Charlotte Hornets

3 years too late for the Charlotte Hornets, All-Star Gordon Hayward finally heads East

Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward, who was courted by Charlotte in 2014, said Tuesday that he will sign with the Boston Celtics.
Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward, who was courted by Charlotte in 2014, said Tuesday that he will sign with the Boston Celtics. AP

All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward is finally heading East - just three years too late to do the Charlotte Hornets any good.

Hayward announced via the Players’ Tribune Tuesday evening that he plans to sign with the Boston Celtics, turning down pitches from the Miami Heat and the team that drafted him, the Utah Jazz. For the Jazz, which selected Hayward from Butler ninth overall in the 2010 draft, this is a huge loss.

Just as it was for the Hornets in July 2014, when the Jazz chose to match a $63 million offer sheet Hayward had signed to play in Charlotte as a restricted free agent. Hayward went on to average more than 19 points each of the next three seasons.

It was no surprise the Jazz matched that sheet, considering Hayward’s potential and versatility. Utah’s match made moot the most elaborate and public recruiting pitch in Charlotte NBA history. Later, it led to several events – both good and bad -- that had major bearing on the Hornets’ progression.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan said at a charity event that June that he aspired for the team to sign another “superstar” to complement the signing of center Al Jefferson the previous summer. With Jefferson and new coach Steve Clifford on board, the Hornets made just their second playoff appearance since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.

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TV screens throughout then-Time Warner Cable Arena welcomed restricted free agent Gordon Hayward in July 2014. JEFF WILLHELM jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Hayward’s skills – not just a scorer, but a playmaker for teammates – was precisely the player Clifford and general manager Rich Cho felt the Hornets needed to progress. When Hayward visited the second week of July, every piece of signage inside and outside of the uptown arena welcomed him and his family.

In researching Hayward, Cho discovered he is a huge fan of video games. So part of the Hornets’ presentation was on a video-game platform. Clifford cut out early from a practice to attend a dinner with Hayward before the team flew to Las Vegas for summer league.

Hayward was sufficiently impressed that he signed the Hornets’ offer sheet on July 9. Jazz management made sure to tell Salt Lake City media in advance that it would match any offer for Hayward, and made good on that promise within a few days. By not matching immediately, the Jazz held up the Hornets’ ability to offer its salary cap space to a Plan B player.

Plan B eventually became former Indiana Pacer Lance Stephenson. The Hornets met with Stephenson and his agent at the Aria Hotel and Casino, where the Hornets were staying in Las Vegas. Jordan was part of the group, and by early the next morning Stephenson and the Hornets agreed on a three-year, $27 million contract, the last season being a team option.

It was a risky move, based on Stephenson’s quirky personality. The prior spring, he famously blew in LeBron James’ ear, trying to distract him during a playoff series.

Stephenson’s time with the Hornets was short and anything but successful. He played 61 games, starting 25. His 3-point percentage that season – 17.1 percent – was strikingly dreadful.

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The Charlotte Hornets used all the arena signage they had in the summer of 2014 to recruit restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. JEFF WILLHELM jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Eleven months after signing him, Cho traded Stephenson to the Los Angeles Clippers, taking back guard Matt Barnes, who never played for the Hornets, and center Spencer Hawes. That trade defined addition by subtraction: Stephenson’s lack of productivity and Clifford’s struggle to find him a role hung over the Hornets’ locker room.

The Hornets were back to searching for a Hayward-like player. It took nine days for the Hornets to find their man – Nic Batum, then property of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Batum was coming off his worst NBA season, but his ability to both shoot and make plays for others was appealing. Cho and then-assistant general manager Chad Buchanan had both worked for the Trail Blazers, so they had plenty of background on Batum.

In return for shooting guard Gerald Henderson and power forward Noah Vonleh, the Hornets got Batum, who bounced back nicely in his first season in Charlotte. He averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists, as the Hornets went 48-34 in the regular season before a first-round playoff series loss to the Miami Heat.

Then, it became the Hornets’ problem to re-sign Batum in 2016. They met with him the first minute they could July 1 and didn’t leave until Batum agreed to a five-year, $120 million contract, the biggest in Charlotte NBA history.

Is Batum worth all that? It’s debatable, for sure. But the Hornets finally got their Hayward, or something resembling him.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell

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