CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets owner Michael Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak had no intentions of spending money on a big-name free agent this offseason.
But things changed quickly when Gordon Hayward opted out of his contract with the Boston Celtics.
The prospect of getting a playmaking wing — something Jordan has coveted for years — proved too intriguing to ignore, prompting the Hornets to veer slightly away from their well established plan of developing young players and pursue the 2017 All-Star.
“I did not think that we would be in a position to pursue a free agent of Gordon’s caliber,” Kupchak said Tuesday on a videoconference call. “… It looked like Gordon would be a free agent next year, which based on how we felt our team was positioned we might have chosen to pursue him next year. But he opted out. When he opted out and we quickly found out we were in the picture, we quickly started the recruiting process.”
Kupchak said Jordan was “very involved” in that process.
The six-time NBA champion sent text messages to Hayward and called him twice, hoping to lure him to Charlotte six years after giving him a four-year $64 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent that the Utah Jazz ultimately matched. The offer sheet, Hayward said, meant a lot to him.
“He texted me that he has wanted me for years,” Hayward said. “… He was just saying how he would be really excited to have me here in Charlotte and thinks I can make a huge difference and have a big impact on helping this team and being a difference maker. So that was the main message: helping us get to that next level.”
Despite Jordan’s phone calls and the Hornets’ big push, Kupchak said he still didn’t have a good feeling about landing Hayward when free agency began. But as the first day of the signing period began, talks quickly heated up with Hayward’s agent and the result was a four-year, $120 million contract agreement drawing a congratulatory phone call from Jordan.
Hayward, who averaged 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season, said the decision to opt out of his deal with the Hornets wasn’t so much about his role with the Celtics as it was the intrigue of helping build Charlotte into a winning franchise.
The Hornets have failed to reach the playoffs in each of the last four seasons and haven’t won a playoff series since 2012.
“The more and more conversations that I had with the coaching staff and with some of the front office guys, the vision that they had, the impact they believe I can have, helping us get to the next level — that was very powerful for me,” said Hayward.
Hornets coach James Borrego is brimming with excitement over the addition of Hayward and No. 3 overall draft pick LaMelo Ball, players he considers outstanding playmakers with great size.
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He can’t wait to get the 6-foot-7 tandem on the floor Friday when the Hornets have their first team practice of training camp.
“For him to leave a storied franchise like that, I just didn’t expect it,” Borrego said.
Hayward suffered a significant injury in 2017 when he fractured his tibia and dislocated ankle in his first game with the Celtics. Last year he injured his ankle while Boston was playing in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida and was relegated to spot playing time for most of the postseason.
But Kupchak said Gordon passed the team’s physical examination “with flying colors.”
The GM also has no problem that Hayward is 30 years old, saying the former Butler star is “in the prime of his career.”
The Hornets acquired unprotected second round draft picks in 2023 and 2024 from the Celtics as part of the sign-and-trade deal for Hayward. They surrendered a protected second-round pick next year that will only wind up going to Boston if Charlotte shocks the NBA world and finishes in the top five in the league.
“He’s a bona fide starter in this league and we are happy to add him not only at a position of great need, which is a true wing, but we are also excited to have his leadership and stability in the locker room,” Kupchak said.
Kupchak said the addition of Hayward and their draft picks leaves the Hornets about $4 million under the NBA salary cap this year and a projected $27 million under for next year, despite the decision to stretch the contract of Nicolas Batum, who was waived on Sunday.
“We’re in a good place,” Kupchak said. “We are trying to add to our talent base, and I think we have done that.”