Hornets massively overpaid for Gordon Hayward, but it’s not quite as bad as you think

Kristian Winfield, New York Daily News
·5 min read

On today’s episode of Good Idea, Bad Idea, we have the Charlotte Hornets, who overpaid to acquire veteran forward Gordon Hayward, then paid even more to clear cap space to sign him.

The Hornets agreed to terms on a four-year, $120 million deal with Hayward, but they did not have the cap space outright to sign him. What Charlotte did to create that space was one of the more questionable decisions of this early offseason: They waived Nicolas Batum, who is owed $27 million in the final year of his deal.

Why is that questionable?

When you waive a player, their salary doesn’t just miraculously clear from the payroll. When they chose to part ways with Batum right now, the Hornets had two options: assume $27 million worth of dead salary this season, or stretch that $27 million over three years, or $9 million a year through the course of the 2022-23 season.

Charlotte chose the latter, meaning an average of $30 million a year to acquire Hayward truly costs $39 million through the next three seasons. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a senescent offensive talent approaching the latter stretch of his prime years -- no matter good a fit he may be in Buzz City.

The Hornets had other options, and they may have explored them: They could have created cap space attaching a draft asset to Cody Zeller’s contract.

Zeller’s expiring deal worth $15 million this season is much more palatable than Batum’s albatross salary. He is a serviceable center, but serviceable centers are a dime a dozen.

Charlotte had another option: Clear space by moving Terry Rozier, who is owed close to $37 million over the next two seasons. Rozier’s role projects to diminish with the Hornets selecting LaMelo Ball No. 3 overall in this year’s draft, and the sudden rise of lightning-rod point guard Devonte’ Graham. Rozier, however, shot 40% on nearly seven three-point attempts per game. He has potential as a spot-up shooter to space the floor for Ball’s play-making despite his undersized frame.

Is there a positive to stretching Batum’s contract?

Aside from creating the cap space to sign Hayward, the Hornets now project to have somewhere between $7-8 million in newfound cap space to sign additional free agents, though the market has dried significantly with players signing contracts elsewhere. They will also have the room mid-level exception of a two-year deal worth roughly $10 million. That deal can be split among a number of players.

So $147 million to sign Gordon Hayward?

Like I said: a tough pill to swallow; questionable at best.

There aren’t that many players of Hayward’s height and shooting ability, and teams overpay for them all the time. The Philadelphia 76ers gave Tobias Harris five years, $180 million in a deal they probably wouldn’t hand out again.

But the Hornets are not the Sixers. They live on the short end of a separate pro sports reality: Certain small-market franchises will always have to overpay for high-level talent. Charlotte happens to have done this twice: First with what they thought was a high-level talent in Batum; second by shedding Batum’s salary to sign Hayward.

In the best possible case, the Hornets are doing something they failed to do in the Kemba Walker era.

In eight years in Charlotte, Walker’s best teammate was Al Jefferson, and the skilled big man only gave him one season of 20 and 10 numbers. From there, the Hornets tried and failed, miserably, surrounding their star guard with middling talent: Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams.

The Hornets just hit the most expensive double of the offseason

In the blink of an eye, Charlotte is more interesting than it’s ever been under Michael Jordan.

Ball is now the face of the franchise, and in his first press conference with local media, he prioritized winning over everything else. Adding Hayward — despite the cost — unequivocally helps the Hornets’ odds in the win column.

The truth of the matter is this: The Hornets ate $27 million in cap space over the next three years to finally get back on base as a franchise. First base was not overthinking the draft and selecting the best available talent at pick No. 3. Second base was getting that talent some legitimate help.

Hayward may not be the same star he was in Utah, but he is still an elite offensive talent capable of generating offense for himself and his teammates. He averaged 17.5 points, six rebounds and four assists in a bounce-back season with the Celtics but was never the best fit sandwiched between two stardom-bound young forwards in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Ball-to-Charlotte is the most exciting thing this franchise has experienced since drafting Walker in 2013, and the Hornets just got their new star the best teammate he’s ever played with.

They also have a handful of young, talented players to build around: Graham; two-way, high-flying wing Miles Bridges; and last year’s first-round pick, PJ Washington out of Kentucky.

Zeller will become a free agent next offseason, clearing $15.5 million from the payroll should the Hornets decide against retaining him.

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