When Gordon Hayward opted out of the player option in his contract with the Boston Celtics just ahead of free agency, he immediately moved to the top of the board of available players and became the object of interest for any team with cap space.
The Knicks just happened to have a huge pile of cash and cap space. But even with new team president Leon Rose hopeful of making a splash, Hayward’s injury history and the rising price pushed them out of the running.
Monday night presented the first opportunity for the Knicks to face Hayward and the team that went all in on him, the Charlotte Hornets. They signed him to a four-year, $120 million deal after he turned down the $34.2 million option with the Celtics. And Hayward showed he might have been worth the risk, lighting up the Knicks for 34 points, including 28 in the first half, in the Hornets’ 109-88 win.
"The Knicks were definitely interested," Hayward said. "I love their coaching staff and the culture they are building there. They also have some really good young players. Certainly, Coach Thibodeau is established and knows how to win. He’s a great coach. [They] also have coach Johnnie Bryant, who was my guy in Utah, who’s there as well.
"Certainly there was a lot of interest on both sides. I’m happy and excited I’m here in Charlotte, but they’re a great franchise with great coaching. You’ll see them keep getting better."
As the Knicks struggle to find a consistent offensive piece to put next to Julius Randle, Hayward entered Monday averaging a team-high 21.4 points per game. While he started off on fire, the Knicks missed nine of their first 10 shots and fell behind by 17 points. They fought back and briefly took a second-quarter lead but could not keep up, thanks to their anemic shooting against the Hornets’ zone.
Kevin Knox had 19 points off the bench, Elfrid Payton scored 15 and Mitchell Robinson added 12 points and 11 rebounds, but they weren’t Hayward.
"Well, we looked at all the free agents," Thibodeau said. "And so we’ll just leave it at that, but we know how talented he is. We had him rated pretty high on our board. There were a number of guys who we thought would fit us. It didn’t work out this time. And we’ll see how it works out in the future.
"I had a pretty good understanding of his game because of my time in the Western Conference and watching him grow there, and his playmaking ability is really what stood out to me. There’s a lot of guys who get points, but they’re not high-assist guys. He’s always been a high-assist guy. He reminded me of Jimmy Butler in that way in terms of his decision-making and ability to make other people better. And that goes a long way."
RJ Barrett (11 points, nine re bounds, five assists) has been the Knicks’ second option but is shooting just 32.8% overall and 18% from three-point range (9-for-50). Immanuel Quickley was 1-for-10 Monday and is 2-for-25 in the last four games.
Thibodeau thinks Barrett will get on track. "Yes, I think it will eventually come," he said. "I think as long as he’s taking the right ones. It’s a big part of the NBA game, I think, understanding the value of those shots. But there are a lot of other things he does well. Putting it on the floor, drawing more than one defender, spraying it out, finishing in the restricted, drawing fouls, things that can get you high-value shots.
"We want him to play an all-around game. He can post the ball. He can drive the ball well. And I think as time goes on, he’ll shoot the ball better and better from the perimeter."
"I’m fine, honestly," Barrett said. "Just a tough game, another tough game. As long as we have 72 of them, every night’s not going to be your night. Just got to get back to the lab."
Notes & quotes: Reggie Bullock was held out of Monday’s game with a sore right hip and will be evaluated in New York on Tuesday by team doctors. Austin Rivers (13 points) took his place in the starting lineup Monday.