There is an unspoken and ugly truth for many franchises at the bottom of the NBA, and the Charlotte Hornets are one of them.
For all the mechanisms within the Collective Bargaining Agreements designed to level the financial playing field and create parity via the salary cap and its provisions, there is no getting around the fact that some teams just do not have a good chance in free agency. Or at least, the only way to get around that fact is to pay an added, hidden premium.
- LeBron James agrees two-year, $85m Lakers extension
- Rockets trade Russell Westbrook to Wizards, acquire John Wall
- Luka Doncic: I want to win a championship
Play the NBA Fantasy game and go up against the Sky Sports Heat Check crew - or create a league of your own
After their relative success in the 2015/16 season - in which they finished a franchise-best sixth in the Eastern Conference, made the postseason for only the third time ever and won their first three postseason games ever - the Hornets went on a spending spree.
They re-signed Marvin Williams to a huge deal, re-signed Nicolas Batum to an absolutely enormous one, kept Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller around on their own sizeable contracts, and were also burdened by an eight-figure annual salary owed to Miles Plumlee. They were geed up by this relative success, and they splashed some cash to keep the band together.
Even then, though, the Hornets had to pay over the odds just to retain their own players, let alone bringing in any others of note. When the team struggled to get back to even that level over the subsequent three years, let alone build on it, they found themselves stuck in a salary cap quagmire. At the same time as they were heavily reliant on the Kemba Walker one-man band, he was only their sixth-highest paid player, having taken what proved to be a grossly undersized extension some years previously. And when that bargain contract ran out, Kemba left.
This offseason, that quagmire was finally gotten through. Although Zeller and Batum both had one year left on their contracts, those owed to Gilchrist and Williams had expired, and although Plumlee had been turned into the unsuccessful Dwight Howard experiment and then latterly turned into Bismack Biyombo's enormous salary, that too expired at the end of last season.
Even with the expensive addition last summer of Terry Rozier, the Hornets finally had not only salary cap flexibility, but also salary cap space.
Cap space however is not created equal. Given the differing desirability of cities, franchise histories, reputation and the like, it often matters not who can offer the most money. Teams that are near the bottom and who do not have the luxury of a storied history, a beautiful location and/or a regularly full area (pandemic excepted) have to pay more if they are to compete on the market with those that do. This is all-important context that helps explain why the deals they do give out always seem to be oversized.
But even with all that said, holy moly did they just give a whole lot of dollar to Gordon Hayward!
By any measure, Hayward when healthy is a good NBA player and was at his best a fringe All-Star. He also plays at the forward positions that the Hornets are starved at. Last year saw the breakout of Devonte' Graham as a shooter - pairing him in the backcourt with star 2020 draft pick LaMelo Ball, alongside the wing athleticism of Miles Bridges and the small-ball five potential of sophomore PJ Washington upfront, gives the Hornets a platform to look forward to.
Yet they needed someone who can play both forward positions at various tempos and score from all levels so as to diversify the offense without dominating the ball. Through his curls, drives, spot-ups and sneak attacks, Hayward does this while also being an adept defender, good shooter and all-around playmaker. He is not a star, but he does raise a team's floor.
Even with all that, though, the price paid is obscenely high for various reasons. Not least of which is the fact that Hayward is rarely healthy any longer.
Only in the lockout-shortened 2011/12 season has Hayward appeared in every game, and over the last three seasons, he has appeared in 1, 72 and 52 regular season games respectively, a total of 125 out of a possible 236.
The sheer bad luck of his freak injury five minutes into his Celtic debut is of course a massively contributing factor, yet Hayward also has 10 years of NBA experience with four postseason appearances, a celebrated college career and summers of international duty, all of which builds up over time. In the early years of his NBA career, he got better athletically, but over the last three, he has been losing it again.
Even if Howard were to be an ever-present, though, there is little about his 18.8-point, 7.2-rebound, 4.4-assist per game averages from last season that mean he will merit what he is now about to be paid. That production is good, certainly; Hayward is good. That has not been in doubt for about nine years now. But Hayward is about to get paid like he is one of the game's very best. He never was, he never will be, and if he is already looking hobbled and in and out of the line-up, it will be a struggle to sustain his current level of play over the second half of his career.
In terms of quite how much he is going to earn, there is a further extenuating factor, too. Hayward himself will be receiving an even $120m over the next four seasons - for context, similarly impactful players such as Zach LaVine earn as-near-as-is $20m rather than $30m a year - but to be able to even give him that much, the Hornets had to pull off some concurrent salary cap manoeuvring.
Specifically, they cut Batum and utilised something called the stretch provision - what this means in practice is that instead of just cutting him and charging his $27.13m remaining outstanding all against next season's cap, they have instead decided to pay $9.04m each of the next three seasons, so as to have more immediate savings to sign Hayward with.
Charlotte were destined to be paying Batum not to play for them regardless, perhaps, as no one was taking on that salary. And with his stark regression over the past couple of seasons, there was no value in playing him anymore. Yet when adding his circa. $9m per year to the $30m per year that Hayward will be receiving - which is entirely fair, considering that the stretch was done only because he was incoming - it means that in total, the Hornets will be playing Gordon Hayward an average of circa. $39m over the next three seasons, with a fourth season to follow at $31.5m, by which time he will be firmly into his mid-thirties.
To the city of Boston, thank you for embracing me as your own these last 3 years. I cannot say thank you enough to all the fans, my teammates, coaches and everyone in the organization I built such strong relationships with. pic.twitter.com/xsxD05EVKz— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) November 21, 2020
All of it is guaranteed and there are no options. The aforementioned concept of a hidden Hornets Tax can account for some of the overage, but not that much.
So, why did they do it?
A lack of other options, perhaps; the Hornets were never going to be in play for the premium players on the market such as Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram. But the breathing room and the cap space were not in this instance a one-time deal. While cap space does not have to be spent just because it exists, it is largely true to say it is often a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity, yet although Graham will need a new contract next summer, the expiration of Zeller's $15.4m deal - plus Batum's, had he not been stretched - would have meant by far more unwanted veteran salary expiring than a new deal for Graham would ever take up.
Therefore, the Hornets have not only spent a huge amount of cap space this summer on Hayward - they have also spent a huge amount from next summer as well. And while it is true to say that they were not going to be any better off when it came to acquiring free agents next time either - especially considering they are likely looking at another season headed for the lottery - there is much more that can be done with cap space than merely signing pricey veterans. As proof of this, look at what the Oklahoma City Thunder are doing right now.
It is certainly true to say that the Thunder had more to sell on the trade market. But they have also gone out and bought other team's bad and unwanted contracts with assets attached, giving themselves an unprecedented number of chances of striking gold in future drafts. The Hornets, meanwhile, just wanted someone who was good enough to slightly raise the floor.
To be sure, merely raising the floor is underappreciated among NBA fans, who all too often view the concept of team building as being "championship or bust". It is not that, and it is not fair to demand that ownership groups act accordingly. Hayward, unless he suffers another serious injury, can make this Hornets team a bit better for the next few years. But he is not a needle-mover, and not someone who will improve them by all that much.
There, therefore, needed to be a reconciliation between the cost and the benefit, where the cost is viewed not only in terms of actual money spent, but also future opportunities forgone. When looked at in that way, Hayward's deal is even bigger than it sounds, and it already sounded huge.
Just as the Hornets finally enjoyed some salary cap freedom, they spent it all up on a guy whose best-case scenario might move them from 25 wins to 30. Team building may not be simply championship-or-bust, but there were other option threes to that.