” Hayward told ESPN.
“Here’s the analogy: The country singer Sam Hunt has a song, ‘Break up in a small town,'” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told ESPN. “We’re both showing up to the prom with another date. We’re all doing well, but we’re standing around the punch bowl sort of awkwardly looking at each other.”
In a lot of ways, these return nights become a barometer for the team that lost the star. How the Jazz welcome Hayward back — the graciousness, the video presentation, the boos or polite applause — will come and go Friday night.
What gets the closer inspection is this: In what kind of shape did the departure leave the franchise? Did the organization have the infrastructure, the leadership, the talent, the staying power to survive the loss?
After being informed that Hayward would sign with the Celtics, Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder got on a plane in Washington, D.C., for a flight back to Salt Lake, pulled out a legal pad and spent the next few hours scribbling ideas for the post-Hayward era.
“We weren’t trying to stick our heads in the sand,” Lindsey said. “We had spent a lot of time looking at how some really good organizations handled losing key players.”
Lindsey admired the responses of three in particular: Dallas post-Steve Nash, Portland post-LaMarcus Aldridge and Oklahoma City post-Kevin Durant. The Jazz had an All-NBA center, Rudy Gobert, a new point guard, Ricky Rubio, and a developing forward, Joe Ingles. And they had the kid out of Louisville. They kept thinking about Donovan Mitchell, whom they had chased into the draft lottery to select via a trade prior to the start of free agency.
Lindsey and Snyder believed they could reshape the roster and someday return to the Western Conference semifinals. They never imagined Mitchell could be so good so soon.
“With Donovan, it was literally like watching your children grow up in front of you, growing by the day,” Lindsey said.
The Jazz made it to the conference semifinals again — this time, without Hayward.
The emergence of Mitchell hasn’t left room for a lot of discussion around the Jazz about “What if?” Mitchell delivered Utah a new identity and a franchise cornerstone, and he has already done something Hayward wasn’t sure a star player could do there: transcend the marketplace. Mitchell has generated tremendous national and global marketing interest, the kind that once caused free agents to pursue big-market destinations.
If there were organizational miscalculations with Hayward in his early years, Mitchell gives the Jazz a second chance to recruit a star for the long term. Looking back, Utah lost a year of Hayward service when it couldn’t come to terms on a five-year rookie extension in 2013 and had to match a four-year, $63 million max offer sheet from Charlotte in 2014. Hayward insists that he didn’t hold a grudge through his unrestricted free agency, but he never forgot it.
Mitchell is on his way to a non-negotiation for a max contract extension in 2020. He has walked into a far better franchise than Hayward did eight years ago, complete with an elite GM and coach and a supporting cast talented enough to find its way into the final four of the Western Conference playoffs.
Mitchell changes everything and nothing. He gives the Jazz the hope of a big, bold future. They give him a stable and sure professional platform.
“Frankly, we won’t hide from any culpability,” Lindsey told ESPN. “We dissected it ad nauseam. We did a lot of introspection. And what we are learning is that it’s just best to continue with what the Millers [Jazz ownership] believe in: having our best investments be in ourselves.
“They’ve got a legacy trust where every dime goes back into the team. They take no profit. We’ve done an arena renovation. There’s the uniqueness to our new practice facility, where we really let Quin grab a piece of it to fit him and fit us.
“So when you’re competing, and something doesn’t go your way, you want to take a look at it. And we did. Could I have done a better job handling the [Hayward] extension? Was there a hangover effect to that? Would he have left anyway? You ask yourself all those questions.”
And then you move on. Sixteen months have passed, and Utah welcomes Gordon Hayward back to Salt Lake City on Friday. He wanted the Eastern Conference, Celtics mystique and his old college coach, Brad Stevens. Free agency allowed him to take it all.
So, yes, losing Hayward was heartbreaking for Utah, but it didn’t demolish the franchise. Hayward will take a long look around Friday night and see Mitchell moving through the air, and make no mistake, the Jazz will be in the rarified place so few franchises can get to after losing an All-Star.
Free of angst, free to move on.