SALT LAKE CITY — Although Gordon Hayward’s decision to leave Utah caught the Jazz and many fans off guard, it didn’t shock one of his former teammates at all.
Trevor Booker, a fan favorite during his two seasons in Utah from 2014-16 and now with Brooklyn, heard whispers of Hayward wanting to play elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that he left,” Booker said in a HoopsHype.com podcast. “When I was there, I heard rumors. I don’t know how true they were, but I heard rumors about him wanting to leave.”
Days after Hayward announced his decision to leave Utah for Boston after seven years, there’s still some confusion and controversy about how the news was delivered — to the public and to the Jazz.
ESPN broke the news just after noon on the Fourth of July, but Hayward’s agent quickly refuted the report — even though multiple other reputable sports writers confirmed Chris Haynes’ initial report — and claimed that Hayward was still undecided.
Five and a half hours later, Hayward published a blog titled “Thank you, Utah” in which he expressed gratitude to the Jazz organization and community while admitting how excited he was to play in Beantown and play for his former college coach Brad Stevens.
“Boston picked up a tremendous player. Gordon can really play,” Booker said. “I still think he’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA; he can really hoop. But I wasn’t surprised to see him go. I was hoping that he stayed.”
Booker’s grapevine insight from the Jazz locker room is along the lines with a report Hoopscritic.com’s Brian Geltzeiler made a year ago, claiming that his Boston sources said Hayward was unhappy in Utah and wanted to be traded to Boston to reunite with his trusted mentor.
The premise of Geltzeiler’s report wasn’t accurate, multiple sources within the Jazz organization and close to Hayward told the Deseret News at the time.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey was asked if a disgruntled Hayward had demanded a trade and firmly said, “Unequivocally, no.”
If Hayward was indeed unhappy and wanted a trade, that info could have helped the Jazz make an informed decision to pursue a deal last year and try to get assets in return. As it stands, the Jazz are losing an All-Star, their leading scorer and their most skilled all-around player with nothing in return.
The Jazz have tried to work out a sign-and-trade deal with Boston — small forward Jae Crowder was the piece Utah wanted in return — but those talks stalled. It’s still possible the Jazz can get a $30 million traded player exception if Hayward and the Celtics agree to a sign-and-trade. That would allow the Jazz to use that much salary space to bring in free agents without being constrained by the salary cap.
Hayward is expected to formally sign his deal this weekend and be introduced in Boston, so time is running out on that front.
Booker remains a Jazz fan and was bummed to see Hayward bolt when things were headed in such a great direction for a franchise that went from 25 wins to 51 over the course of four seasons.
Booker offered an explanation that isn’t very flattering regarding Hayward’s competitive nature, especially considering he signed a four-year max deal with the Celtics.
“The Jazz were already legit and then with all of the players growing around him, they could have really made some noise,” Booker said. “But I’m not sure if he wanted, if he liked, being that star with all of the pressure on his shoulders. I think that might have had something to do with him going to Boston, where he can rely on Isaiah Thomas to take that pressure off of his shoulders.
“Isaiah is a superstar,” Booker continued. “Whereas in Utah, he’s (the franchise player) and playing in the Western Conference … it’s a little bit tougher.”
There remains speculation that Hayward chose to go to the Eastern Conference — bonus that it’s with his old college coach and in a place like Boston — because it presents an easier path for him to make the All-Star team again. With less competition than in the West, where the Warriors, multiple improved teams and a deeper stack of talented squads exist, Boston also presumably has an easier path to the NBA Finals aside from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Jazz continue to explore possible free-agent pickups and trades, but Booker believes they’ll be OK even if they remain how they are.
“Even with him going to Boston, Utah still has a nice core in Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors when he’s healthy,” Booker said. “And I really think that with Coach Q (Quin Snyder) and Dennis Lindsey at the top — two great guys who really know what they’re doing — they’ll bounce back from it.”
By the way, Booker would be all for returning to the Beehive State later in his career if that pans out. He still occasionally gets into humorous conversations with Gobert on Twitter, and even posted, "I like this Donovan Mitchell kid" during a recent Jazz summer league game. After Gobert retweeted him and said "Me too," Booker humorously retweeted Gobert and said, "I didn't ask you."
The 29-year-old power forward is set to make $9.1 million with the Nets in the final year of his two-year deal.
“Right now, I’m focused on Brooklyn and building something there,” Booker said. “If the opportunity ever came about I’d definitely love to play in Utah again. Their organization is great. The fans are great. My family and I loved it out there.”