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Randy Hollis: Gordon Hayward has a choice, and a chance to finish what he started in Utah

Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) brings the ball up court as the Jazz and the Thunder play at Vivint Smart Home arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.
Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) brings the ball up court as the Jazz and the Thunder play at Vivint Smart Home arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.
Scott G Winterton,

Much has been made out of how Celtics fans cheered for Utah star Gordon Hayward during pregame introductions in the Jazz's visit to Boston a couple of weeks ago.

The Celtics' current starting small forward, Jae Crowder, complained about it in the postgame locker room and on Twitter, telling reporters that "I heard the cheering before the game. I didn't like that at all. I think that was a sign of disrespect to me from the fans. That sparked a little fire in me. I just felt disrespected publicly."

Crowder went out and scored 21 points, matching his season high, in Boston's 115-104 victory over Utah that night.

Crowder's overly sensitive reaction was brought about by all those Hayward-to-the-Celtics rumors that have been out there for the last three-plus years, ever since Hayward's college coach, Brad Stevens, took over as the Celtics' head coach in 2013.

Over the last few months, the rumor mill has been working overtime because Hayward will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.

It's been well-documented that Hayward and Stevens have a wonderful relationship, a tight player-coach bond that blossomed during their days together at Butler University, where Hayward led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 2010. He then left school to enter the NBA draft, and the Jazz subsequently snatched him up with the ninth pick of the draft in June of that year.

Since then, Hayward has steadily improved his game each year, and his league-wide profile and reputation have grown accordingly. This season, he's putting up a career-best 22.1 points per game along with 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per night — solid, all-around, All-Star-level numbers that could possibly land him in next month's star-studded showcase, even though he missed seven games with a broken finger suffered during a preseason practice. It would be the first All-Star Game appearance of his seven-year NBA career.

But the question remains: Would Hayward be tempted to leave Utah after this season in favor of playing in Boston, where he'd be reunited with his college coach?

It's a legitimate concern that has a lot of Jazz fans worried.

However, it seems that the Jazz have a few things in their favor when the time comes for Hayward to make that big decision.

First and foremost, he wants to win, and this season the Jazz are doing that at their highest rate — they took a 25-16 record into Saturday night's game against Orlando — since the 2010-11 campaign.

This year, the up-and-coming Jazz appear well on their way toward claiming a playoff spot for the first time since 2012, and they're good enough to reach a No. 4 or 5 seed in the Western Conference and possibly win at least a first-round series.

Hayward, 26, is surrounded by a group of good, young players — center Rudy Gobert, power forward Derrick Favors, shooting guard Rodney Hood — who are growing together as teammates, and it seems the best is definitely yet to come for this group.

One of the biggest keys in keeping Hayward here might be if the team can re-sign point guard George Hill, who came to Utah in a trade last summer and will also be a free agent after this season.

It's still a fairly small sample size due to a series of injuries that Hill has endured this season, but when Hayward and Hill are healthy and on the court together, the Jazz are almost unbeatable.

And when it comes to coaching, Utah's third-year head coach Quin Snyder — who has actually been Hayward's coach longer than Stevens was -- seems to have a great relationship with his 6-foot-8 starting small forward.

Maybe Snyder won't ever be quite as close to Hayward as Stevens is, but I have a sense that the gap is closing. After all, the Jazz coach never shies away from heaping praise on the job Hayward has done in always continuing to work hard, striving to improve his ability on both ends of the floor and being a leader for his team.

Finally, of course, there's the almighty dollar. Like it or not, that's the thing that seems to drive most professional athletes.

Hayward's a classy young man, though, and that doesn't seem to be his top priority. But the bottom line is, Hayward's going to make a huge pile of money no matter where he plays. And nobody can pay him more money than Utah can.

According to published reports, one option might be for Hayward to sign a one-year deal to stay in Utah and, if he landed on the All-NBA team next season, he'd be eligible under the new collective bargaining agreement's "Designated Player" allowance to earn approximately $235 million over the next six years by staying in Utah.

Or, if he chooses to pass up the "Designated Player" opportunity and signs a multi-year deal after this season, he'd be eligible for a five-year, roughly $180 million deal from the Jazz, while the best contract other teams could offer him would be a four-year deal for $132 million. That fifth year, which would pay him around $41 million guaranteed, would certainly seem to tip the scales in Utah's favor.

Ultimately, though, the decision rests with Hayward. Will he choose to stay in Utah and try to finish what he started almost seven years ago, leading a young group of rising stars to a deep playoff run? Or will his ties to Stevens prove so strong that he'll choose to leave the Beehive State and relocate in Boston?

There were a couple other Jazz stars, guys named John Stockton and Karl Malone, who faced a similar decision way back when. Thankfully, they chose to stay here for the long haul and kept working toward their goal of bringing an NBA championship to Utah.

Sure, they barely fell short, falling in the Finals twice. But their loyalty to the franchise can never be questioned.

And their honored place in Jazz lore will always be safe and secure.

Someday, hopefully, Hayward will have his chance to follow suit and join "The Statues" in his rightful place among the franchise's all-time greats.

But that will only happen if he decides to stay here.