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The Jazz Messenger

The locals love ’em, the front office has labored to put ’em together, but could this be the first and last we’re seeing of this Utah team? With Golden State on the horizon, playoff excitement and offseason nerves are in abundance in Salt Lake, and it’s all focused on one man: All-Star free agent–to-be Gordon Hayward.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Quin Snyder smirked. It wasn’t a mean smirk. It wasn’t dismissive. It wasn’t meant to brush back the reporter or call out something that seemed absurd. That happens now and then, and rightly so in certain situations, but this wasn’t that. The question was asked throughout the series — quite a few times by quite a few people. Snyder’s response was subtle. He appeared more reflective than anything.

Before the Jazz killed off the Clippers in Game 7 on Sunday in Los Angeles, before Utah won its first playoff series in seven seasons — thereby setting up the Jazz as the next sacrifice to the Golden State Gods — Snyder called his squad “green.” He noted that they were one of the youngest teams in the league last season, and aside from adding George Hill, Boris Diaw, and Joe Johnson in the summer, they remained so. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks were the only holdovers from the last time the Jazz reached the playoffs, five years ago. That series hardly went well. They got swept by San Antonio.

Green fit. Green made sense. But you say something like that and it becomes catnip for reporters to roll around in and play with for a while. After Game 7 — a dominant outing the Jazz led for all but 33 seconds — Snyder was asked about the green thing once more. And, once more, he answered.

“We don’t have to prove that we’re not young and inexperienced,” Snyder said. “We are. There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe that can be an advantage in some way.”

He called the Clippers series a “growth opportunity.” If that was true of the entire team, it was especially true for one player in particular. “You see a guy like Gordon,” Snyder said, “and I don’t think the moment is too big for him.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Aside from a nasty bout of food poisoning that kept him out for much of Game 4, Hayward acquitted himself well in the first round. He had a slow shooting start — he made just 12 of his first 33 attempts to begin the series — but got rolling thereafter. His stats in the six games where he wasn’t felled by food were fantastic: 27.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 47.3 percent from the floor, 45.7 percent from 3-point range, and 95.6 percent from the line. It was the kind of performance that makes Hayward harder to hate, even for detractors who love to preemptively LOL about a new contract he hasn’t even signed yet. Impending free agency means proving yourself now as indemnification for later.

Hayward’s effort was a continuation of his regular season. He had his best year as a pro by nearly any metric. Hayward averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while making 47.1 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers (on a healthy 5.1 attempts per game). He made a massive jump in his efficiency, too. Hayward had career highs in PER (22.2, up from 18.3 the year before) and true shooting percentage (59.5, up from 55.9 the year before).

During the series, Doc Rivers and Chris Paul conceded how good Hayward was against them. Rivers called him a great player and revealed: “I’ve had a man crush on him for three years now.” Paul admired Hayward’s athleticism and singled out his tough rebounds and slick passes. They also both referred to Hayward as “Haywood” more than once. Which was probably a slip of the tongue and not a tacit dig. (Probably.) Either way, it was good for a laugh, though the last and most important one went to Hayward.

“It means a lot,” Hayward said about advancing. “It definitely means a lot. We’ve been through some pretty hard downs. The community has stuck with us. It definitely feels really good to go from 25 wins [three years ago] to where we were this year — making the playoffs, winning a series. I know Salt Lake has been blessed with just a tradition of playoff success. For them to stick with me and stick with [Favors], and ride it out, it means a lot.”

If you ask people around Hayward, they’ll draw a straight line from the past offseason, through his improved stats and his first All-Star appearance this season, to the current playoff push. How Hayward spent last summer has become the stuff of legend in Utah.

“He walked into the coaching staff and training crew [offices] and said, ‘This is not acceptable,’” Jazz radio play-by-play announcer David Locke told me in our on-court interview prior to Game 3. “‘I’m not good enough. We’ve got to redo everything. My training program. I’m staying here.’ He was in at 7 a.m. every morning. For a little while they went to 8 a.m. and he said, ‘Nope, I want 7.’”

