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By signing Gordon Hayward the Hornets landed the NBA’s best truly available free agent

At some point cap space needs to become players, and the Hornets knocked it out of the park by signing Gordon Hayward.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Friends, I’m absolutely shocked at how negative the At the Hive community is about the Charlotte Hornets signing Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million contract. As of the writing of this article, only 45% of you were “excited”, 20% were “indifferent”, and 35% were “disappointed/angry” based on this poll.

I’m speechless.

No parent wants to call their child ugly, and few passionate NBA fans are truly objective about their favorite team. Let me give those of you who are critical of the Hayward signing a dose of some harsh reality: The Charlotte Hornets are a trash destination for most top-tier free agents and will continue to be until this bottom-feeder franchise becomes a regular playoff contender.

Ouch. It hurts me as much to write that as it probably did for you to read, but it’s reality.

By landing Gordon Hayward the Charlotte Hornets just signed perhaps the best truly available free agent in the entire NBA. That’s not hyperbole. Look at this list of 2020 free agents. Anthony Davis isn’t leaving the Los Angeles Lakers and if he did he wouldn’t come to Charlotte. Brandon Ingram is a restricted free agent and won’t be departing from the New Orleans Pelicans. Fred VanVleet re-signed with the Toronto Raptors. Christian Wood isn’t the missing ingredient in making the Hornets competitive. What other borderline All-Star caliber players were actually available on the open market? Let me check:

Gordon Hayward.

End of list.

I’m serious when I say the Hornets just signed the league’s No. 1 free agent who could be legitimately had. That rarely happens for an obscure, uncompetitive team with zero national following like the Charlotte Hornets. When a bottom-tier franchise can sign the best available free agent on the market, they have to do it. This signing was a coup. And if Hayward averages an efficient 20-6-5 while leading the Hornets to the playoffs, then $30 million is just the going rate for that caliber of player. That’s money well spent.

Will Hayward’s contract eat into the Hornets 2021 cap space? Of course it will. Did Charlotte potentially overpay to bring a quality player to a franchise most NBA observers deem a perpetual dumpster fire? Again, yes they did. That’s the tax bad teams pay when they’ve made the playoffs just three times in the last 16 years in a league in which over half of the teams qualify for the postseason.

At some point the intangible notion of available cap space needs to turn into tangible players. If the Hornets didn’t get Gordon Hayward this year, what better under-30 free agent could they have landed in 2021? Here’s the list of next year’s unrestricted free agents. Charlotte won’t get Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Victor Oladipo and Rudy Gobert will be pushing 30 and will probably want to go to contenders. Is the answer to Charlotte’s persistent mediocrity Evan Fournier? Kelly Oubre Jr? Andre Drummond? Dennis Schroder? The alternative to signing Gordon Hayward this year was for Charlotte to run back the same team plus LaMelo Ball in 2020-21, probably finish ninth or tenth in the east again, and end up drafting around No. 10 in 2021. Unless Charlotte could pull of a blockbuster trade for an All-Star in 2021 (which would mean giving up young talent and draft picks), the “run it back and hope for 2021” plan isn’t a great one.

The better the Hornets become the more likely it is that solid free agents will come to Charlotte in the future. Gordon Hayward will make the 2020-21 Hornets more competitive, potentially move their playoff window forward by a full season, and help turn Charlotte into a more attractive career destination for other players.

Hayward immediately becomes the best player on the Hornets roster. Period. Full stop. Casual NBA fans don’t realize how solid of a season he had last year with the Boston Celtics, his first mostly healthy campaign following his gruesome 2017 injury. Let’s compare his 2019-20 advanced stats to the rest of the Hornets Core Four as measured by Real Plus/Minus (RPM), Player Impact Estimate (PIE), and Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

2019-20 advanced stats

Gordon Hayward 2.1 13.2 18.1
Devonte' Graham 1.9 10.9 15.8
Terry Rozier -1.2 10.3 14.8
Miles Bridges -3.0 8.2 12.1
PJ Washington -0.6 8.3 12.4

Last year Hayward averaged a solid 17.5 points per game despite sharing the floor with three high-volume scorers in Jayson Tatum (23.4 PPG), Kemba Walker (20.4 PPG), and Jaylen Brown (20.3 PPG). Among that foursome Hayward had the highest field goal percentage at 50.0% and true shooting percentage at 59.5%. Jaylen Brown placed second in both categories at 48.1% and 58.3%, respectively. On a marquee team with four high-profile scorers, Gordon Hayward was the most efficient.

Second, the 6-foot-7 small forward registered a career-high 6.7 rebounds per game last year, eclipsing his previous high of 5.4 by a significant margin. Having an effective rebounder from the wing will be important for the Hornets who are seriously lacking on the boards.

Here’s how Yahoo! summarized Hayward’s excellent all-around season last year, “As a complement to Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, Hayward averaged 17.5 points (on 50/38/86 shooting splits), 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists in just 33.5 minutes over 52 games. No other player this century has averaged a 17-6-4 with so low a usage rate (21.1%), let alone so efficiently (59.5% true shooting).” (Hat tip to ATH member NCsports22 for referencing this in a previous post’s comments.)

Beyond the stats, Hayward will bring some much-needed versatility to a young, inexperienced Hornets team. His ability to get his own buckets and set up his teammates will relieve significant pressure from LaMelo Ball. It would’ve been brutal to throw a 19-year-old point guard on the floor after a compressed offseason with Devonte’ Graham (playing off the ball?), Miles Bridges (42.4% FG last year), PJ Washington (just 12.2 points in 30.2 MPG), and offensively limited Cody Zeller. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m optimistic about the Core Four plus LaMelo, but their collective flaws are glaring to any objective NBA observer. That’s not a playoff roster anytime soon. It just isn’t. Gordon Hayward will be the glue that holds this team together for the next two to three years as Charlotte begins competing for the postseason.

Let’s also give Mitch Kupchak another week or two to see what other moves may happen to fill out this roster. With the addition of LaMelo Ball, trade rumors are already swirling around Terry Rozier who is still owed $38.6 million over the next two seasons. Maybe Hayward’s presence helps attract a capable veteran or two on cheap, short-term deals. Let’s see what the final roster looks like before passing any final judgments.

Look, beggars can’t be choosers. All-Stars aren’t telling their agents to find a way to get them to Charlotte and they won’t until this underperforming franchise becomes a regular playoff team. The Hornets just signed a 30-year-old who can still produce at a borderline All-Star level. Let’s not wonder if he’ll be worth his salary in the final year of his deal. Let’s focus on the Hornets making the playoffs now while carving a path forward to be in the postseason for the next three to four years. That’s what will attract other free agents to Charlotte. That’s what the Hornets just did.

No parent wants to call their child ugly.

Signing Gordon Hayward makes the Charlotte Hornets a lot more attractive.