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Making sense of the Gordon Hayward signing

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The Hornets caught everybody by surprise and made a splash in free agency, and it could work.

Boston Celtics v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Charlotte Hornets did something very outside of their norm and made a splash signing in free agency, inking forward Gordon Hayward to a 4-year, $120 million contract. There were some rumblings about the Hornets interest in the former All Star in the days leading up to Saturday, but I don’t think anybody took them seriously. Turns out we should have been.

As is the case with any major move this franchise makes, outsiders are looking for ways to trash Michael Jordan the executive, which has been en vogue for about 20 years now. Those opinions have flooded the Twitter-verse and have created the impression that this move is inexcusable, but that isn’t the case.

Now, that’s not to say this move is unequivocally correct. There are plenty of questions that warrant asking. The Hornets were about to free themselves of all long term commitments and find themselves flush with cap space. Hayward takes a big chunk out of that future cap space and is going to cost a lot of money well into the future. His presence on the roster will surely lead to more wins, and by extension, a worse draft position. Hornets fans are also understandably wary of another Nicolas Batum situation after seeing him collect large checks to do a lot of nothing for the last couple years. Hayward is a somewhat similar player, and he is 30 years old.

So we’re going to look into what the Hornets were probably thinking when they made this move. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, and it’s not something I personally would have done this offseason, but making sense of the move makes it easier to digest and root for. In my eyes, if I can understand the reasoning, I can support it. So let’s look at why this signing isn’t a disaster.

The player

Before we get into all the details about the salary cap and draft positioning, I think it’s important to understand who Gordon Hayward is as a player. Hayward is the quintessential do-it-all player. He scores, he passes, he rebounds, and he defends. He can function as the focal point of a team, as he demonstrated with the Utah Jazz, where he earned an All Star berth. He can also function just as well further down in the team’s hierarchy, like he did last season with the Boston Celtics. He was often spoken about as an afterthought on that team, but he finished the season averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while shooting 50.0% from the field and 38.8% from three. He isn’t a superstar, but his time in Boston seemed to make people forget how good of a player he is.

With this current Charlotte roster, Hayward is likely to see his usage tick back up a bit as the team’s best and most established player right now. But he is not a ball dominant player that will stunt the growth of the team’s up-and-coming playmakers like Devonte’ Graham and LaMelo Ball. As he ages and the Hornets youngsters grow, he can seamlessly transition into more of a background role. We’ve seen he can thrive in both situations, so he fits the roster perfectly.

The contract and the cap

The big bugaboo with this move is the salary cap implications moving forward. The Hornets were going to have roughly enough space for two max contract next summer if they were able to renounce all of their upcoming free agents, and it’s a deep free agency class. It contains top tier superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, etc., and second tier stars like Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan, and Andre Drummond. There a couple things to consider with that:

  • The Hornets only have all that cap space if they don’t extend Devonte’ Graham. Graham’s contract runs out after this season, and the team might find it prudent to extend him sooner rather than later.
  • The Hornets would have to convince multiple stars to sign with Charlotte with no winning foundation or established stars.

The second bullet point is probably the most important one. The Hornets have plenty of trouble luring even second tier stars here, as it was reported that Montrezl Harrell turned down a larger contract with the Hornets to go chase a title with the Los Angeles Lakers. That situation isn’t unique. The Hornets have neither the pedigree nor the recent success required to lure star players here.

Landing a player like Hayward now is an incremental step forward in the Hornets attempt to solidify themselves as a free agent destination. And he essentially functions as the first of what would have been two free agent signings in 2021. It’s the same type of move they were expected to make anyway, just one year sooner than expected. And if the team waits until next offseason to sign Devonte’ Graham to a new contract, they’ll still have enough space to sign one of those second tier stars we talked about earlier.

The draft pick

So we’ve established that signing Hayward now does not preclude the Hornets from making a splash in free agency next summer. The other concern is how the Hayward acquisition will affect the Hornets draft pick in 2021. A healthy Gordon Hayward surely helps the Hornets win more games, which would result in a lower draft pick. But that probably won’t matter as much as we think.

The Hornets were eighth in the lottery rankings before the ping pong balls bounced in their favorite. The team finished the season strong with young players that should be expected to be even better next season. Add LaMelo Ball into the equation, and the Hornets look better on paper than they did last season. An argument could be made that before the Hayward signing, the Hornets could be better than the Cavaliers, Knicks, Bulls, Pistons, and Thunder, while potentially surpassing the Kings, Timberwolves, Wizards, and Spurs. That might be optimistic, but it’s very possible. If the Hornets overachieve again like they did last season, they could be looking at a pick in the back half of the lottery, where they’ve been a mainstay for the last several years. If the team thinks that’s where they’ll end up, it makes sense to go ahead and push for the playoffs. There isn’t much difference between the eighth pick and the eighteenth pick in most drafts. One could argue that a playoff berth is more important for the team’s future than a few spots in the middle of the first round.

So what’s next

This section could become outdated very quickly, but we’ll do it anyway. There have been reports that a sign-and-trade is still possible, and such a move would be a benefit to the Hornets. The Hornets can create the space to sign Hayward outright, but the Celtics may want the Hornets’ help to create a trade exception so they don’t lose Hayward for nothing. The Hornets have all the leverage here, and it’s nice to see the Celtics on the wrong end of that for once. If the Celtics don’t want to give something worthwhile to the Hornets, the Hornets can simply walk away.

On the court, Hayward immediately becomes the Hornets best player, barring significant development from some of the young guys. He’ll probably start at the three alongside Cody Zeller, PJ Washington, Devonte’ Graham and one of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. If we take our couch GM hats off and look at this from the perspective of a fan seeking immediate gratification, this can only be seen as a good move. The Hornets will be very fun to watch next season, and will probably be at least kind of good. That’s worth something, even if the way we got here isn’t the way most of us envisioned.