As expected, Gordon Hayward made his highly anticipated free agency decision on July 4th. However, while many believed he would return to the Utah Jazz – where he developed into an All-Star and led the franchise back to the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2009-10 – he announced his decision to join the Boston Celtics with a 2,142 word article on The Players' Tribune. According to Shams Charania of Yahoo! Sports, Hayward will sign a four year deal with the Celtics worth a total of $128 million with a player option included.
The announcement didn't come without some controversy. ESPN's Chris Haynes was the first to spread word that Hayward planned to sign with the Celtics with a tweet at 2:17 PM EST on Tuesday. His report was quickly shot down by Hayward's agent, though, who told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski 15 minutes later that Hayward hadn't made a decision and that they were "still working through it." Then came the reports that Hayward was upset and "re-evaluating everything" – Hayward had reportedly changed his mind four times in four days – before he shared his Players' Tribune article at 7:48 PM EST titled, "Thank You, Utah."
The reaction was swift. Jazz fans burned Hayward's old jersey, while former Jazz players mocked the franchise for losing its star player, and current ones threw Twitter shade at their former teammate for leaving.
It's understandable that Jazz fans and players are upset with Hayward's decision. After rebuilding for several seasons, they finally broke through in 2016-17 with 51 wins and the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Even with injuries to Rudy Gobert, George Hill, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks throughout the regular season and playoffs, they took down the Los Angeles Clippers in a hard-fought opening round series before getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the next round. The Jazz had some big decisions to make this offseason with Hayward and Hill entering free agency, but their best days were almost certainly ahead of them as long as Hayward returned.
On the other side of the coin, it also makes sense that Hayward would choose the Celtics over the Jazz at this stage of his career. Beyond the obvious of having an opportunity to play for his former college coach Brad Stevens, Hayward is joining a team fresh off of 53 wins and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. It remains to be seen how he fits in with a ball-dominant player like Isaiah Thomas, yet he has all the tools to complement him and help the Celtics improve in ways that could close the gap between them and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If the ultimate goal is for Hayward to win a championship, the Celtics can offer him a much easier road to the NBA Finals. While Hayward will have to go through the Cavaliers or Warriors either way, the mass exodus of Eastern Conference All-Stars this offseason means he has a much easier path to the NBA Finals by leaving the Western Conference. In fact, the Eastern Conference will be home to only eight of the top 30 players next season, according to FiveThirtyEight, which will mark the lowest mark for a conference in the modern era. The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors will be looking to improve on last season's success to compete for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Cavaliers, but neither of them have made an upgrade to their roster this offseason as significant as Hayward.
Throw in the role players and draft picks the Celtics still have, and it makes them an enticing destination for any free agent since the team is built to compete next season and long beyond that. As Sean Deveney of Sporting News explained, it's part of the reason why the days of the Celtics struggling to sign free agents appear to be over with.
Whether or not that does eventually lead to a championship for Hayward in Boston remains to be seen. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge still has some more work to do to surround Thomas, Hayward and Al Horford with the talent they need to take down both the Cavaliers and Warriors. Perhaps that player is already on their roster – Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum certainly have the potential to become big-time contributors in the future – but it'll likely take a leap of faith sometime over the next couple of seasons for them to get to that stage.
Either way, Hayward's decision to leave the Jazz for the Celtics levels the playing field ever-so-slightly in the NBA by removing one All-Star in the prime of his career from the highly competitive Western Conference and placing him on arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference. It might not affect the Warriors directly, but it will prevent the Cavaliers from being a shoo-in for the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row, which should bring back some excitement following a season that was basically preordained.