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Gordon Hayward gamble worth the risk for Charlotte Hornets

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

The Charlotte Hornets have swung for the fences with Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent who agreed to sign a four-year, $63-million offer sheet with the team on Thursday.

Hayward was in Charlotte for a recruiting visit Monday and Tuesday, and everything went beautifully. The Hornets displayed his picture outside on the marquee of their arena and inside on every TV screen in the place. That nice touch – and that $63 million – helped seal the deal. The Utah Jazz can unseal it in the next 72 hours by matching the deal, which I fully expect them to do.

So likely all of this is moot. But is Hayward really worth the “max contract” the Hornets have offered him? Yes and no.

The Hornets offered him all they could under NBA rules because that is the only way they can possibly expect to wrest him away from Utah (which, with forward Marvin Williams also drawing Charlotte’s interest, is in danger of turning into the Hornets’ Triple-A team).

If Utah matches, the Hornets will strike out instead of hit a home run. A sign-and-trade is also a possibility. But this obvious overpayment to Hayward is about the only way in the NBA that you can get a guy who averaged 16 points, five assists and five rebounds last season and is healthy and only 24 years old.

I like the gamble. If the Jazz doesn’t match – and Utah is reportedly $30 million under the salary cap, with far more room to maneuver than Charlotte – then Hayward will make more than Al Jefferson and everyone else on the Hornets, and he obviously would not be Charlotte’s best player. That would be either Jefferson or point guard Kemba Walker, and Walker is going to command a similarly huge contract at some point.

But Jefferson and Walker truly want to win, and this is how you do it. You sign a guy like Hayward instead of a loose cannon like Lance Stephenson. You play Hayward more at shooting guard – he can do either that or small forward, but if he plays shooting guard you can use Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s defensive prowess more effectively. Hayward becomes more of a scoring threat immediately than Gerald Henderson is from outside, which gives Jefferson (who Hayward knows how to play with, having done so in Utah) more room inside.

Isn’t it interesting, by the way, how the tenor of the criticism for the Hornets has changed? Once, people said Michael Jordan was cheap. No one can say that anymore. Now they just say he’s giving the wrong guys too much money.

The Jazz has intimated all along it is going to match whatever Hayward gets. But remember Utah also apparently balked at paying Hayward $13 million a year at one point last season (Utah offered Hayward $12 million guaranteed in a four-year, $48 million deal). This contract will average $15.75 million per year.

And it is worth noting that of the 41 restricted free agents signed by other NBA teams since the 2005-06 season, only 17 of those were matched, with the other 24 players joining a new team.

If the Utah really wants to mess with the Hornets, it will hold Charlotte hostage for the maximum of three days starting Thursday morning when the NBA contract moratorium is lifted. And then Utah can say it will match the contract at the last minute – punishing Charlotte for making Utah pay $15 million more for Hayward over a four-year period than it wanted to.

That would hurt the Hornets in terms of trying to sign someone else, because almost all of their salary-cap freedom will be tied up with Hayward as of Thursday.

That’s OK. You have to roll the dice.

This is the way you do business in the NBA. The salaries never work out perfectly. Some guys will be underpaid and some guys overpaid on every roster.

You want your best player to make the most money, and your second-best player to make the second-most and so on, but that’s realistically not how it works.

Hayward is not a superstar, and this is superstar money.

But if you are the Hornets and you are going to get better, this is the sort of gamble you must take.

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