Gordon Hayward says he feels no “ill-will” toward the Boston Celtics after deciding to opt out of the final year of his deal and agree to a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
“Tough decisions were certainly made,” Hayward said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “There’s no ill-will on my end from anybody within the Boston organization, the players. I had an unbelievable time in Boston and I think that it’s unfortunate what happened, I obviously had a freak injury right when I got there. And there’s a lot of things that were kind of out of my control of when I was in Boston. But I had a great time there and still have great relationships with the people there and some of the players there. And my teammates and coaches and my wife and I had built relationships with members of the community that we live in and to this day we talk to them … there’s no ill will on my end and I really loved my time in Boston.
“Certainly couldn’t be more excited about where I’m at now. And looking forward to this next chapter.”
Hayward, 30, spent the past three seasons with the Celtics, but his tenure will be marked by the freak injury suffered in his regular-season debut in 2017. Hayward, who was expected to help lead the Celtics back to the NBA Finals, suffered a season-ending broken and dislocated left ankle. After struggling to find a rhythm throughout the 2018-19 campaign, he started to look like his old self at times last season, averaging 17.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 52 regular-season games.
He acknowledged that as he worked his way back from a separate ankle injury during the Celtics’ postseason run in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, he wasn’t thinking about whether his time with Boston was ending.
The quickness of both his Celtics departure, and Hornets arrival, surprised him.
“Honestly, when you’re in the bubble, I was focused on the task at hand,” Hayward said. “I missed my family, my wife was about to give birth, there was actually a lot of things that were going on — free agency wasn’t even in the back of my mind at all. And then when I get hurt, I’m just trying to get myself better as fast as I can so I can try to come back and see what I can do to try to help us. So certainly wasn’t thinking that this could be the last go-around at all. I think just the circumstances of the bubble and just where the NBA’s at right now, and where the world’s at with COVID, it was unlike any other circumstance.”
The decision to agree to terms with the Hornets actually was the second time Hayward has done so in his career. He signed a four-year, $63 million offer sheet with the Hornets in the summer of 2014, which eventually was matched by the Utah Jazz. Hayward noted that the belief that Hornets owner Michael Jordan has always had in his game meant a lot.
“I never forgot the commitment and the potential I think that Michael and the organization saw in me years ago,” Hayward said. “When they gave me an offer sheet and I had signed that to come here back then and then ultimately that got matched. And so for sure that was always one thing that was in the back of my mind.”
Hornets president of basketball operations/general manager Mitch Kupchak said that Jordan was “very involved” in the process of landing Hayward, including several phone calls to the former All-Star.
“I think I did a video conference with him on that visit [in 2014] and any time you talk to Michael Jordan, there’s a little bit of that star-struck [feeling],” he said. “I remember watching him growing up. I think I asked him back then if Reggie [Miller] fouled him when he pushed off and hit the shot against them [in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals] when Reggie was on the Pacers in the playoffs there.
“[Jordan’s] one of the greatest players to ever play if not the greatest to ever play, so I think everyone feels that a little bit. I never forgot that and so this second go-around he actually mentioned it as well when I talked and then when he had texted me a little bit that he’s wanted me for years now. I think it was something where the more and conversations that we had, that I had with the coaching staff, with some of the front office guys … although there were conversations with lots of teams for sign-and-trade opportunities, it was one of those things where my agent was kind of working on those and I kind of just told him let’s do this thing in Charlotte, let’s get this thing done.”
Kupchak said he was surprised that Hayward chose not to exercise his $34.2 million player option with the Celtics, and that the Hornets were in position to land him despite competition from several teams. Kupchak said on the morning of Hayward’s decision, he did not “feel great,” about the team’s chances to actually land Hayward, but he was pleasantly surprised with the result.
“He’s a bona fide starter in this league,” Kupchak said. “And we’re happy to add not only him at a position where we feel there’s a great need which is a true wing, but we’re also excited to have his leadership and stability in the locker room. Regarding his injury history, everybody knows he had a devastating injury three years ago. He passed our physical with flying colors. Last year it looked like he was rounding back into shape and was on his way to having a typical Gordon Hayward year when he sprained his ankle, which he’s 100 percent healed from now … based on our recent physical and access to medical records and talking to the experts that did the surgery, there’s no reason to believe, knock on wood, that he won’t be healthy here for the next four years.”
When pressed on the idea that the Hornets needed Hayward to be more than just a “starter” after that kind of investment, Kupchak said he believed Hayward could get back to his All-Star form.
“I still think he can make an All-Star team,” Kupchak said. “He’s 30 years old, and I believe it might not be a fair comparison but I think Jimmy Butler was 31 when Miami brought him on board and I think Jimmy had a pretty good year. I think the best years for an NBA player, when their mind catches up to their body is between the ages of 28 and 32. So I think he still has at least two solid, maybe three really solid years where he can play at a high level. Now, whether he makes the All-Star team or not, I don’t know. Do we need him to average 25 or 27 points for this team? No, we do not need that. We need the stability in the locker room. We need what he brings to us at that position. Not only scoring but facilitating an offense. And what does that translate into? I don’t know, 17 points, 19 points, 6 rebounds? I don’t know. But to add a player like that to this young group we just felt that was the move in the right direction.”
Hornets coach James Borrego said he believes Hayward’s decision to sign with the team had to do with more than just money.
“This is not something where we threw out a number and raised our hand and he committed to us,” Borrego said. “That’s not how this thing unfolded. Gordon had to make a decision if this is a place that he believed in, that he wanted to grow with, was this a place he saw himself finishing his career at? This city, this organization. And obviously, he chose us.”
Despite skepticism by some around the league regarding the price tag and Hayward’s ability to stay healthy and produce at the same high level, Hayward is confident his play will do the talking.
“I still view myself in the prime of my career,” Hayward said. “I think that there’s a lot of talk — I’m actually somebody that doesn’t look or read at any of the media or anything so I actually haven’t really heard any of the criticism. I’ve always just kind of focused on myself and try to make myself a better player. And certainly the situation that I was in in Boston, we had a lot of great players, and we had a great team and so I was kind of in a different role than I was prior to the injury. And tried to make the most of that and I think statistically my agent [Mark Bartelstein] would tell you that I had a better year efficiency-wise than I did my last year when I was in Utah.
“And so I think I’m still more than capable of being that player and want to be that player. I think I’m just excited for this new opportunity, this new challenge in my career. I still firmly believe that I’m in the prime of my career. I think it’s going to be a great challenge. Certainly there’s going to be ups and downs as there are no matter where you’re at with basketball, but I’m looking forward to being here in Charlotte and being with the new coaching staff and new players and kind of getting it going.”