The Celtics star guard will be at his grandfathers memorial, so he will miss Gordon Haywards return against the Utah Jazz — the team he spurned to join the Celtics in free agency.
Irving has experience in these matters: He played against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last years season opener roughly two months after news of his trade request leaked and he was moved to the Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a pick. He experienced a hostile crowd, livid that he would choose to join another team.
“Just try not to get too caught up into what the outside is going on,” Irving said. “It really doesnt matter. It really does not matter — like, at all. I know the love and support that hes garnered there. Gordons a great person. Dont allow competition in basketball to be influenced by what everybody elses opinion and criticism and all that other stuff of what it should be like in an environment for him. If they boo him great. If they dont great. It doesnt matter at all. Its just basketball, like, you know what I mean? If anything, he gave (seven years) of his career trying to be the best he could in Utah, and I give him credit for that. And he made a decision in his career, and in his life, for his family, to be better. Ill leave it at that.”
Hayward missed his first opportunity to return to Utah last season after he fractured his ankle in the first game of the season. While he is back and has put together a few relatively solid performances, he is yet to show the All-Star form he attained in Utah. Thats to be expected after a devastating injury.
“Its been a year so hopefully not as vicious a booing, but Im sure Ill get booed,” Hayward said last week. “It is what it is.”
We get this question a lot. If you run through the mental gymnastics of keeping Hayward, the inevitable response is: Donovan doesnt develop if this happens. I disagree. Donovan Mitchell started on the depth chart in preseason behind Dante Exum, Alec Burks, and Rodney Hood. By game 1 he had leapfrogged all but Rodney Hood. By November, he had overtaken Hood. In this hypothetical situation, he would still be behind Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles as guards. Ricky Rubio started out the season dreadfully. Rubio only kept his starting job because Dante Exum had been hurt for much of the season and Raul Neto fought injuries throughout. The Jazz a year prior ran the year with a combo guard at the point with George Hill. Donovan more than likely would have usurped Rubio.
“Great years in Utah,” he said. “I thank the Jazz for everything they did for me in my career. Im looking forward to being able to play there. I was really looking forward to last year, obviously, that didnt happen. Itll be a good game, they are a good team.”
But Utah fixed it. They got a better front office, better coaching staff, and training staff. They built a new training facility designed to court him. They even traded for George Hill, signed Joe Johnson, traded for Boris Diaw, signed his buddy Joe Ingles to a big deal, played Dante Exum less minutes in favor of his college buddy Shelvin Mack, traded for Ricky Rubio, and for what? For Gordon Hayward to hold old grudges and leave them empty holding the bag. If he knew he even had the inkling of getting out, he didnt articulate it well enough. Utah felt he was staying because he acted like he was staying. Utah was unable to get anything in return for a star player in his prime as result.
Theyve waited to scream, to boo, to chant, to let out all of their frustration that came from the infamous Fourth of July over a year ago.
On July 4, 2017, Hayward left Utah. He walked away from the franchise where he grew from a skilled kid from Indiana to an All-Star forward to head East. It was a day filled with early reports of his departure, then denials, before Hayward finally released his Thank you, Utah post on The Players Tribune announcing he was signing with Boston. Come Friday night, Jazz fans will likely have their own unique way of saying, Youre welcome.
Donovan Mitchell smiled wide and then laughed after he was asked what he thought the crowd would be like for Haywards returns. He never played with Hayward, but hes been around long enough to know how Utah fans feel about him.
I dont know what to expect, to be honest, Mitchell said. Obviously, he did so much for this organization, for this state. Hes a great player. … We are just going to go out there and treat it the same way. We arent going to go out there and go crazy.
Hayward has been limited to playing just one game of back-to-backs this season, as he continues to recover from a gruesome leg injury he suffered in the first game of last season. Friday will be Bostons second game of a back-to-back. On Thursday, the Celtics announced that coach Brad Stevens assumes Gordon Hayward will play both games of this back-to-back, but that has not yet been decided.
Having Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is great, but it could have been even better. With Donovan and Rudy, the Jazz have a playoff team. With Hayward, they could have had a contender, a bonafide contender in a stacked Western Conference. To a franchise that has never won a championship, that is unforgivable. Hell be the biggest what if in Utah Jazz history. Thats saying a lot for a team that could have drafted Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins had they not sold their draft picks.
We as an organization, me as a coach, our players appreciate the time he spent here and what he gave this organization and team, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. It was a pleasure coaching him. He did a lot for us.
Would Donovan be a Rookie of the Year type candidate? I dont think so. But I do think hed have received the same consideration as Tatum as a guy who when called upon could step up in a big moment. Those who think Donovans development would have been stifled are oversimplifying the type of player he is. Hes good because he learns quickly and has elite basketball IQ. He would have adapted and thrived in any environment with or without Hayward.
Its been some time since a number of Jazz players have even been in contact with Hayward, with some silences going all the way back to that day 16 months ago.
I could understand some hard feelings over the exit, but so much has happened since then. Hayward got hurt in gruesome fashion, Donovan Mitchell became a star, and the world seems to have turned the page. But not Utah fans. They are very much still holding a grudge. I guess were not exactly ones to judge on grudges (see: Allen, Ray). But I thought it would be fun to hear things from their side.
Derrick Favors said he texted his former teammate soon after he made his decision, but hasnt contacted him since.
1. The Jazz have a budding superstar, a pogo-stick lock down center, and one of the best coaches in the league. So why are you still mad at a guy that left over a year ago?
Rudy Gobert said he reached out to Hayward following his gruesome leg injury in the opening game of last season, but the moments of communicating with Hayward are few and far between.
2. Say things turned out differently and Gordon decided to stay in Utah. How does that play out? Does Donovan develop slower if hes not the offensive focal point?
I think it was important to do it, Gobert said. We dont talk a lot, but when its important, we do.
We are friends, Ingles said. Weve always been friends. Thats about it really. You talk to your friends sometimes and sometimes you dont. Hes got his own life and a family. Ive got my own life and a family.
“Gordon is a good guy,” Gobert said. “I think Im a good guy. It is the way it is. You make choices you think are good for you. Im not here to judge anyone. Its just a game. We are going to go play basketball and thats it.”
Jae Crowder was never a teammate to Hayward, but he has a strange connection to the former Jazzmans departure. On Jan. 3, 2017, Hayward and the Jazz faced off against Crowder and the Celtics in Boston. During that game, the Celtic fans cheered for Hayward. In Crowders mind, they may as well have booed him.
I heard the cheering (for Hayward) before the game, Crowder told reporters after that contest. I didnt like that at all. I think that was a sign of disrespect to me from the fans. That sparked a little fire in me.
“Probably a lot of emotion, fans cheering us on, Crowder said. Very, very, very, very into the game, obviously, with the ties they had with Gordon. I think there will be fans that will be very pleased with a win.”