When Gordon Hayward was in the bubble, the idea that he was playing his final games for the Celtics didn’t cross his mind.
“I was focused on the task at hand,” he said Tuesday. “I missed my family, my wife was about to give birth . . . there were actually a lot of things that were going on that free agency wasn’t even in the back of my mind at all.”
Hayward missed much of Boston’s run through the playoffs because of injury. The Celtics were bounced by the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, and he finally had a chance to consider what was next. Would he opt into the final year of his contract or not?
“I certainly wasn’t thinking this could be the last go-round at all,” he said. “The circumstances of the bubble and where the NBA’s at right now, and where the world’s at with COVID, it was unlike any circumstance. So when free agency hit, when we got back, I was still just trying to figure out when the next season was going to start and make myself get to a point where I’m as healthy as I can be for the upcoming season.”
Ultimately, Hayward decided that upcoming season would be played elsewhere. On Tuesday, he discussed for the first time his decision to join the Charlotte Hornets in a sign-and-trade deal that granted the Celtics a massive trade exception.
Hayward will be reunited with ex-Celtic Terry Rozier, and take on a decidedly different role with his new team.
“I am now at that point in my career where I’m the veteran,” he said Tuesday.
The 30-year-old guard will be tasked with helping to bring along young players such as rookie LaMelo Ball, and try to help Charlotte win its first playoff series since the franchise joined the league as an expansion team in 2004.
And he’ll try to do it under the leadership of NBA legend and team owner Michael Jordan, who Hayward said reached out during free agency and emphasized how interested he was in bringing Hayward to North Carolina.
Jordan’s interest in Hayward isn’t new.
When Hayward was a restricted free agent with the Utah Jazz in 2014, the Hornets offered him a max contract to join the team. Hayward went as far as signing the offer sheet, and the Jazz ultimately matched the offer and kept him in Salt Lake City for three more years, until he left as an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Celtics.
“I never forgot the commitment and potential, I think, that Michael and the organization saw in me years ago when they gave me an offer sheet,” Hayward said. “That was always one thing in the back of my mind.”
Hayward said as conversations with the Hornets front office and head coach James Borrego continued, he better understood why Charlotte would be a good fit.
“The vision that the organization had . . . of where this team could go, where they could get to, how they believe they could utilize me, where I fit in to all of that, and the impact that they believe I can have and kind of 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,” he said.
His agent was tasked with finding a way to work out a sign-and-trade deal. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said earlier Tuesday that Boston was in contact with a number of teams about working out a deal. He acknowledged that Hayward might leave, in part, because his role had changed so much from what the team had envisioned when he signed back in 2017.
“Although there were lots of conversations with lots of teams for sign-and-trade opportunities, it was one of those things where my agent was working on those,” Hayward said. “I just told him: ‘Let’s do this thing in Charlotte. Let’s get this done.’ ”