More weights. More agility drills. Swimming on Wednesdays, boxing on Fridays. He punished himself — then went off to Newport Beach for a week to do the same with fellow workout maniac Kobe Bryant. Locke insisted that’s the main misconception about Hayward, that people “look at him and see Opie” when he’s something else entirely. Skeptics remember Hayward as the kid who hardly reacted when Delonte West gave him a wet willy rather than seeing him as the man who wrestled Chris Paul in the basketball equivalent of a loser-leaves-town match.

“I think that’s something where adrenaline takes over,” Hayward said following Game 5 about the incident with Paul. “There’s just something in basketball where, when there’s a little scrum like that, you want to make sure you get the ball and you come out with the ball. He wants to take it from you, so I just didn’t let him. It’s just competitive adrenaline.”

Hayward sort of shrugged it off, like it was no big deal. Competition is just something that happens on the basketball court. Tennis courts, too, evidently. Last summer, a friend of Hayward’s held a tennis tournament to benefit Type 1 diabetes research. Hayward played high school tennis. His buddy enlisted him to help out. When he showed up, Hayward asked if he could play. His friend thought he meant in the charity tournament. Hayward meant in the main event — a 4.5-rated men’s group.

“Can you imagine if you were the local guy and you look on the bracket and you see Gordon Hayward?” Locke said. “‘That’s funny, there’s a Jazz player with that name.’ And you show up and it’s the Jazz player with that name.”

Hayward hadn’t played for a while. He was rusty. Didn’t matter. He won the tournament, anyway.

Those are the sorts of stories you hear about Hayward in Utah. Those are the sorts of stories locals love to tell — and hope to keep telling. Which is probably why they’ve seemed so worried lately.

Gordon Hayward is expected to exercise the option in his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Even after beating the Clippers, that remains the case. Jazz fans have been a bit on edge about it. They’re fully aware that Hayward is in line for a max contract — and that Utah won’t be the only team willing to write him a fat check.

Among other suitors, there have been reports that the Boston Celtics will “go hard after him” in the offseason. Paul George would reportedly “love to play with [him]” (though who knows what will happen in Indiana with Larry Bird stepping aside). There have been “whispers” that Pat Riley and the Heat want Hayward. It wouldn’t be surprising if Magic Johnson attempts to lure him to the Lakers, and if the Clippers decide to reconfigure their core and free up some funds, he’d make sense there, too. You can pretty much expect Hayward to top the list of every organization with max money to offer.

All this speculation means there’s not an unchewed fingernail in all of Salt Lake City. In early April, one frightened fan started a GoFundMe to subsidize a desperate billboard.

(The Salt Lake Tribune)
(The Salt Lake Tribune)

It was hard for Hayward not to notice. “I have seen the billboard stuff,” Hayward said. “It’s pretty amazing. I think it’s really cool.”

Before the first-round series shifted to Utah, Chris Paul called Jazz fans “homers” (and then got in an argument with a reporter about what that meant, as only Paul and the media might do). He said it was a compliment, but even if he wasn’t, Jazz fans were all too happy to lean into it.

They are homers. It’s part of their charm. They’re delighted to toss up a billboard if it will help, or go to more extreme lengths when required. Prior to Game 3 at Vivint Smart Home Arena — the team’s first home playoff game in five years — the Jazz offered free haircuts to fans. The catch: Those haircuts had to be of the Rudy Gobert or Gordon Hayward variety.

When I surveyed the stands before Game 3, it seemed like a lot more people ordered The Hayward. Fanboys with fresh haircuts just like his. Shaved on the sides and back. Longer on top, and slicked back at an angle with what must have been scientifically engineered Brylcreem with industrial-strength hold. It was like attending a Halloween party where everyone wore the same costume and the coif was the only prerequisite.

At halftime of Game 3, two buddies with newly clipped Hayward hair stood in line at Cupbop. (That’s Korean BBQ in a bowl. While we’re on the topic, wouldn’t Bowlbop have been a better name? An opportunity missed.) They were excited about the evening’s event but nervous about the whole haircut thing and whether their sacrifice would be rewarded.

“I hope we didn’t do this for nothing,” one bro said to the other.

Hard to know if he was talking about that particular game, or the series, or the nagging uncertainty surrounding Hayward’s future. For now, let us imagine it was the latter. It will be interesting to see how these playoffs color Hayward’s perception of the organization and its chances of competing in the Western Conference moving forward. He would make more money by staying put, and it would hang a PR halo on his head. Re-signing with Utah would make him a local hero — third in the all-time line of succession to the Jazz throne behind only John Stockton and Karl Malone.

