How Gordon Hayward ended up with Charlotte — and not home in Indy

After Celtics president Danny Ainge was unwilling to make a trade, Michael Jordan and the Hornets made an offer Hayward couldn't refuse.

In the end, Danny Ainge didn’t want to play ball. That’s what it comes down to.

For a few weeks leading up to free agency, Brownsburg native Gordon Hayward had signaled his preference to play for the Pacers, though he had not ruled out a return to Boston.

The Pacers were made aware of his interest level and understood a sign-and-trade, just like they executed the previous year with Milwaukee to acquire Malcolm Brogdon, would be necessary to get it done. They were already over the cap (~$125 million) and had 12 players under contract, so it would take cooperation from the Celtics

But first, they had to determine what it would mean for the roster and whether it was worth it. Hayward would fit in seamlessly on the wing, adding reliable shooting and passing. He’s a leader by his actions, not by his voice.

Already, the Pacers were paying four players $18 million or more per season: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo. As Sabonis blossomed into an All-Star, Turner’s role within the offense had diminished. Several teams have been interested in acquiring Turner over the last few years, but the Pacers had said no.

For more than a year, a deal with the Celtics had made sense. The Pacers had three centers and the Celtics, who swept the Pacers in Round 1 of the 2019 playoffs, had too many wings. Here was their chance for a deal that was mutually beneficial.

Hayward was three steps ahead in considering his own free agency. Having a $34.1 million player option was remarkable and something he could not take for granted. But he also considered what it might look like in the upcoming shortened season, scheduled for 72 games and who knows how much money may end up in escrow due to a loss in league revenue.

Just over three years ago, he went through a similar free agent process while in Utah. NBA reporters will never forget that Fourth of July when Hayward chose to move on and join the Celtics. The next day, he wrote about his decision on The Players’ Tribune.

There were no visits like he had to Miami and Boston last time, no sales pitches. He was familiar with the Hornets because he signed an offer sheet with them in 2014, which the Jazz then matched: four years, $63 million. The Jazz, who selected him ninth overall in 2010, one spot ahead of Paul George, had his Bird rights but chose not to offer him a five-year extension.

So in July, 2017, a year earlier than expected, Hayward was an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

Coincidentally, current Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan was named Hornets assistant GM in 2014, about a week after they originally signed Hayward to an offer sheet

Hayward was willing to sacrifice money in the short term to have a long-term deal in place, league sources said. And he and his family preferred for that to be in Indy. They had purchased a home in the area over a year ago and sold their former summer home in San Diego.

Multiple sources said his wife was excited and hopeful about the possibility of being in Indy and for their kids being able to attend a specific school. They’re both from Indy, too, so they have tremendous support there. As Hayward has dealt with several injuries in recent years, he’s continued working with doctors and trainers locally at St. Vincent.

A hometown kid wanting to be here would mean a lot. Pacers fans are eager for that feeling, for a star player to hug them back.

At 30, married and with four kids, Hayward mostly keeps to himself but has a tight circle of friends. One of the problems with Indy products before him to play for the Pacers, like George Hill and Jeff Teague, is that they were overwhelmed with “friends” coming out of the woodwork with requests. For a car payment, new shoes, help with student loans, autographs and of course, game tickets.

Free agency officially began at 6:00 p.m. ET last Friday and by the end of the day, nothing substantial had come from trade talks. At 12:34 a.m., I tweeted “You can go to bed. I’m told nothing more will come tonight.” It was clear then that Hayward wasn’t in the cards for the Pacers.

Larry Bird semi-retired in 2017, but he’s still on the Pacers’ payroll as an advisor, so you wonder if he called up Ainge, his former Celtics teammate in the ‘80s, for a chat. That’s unknown, but isn’t it fun to think about?

The Celtics evidently didn’t think highly enough of Turner, a potential All-Star, and demanded multiple starters. That makes no sense for the Pacers, especially with the Celtics on the verge of losing Hayward, yet another player in free agency for nothing. A reasonable deal for the Pacers was Turner and Doug McDermott, or something like Turner, Aaron Holiday and TJ Leaf.

The Hornets, meanwhile, were one of three teams with considerable cap space, along with the Hawks and Knicks, though neither of them were serious threats. It was on Friday night when Hayward’s phone lit up, according to a league source, and Hall of Famer (and Hornets owner) Michael Jordan was on the other line.

He wanted to close on Hayward.

The Hornets, who won 23 games last season, have missed the postseason in each of the last four seasons and haven’t won a playoff series since 2002; Hayward wasn’t even a teenager then.

Indiana sports fans were in front of their TVs around noon on Saturday for college football. No. 9 Indiana had kicked off its game against No. 3 Ohio State. The Pacers and Celtics remained far apart, so Hayward finalized his decision.

A half hour later, an agreement had been reached. It was a mega contract, an average of $30 million over the next four years, and Hayward had called the Celtics on their bluff.

With $120 million fully guaranteed, MJ and the Hornets had raised their offer and were all-in for the next four years.

Much like the Pacers — and this deal was about $15 million more than they were willing to go, per source — the Hornets had to consider their recent success and ability to attract free agents. Both operating in smaller markets, it just doesn’t happen. Hayward would have instantly become the best free agent to choose the Pacers.

Hayward’s previous contract had timed out just right. It gave him the flexibility to opt out this summer and be the best available free agent. His time with Boston didn’t go how anyone could have predicted (or wanted), and he now goes from being the fourth option to The Guy in Charlotte.

It reunites him with former Butler teammate Ronald Nored, a Hornets assistant on James Borrego’s staff. He’ll likely instantly connect with fellow Indiana native Cody Zeller, whose brother Tyler beat out Hayward for the coveted Indiana Mr. Basketball award in 2008. And he can help guide rookie LaMelo Ball while also taking some of the pressure off of him.

In turn, the Pacers will run it back with mostly the same team as last year, only this time hoping for better health. Free agent Justin Holiday agreed to a new three-year contract and they brought back JaKarr Sampson on a one-year deal.

There’s also a new coaching staff and Nate Bjorkgren’s excited to put his stamp on the team. Faster pace, more 3-point shooting, more off-ball movements and actions.

Oladipo is as healthy as he’s been in two years, but two key questions remain: What will he look like and does he want to play for the Pacers? He doesn’t have much choice until next summer, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time at 29 years old.

This mega contract moves Hayward’s career earning north of $271 million. That’s an incredible career for the scrawny kid out of Brownsburg with a bowl cut who stayed home to play for Butler. And he’ll be a free agent again at 34, likely able to play at least a few more seasons.

He’s not a brand guy; he’s a hooper. So it’s no surprise that on Sunday, 24 hours after coming to terms with the Hornets on a new deal, Hayward was at an Indianapolis-area gym for his daily workout.

The Pacers and Hayward needed a matchmaker, but it never happened.