Hornets make their pitch to Gordon Hayward

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJuly 8, 2014 

The Charlotte Hornets spent Monday and Tuesday hosting restricted Utah Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward, 24, in what amounted to an NBA-style recruiting visit.

This franchise traditionally has been low-key in recruiting free agents. However, Hayward’s visit, organized by general manager Rich Cho, was trumpeted with “Welcome Gordon Hayward family” messages on the marquee outside Time Warner Cable Arena and on video screens throughout the building.

The argument for the Hornets going all-in to sign Hayward:

He’s a multi-skill small forward who averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds last season.… At 6-foot-8, he has above-average height for his position, something Hornets coach Steve Clifford desires. … He has played three seasons in Utah with center Al Jefferson, the player through which the Hornets’ offense runs.

The argument against the Hornets going all-in to sign Hayward:

His field-goal percentage has fallen during each of his four NBA seasons, from 48.5 percent as a rookie to 41.3 percent last season. … Signing Hayward to an offer sheet (Thursday at the earliest) could tie up most of the Hornets’ cap room for as much as three days with the Jazz having the option to match. … Utah has a reported $30 million in cap space and Jazz officials have indicated they’d match any offer for Hayward.

Hayward’s recruitment was important enough that coach Steve Clifford left summer-league practice early Monday afternoon to attend a dinner with Hayward. Clifford also wasn’t at morning practice Tuesday when media was ushered into the practice gym.

Wing shooting and scoring appeared to be the Hornets’ top need when the 43-39 regular season ended in April. That was partially addressed in the draft when Charlotte got shooting guard P.J. Hairston. But adding a player like Hayward would upgrade a roster in which starters Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson don’t stretch defenses with their 3-point shooting.

So far free agency has not been kind to the Hornets; they lost veteran power forward Josh McRoberts to the Miami Heat on Monday. Though no veteran can sign a contract before the NBA moratorium ends Thursday, sources confirmed McRoberts has agreed to terms on a deal that would pay him about $23 million over the next four seasons.

Among the things the Hornets will lose in McRoberts – ball-handling and passing from the frontcourt – are Hayward strengths. His 5.2 assists per game ranked 26th among NBA players. Only three non-guards – LeBron James (6.4), Kevin Durant (5.5) and Joakim Noah (5.4) – averaged more assists last season.

Hayward, a former star at Butler, is capable of the occasional spectacular game. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder during January he scored 37 points with 13-of-16 shooting from the field and added 11 rebounds and seven assists. But he has clunkers, too: He scored seven points with 2-of-8 shooting in March against the Los Angeles Clippers (though he totaled 10 assists. ).

The fit

Hornets owner Michael Jordan said at a charity event last month he hopes the team signs another “superstar” to complement the signing of Jefferson last season. Hayward is no superstar, but he would provide some things the Hornets lack.

As good a defender as small forward Kidd-Gilchrist is, he’s no 3-point threat. He attempted 18 3s his first two NBA seasons, making three. The other alternative at small forward, former second-round pick Jeff Taylor, is rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered during January.

Hayward would need to be a starter, or at least play starter’s minutes, to justify the price it inevitably woiuld cost to sign him away from Utah. But Kidd-Gilchrist averaged only 24 minutes as a starter last season. Keeping his minutes at roughly that next season would let him defend more aggressively, without concern about foul trouble.

Clifford and Cho have said the Hornets’ offense will run “inside-out,” meaning the ball always should touch Jefferson’s hands in the lane on any non-fast break possession. Last season Jefferson averaged 22.5 points and 11.2 rebounds and was chosen third-team All-NBA.

The best way to help Jefferson score efficiently is surround him with shooters. Clifford often says your shooting is your spacing, as far as discouraging teams from double-teaming Jefferson.

Hayward mostly thrived in the three seasons he played with Jefferson in Salt Lake City before Jefferson left for Charlotte. Though his field-goal percentage slipped from 48.5 percent during that span to 43.5 percent, his scoring average rose each of those seasons from 5.4 points per game, to 11.8 to 14.1.

Jefferson and Hayward, by all accounts, collaborated well for the Jazz. Jefferson was expected to be part of the recruiting pitch the Hornets made to Hayward.

The cost

Hayward reportedly turned down a four-year, $48 million offer from the Jazz, so the Hornets acquiring him would be neither cheap nor fool-proof.

Jazz officials have indicated they’d match any team’s offer sheet. However, Hayward’s visits to Cleveland last week and Charlotte this week suggest the Jazz would have to be forced to hike Hayward’s salary beyond some undisclosed point.

The Hornets have a lot of cap space, at least about $15 million once the agreed-to trade with the Cavaliers eliminates $2 million for center Brendan Haywood from Charlotte’s books.

They will get additional cap relief once McRoberts signs with the Heat. However, they’ll likely need to sign another veteran big man in McRoberts’ absence and that’s not their only need; a veteran point guard to back up Kemba Walker is a must.

If the Hornets were to pay Hayward in excess of $12 million a season, as it seems they’d have to, they would be locked on him as their second-best player. It’s unlikely, assuming the Hornets retain Jefferson (who makes $13.5 million per season), they’d have much flexibility in the summer of 2015, when they’d also need to address Walker’s restricted free agency.

Under NBA rules, the maximum contract the Jazz could provide Hayward is $85 million over five years. Another NBA team could sign him for, at most, four years and $63 million.

The Hornets would have the cap flexibility to offer the max. But the Jazz, with about $30 million in cap space, has abundant flexibility to retain a young star.

Assuming Hayward wants to be here, the Hornets would have two options:

1. Approach the Jazz about a sign-and-trade, which would send assets like players or future draft picks to Salt Lake City to acquire Hayward.

2. Attack the Jazz with an offer sheet as soon as the NBA moratorium ends Thursday to test Utah’s willingness to match.

Either strategy gets expensive. The Jazz logically would get tough in a sign-and-trade negotiation, asking for multiple draft picks, young prospects and perhaps that the Hornets accept a bad veteran contract.

An offer sheet creates risk of overpaying for a non-superstar free agent and the strong possibility the Jazz match after tying up Hornets resources for as many as three days.

The history of this franchise is not encouraging regarding offer sheets. Since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004, they tried it twice with Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao and (then) Houston’s Carl Landry.

Both the Cavs and Rockets matched, making for moot exercises.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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