“If he stays, he can have whatever life he wants [after retiring],” David Locke said. “General manager. Head coach. TV. Radio. Financial adviser. Whatever he wants. Whatever he wants, he can have. What he gets in Miami or wherever, what he can get here, he cannot get anywhere else.”

If KD can leave OKC, and if LeBron can flee Cleveland — only to return a hero — then just about anything could happen with Hayward. For his part, he isn’t numb to the ongoing hard sell. He saw the billboard and noticed the haircuts and heard the sweet, if silly, chants of MVP. None of it is lost on him. “Of course it will have influence,” he said. “It’s nice to be loved.”

No doubt. But they’ve always loved him in Utah. They loved him the last time, too — and he still almost left.

In fairness, the situation was different three years ago. Hayward was a restricted free agent in 2014. Tyrone Corbin was still the head coach, and the Jazz weren’t very good. They limped to just 25 wins that season. Hayward looked around and, despite the magnificent vistas in Salt Lake City, found the view in Charlotte more appealing. He signed a four-year deal with the Hornets worth $63 million.

The Jazz matched, as expected, but at the time it felt a little like Hayward might have preferred if they hadn’t. Just consider the statement his agent, Mark Bartelstein, gave to ESPN back then:

Paraphrased: Oh man, MJ, Rich, Steve, the whole Hornets fam was so great to Gordon. He was suuuuuper excited about that. But cool, cool, back to Utah.

Hayward and the Jazz are in a much better place now, but it’s fair to wonder if some part of him might still want to shake free. The Jazz are young and talented. Pairing him with Rudy Gobert could make them competitive in the Western Conference for a long time, though that’s not necessarily the same thing as being contenders — not as long as any path out of the Western Conference goes through Golden State. If beating the Clippers represented a high-water mark of fuzzy feelings for Hayward and the Jazz this postseason, how much of those good vibrations will ebb if the Warriors smash them in the second round? How might that alter Hayward’s evaluation of the franchise and its prospects for future success?

George Hill and Derrick Favors (Getty Images)
George Hill and Derrick Favors (Getty Images)

There are further complications. George Hill will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer and command quite a bit more than the $8 million he made this season. Joe Ingles — who provided the Jazz with another shooter and ball handler against the Clippers and played heavy minutes — is a restricted free agent. He made $2.15 million this year. If the Jazz don’t give him a big pay raise, someone else will, at which point Utah might have to let him walk. (A brief aside: When Ingles didn’t respond to a question at one point in the series, Hayward elbowed him as a cue to reply. “They don’t understand what I’m saying anyway,” Ingles quipped. He’s Australian.)

Down the line, Derrick Favors will become a free agent in the summer of 2018, and the Jazz will have to figure out what to do about Dante Exum, too. He’ll be a restricted free agent next offseason. Exum is still young, but he’s been alternately injured and disappointing as a professional. Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey is dealing with a lot of moving parts at the moment. They obviously want to bring back Hayward, but he’s unlikely to stay if there isn’t a commitment to putting a quality team in place. That would be expensive, which might be a problem for the Jazz; Utah had the lowest payroll in the league this year.

As NBA markets go, it doesn’t get much smaller, which brings us to yet another factor for Hayward to consider. Salt Lake City features a beautiful backdrop of rivers and lakes and snow-capped mountains, but it is also not Miami. Or Los Angeles. Or even Boston. It’s hard to know how that would weigh on Gordon’s decision. He just turned 27 in March, and he’s married with two children.

“It’s easy here,” Locke said, starting a pitch that should be adopted by the Salt Lake City visitors’ bureau. “You’re playing for the Knicks, it’s not easy. L.A. — you want to live in Manhattan Beach and get to the Staples Center? It’s not easy. Joe Johnson came with his family and loved it. George Hill came with his family. Twenty-four-year-olds — maybe we don’t have what you’re looking for. Twenty-seven-year-olds, two kids — there actually might not be a better place in the NBA. Safe. Family is a priority. Kids are everywhere. Only game in town. You’re a rock star. You get treated brilliantly.”

It was a nice sentiment. Someone should shorten it up and slap it on a billboard.