So the reasons were simple: Gordon Hayward wanted a bigger role. He wanted to be more needed in his team’s quest to win. He wanted to be a significant part of his franchise’s ascension.
Those roles weren’t going to change in Boston. He was going to remain the fourth or even the fifth (if you include Marcus Smart) in the Celtics’ offense. Because of the rise of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and the presence of Kemba Walker, Hayward was going to be a complementary player as long as he remained in Boston.
Even he wouldn’t consider a conversation with Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge that began, “I need as many shots as Jayson.”
With his role unchanged if he remained in Boston, Hayward was buoyed by Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who made an offer to Hayward as a restricted free agent six years ago that the Utah Jazz matched. This time the Hornets offered $120 million over four years and Hayward decided North Carolina was the place to be.
Hayward’s first official address to the media as a member of the Hornets was spent explaining his thought process over the past two weeks and it became abundantly clear he wanted more than he had in Boston.
“I still view myself in the prime of my career,” he said Tuesday. “The situation that I was in in Boston, we had a lot of great players. We had a great team, so I was in a different role prior to the injury and tried to make the most of that. Statistically my agent [Mark Bartelstein] would tell you I had a better year efficiency wise than I did my last year in Utah. I think I’m still more than capable of being that player and want to be that player. I’m just excited for this new opportunity.”
Is Hayward the same player he was prior to his catastrophic injury in 2017? Most observers say absolutely not. He disagrees. The Celtics were never going to expand his role with that belief. Perhaps that’s why Hayward left.
“I think he just wanted to be involved in the offense more, having the ball in his hands, dribble and pass and participate in the offense more,” Ainge said. “Listen I’ve had a lot of players come through here. I wanted to have a more featured role, too. We have some good players. That’s not any knock on Gordon. I’m grateful Gordon chose Boston [in 2017]. He’s a terrific player.”
Terrific enough to be the fourth option. Nothing more than that, hence the reason for the breakup. Hayward found an organization that was desperate for his services, desperate to feature a former All-Star who will be a leader by example. He is 11 years older than lottery pick LaMelo Ball. He might as well be “Uncle Gordon” in that locker room.
But he was ready for a bigger responsibility. Hayward wanted to still be the sparkle in someone else’s eye. That was no longer the case with the Celtics.
“I never forgot the commitment and the potential I think that Michael [Jordan] and the organization saw in me years ago when they gave me an offer sheet,” he said. “Just the vision that the organization had, the front office as well as coach [James] Borrego, of where this team could go, where they could get to, how they believed they could utilize me, being able to maximize my impact on winning and helping this team get to that next level was really enticing and really powerful and something I want to be a part of.”
And isn’t that what free agency is all about? Finding the team that flatters you the most, makes you feel like you are wanted and, more importantly, needed?
“I just think that after speaking with family and with my agent and speaking with the Hornets organization and hearing more and more about their vision and where they see this team going and it was really powerful,” he said. “I decided to just opt out and go for it.”
Hayward said he wasn’t angry at Boston for the circumstances. It was beyond the organization’s control. Tatum developed into an All-Star. Brown is right behind him. Walker came because the Hornets wouldn’t pay him. And while all this was happening, Hayward was mentally trying to regain his prowess and physically trying to re-trust himself. He now trusts himself fully, which is why he opted out of the $34.2 million option on his Celtic contract.
“When free agency hit, it all happened extremely fast; tough decisions were definitely made,” he said. “There’s no ill will on my end [for] anybody in the Boston organization, players. I had an unbelievable time in Boston. It’s unfortunate what happened. I obviously had a freak injury right when I got there and there were a lot of things out of my control when I was in Boston. I had a great time there.
“No doubt about it, it was a tough decision to leave Boston. A place where we were a really good team and right there on the cusp of it. There was something here I wanted to maximize my potential to help our team win.”
It was time for Hayward to move on. Was it the right move? Financially, yes.
On the floor, Hayward is betting on himself to reemerge as an All-Star caliber player. That will be the biggest challenge of his career.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.