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SALT LAKE CITY — As might be expected considering the circumstances, Gordon Hayward has received a fair amount of criticism for his decision to leave the Jazz to sign with the Boston Celtics.
Among the list of beefs critics have cited is Hayward’s choice to take the perceived path of least resistance. By trading in the far more competitive Western Conference for the much easier Eastern Conference, Hayward has all but guaranteed multiple All-Star berths and potentially a less rigorous road to the NBA Finals, with possibly the Cleveland Cavaliers providing Boston’s only obstacle.
“Maybe the path of least resistance is out East,” former Jazz guard Bobby Hansen said on 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone. “If that’s what you want, you’re not a competitor. I’d rather face (the tougher competition) head on."
For the foreseeable future, the Golden State Warriors would appear to have a lock on winning the Western Conference and advancing to the finals, where they have played the last three seasons. All four of Golden State’s All-Stars from last season are under age 30.
The Warriors went 12-0 in the playoffs against Western Conference foes Portland, Utah and San Antonio. With or without Hayward, the Jazz would be a longshot to surpass Golden State next season.
Cleveland won the East the last three years but has an older roster. LeBron James also will be a free agent next summer.
By joining the Celtics, Hayward also potentially gives up the position as his team’s leading scorer. Hayward topped the Jazz last season by averaging 21.9 points, the fourth consecutive year he led the team in scoring.
But Boston already has Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 28.9 points a game last season. The diminutive point guard — who already indicated he expects to sign a maximum contract next summer — averaged 19.4 shots per game, compared to Hayward’s 15.8 shots.
In an interview on The Zone the morning after the Jazz season ended in May, Hayward said he didn’t care about being his team’s first option on offense.
“To me, the No. 1 option, the No. 2 option, whatever, it doesn’t necessarily matter to me. Whatever I have to do to help my team win is what I want to do,” he said. “For me, I’m not worried about being labeled the No. 1 option, the No. 2 option or whatever it may be.”
Trevor Booker, Hayward’s former teammate with the Jazz for two seasons, took Hayward’s comments a step further. In a podcast with HoopsHype.com, Booker questioned whether Hayward wanted the pressure of being his team’s leader.
“The Jazz were already legit and then with all of the players growing around him, they could have really made some noise,” Booker said. “But I’m not sure if he wanted, if he liked, being that star with all of the pressure on his shoulders. I think that might have had something to do with him going to Boston, where he can rely on Isaiah Thomas to take that pressure off of his shoulders.
"Isaiah is a superstar. Whereas in Utah, he's (the franchise player) and playing in the Western Conference. … It's a little bit tougher. With all of that said, even with him going Boston, Utah has a nice core in Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors when he's healthy. And I really think with coach (Quin Snyder) and Dennis Lindsey at the top — two great guys who really know what they're doing — they'll bounce back from it."
Maybe, though, the only thing that mattered to Hayward was a relationship that extends back to his teenage years. Maybe Hayward’s primary reason was the chance to play for his college coach at Butler, current Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“The kid’s a talented player. He wants to play for his college coach,” Hansen said. “I think the ultimate deciding factor was Brad Stevens. That guy is responsible for what Butler basketball is.”