(USA TODAY) — Free agent All-Star forward Gordon Hayward intends to sign with the Boston Celtics over the Miami Heat and Utah Jazz, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deal can’t be finalized until the free agency moratorium lifts on Thursday.
And with that, the Eastern Conference is interesting again.
In these recent days of NBA chaos, Jimmy Butler (Chicago to Minnesota) and Paul George (Indiana to Oklahoma City) headed West in various trades and thus worsened the imbalance of power between the two conferences. Add in Chris Paul’s relocation from the Los Angeles Clippers to James Harden’s Houston Rockets and it was enough to make LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers feel even more at ease on their side of the league’s ledger.
But Hayward to Boston changes everything, with the Celtics now primed to push the Cavs team that has reached the Finals in three consecutive Junes since James’ return from Miami. They earned the No. 1 seed in the East without him, with Isaiah Thomas rising and Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and all the rest finishing 53-29 in the regular season before they fell to the Cavs in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now enter Hayward, the 27-year-old who posted career highs in scoring and rebounding last season (21.7 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) while playing a pivotal part in the league’s third-ranked defense (based on points allowed per 100 possessions). Hayward reunites with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who helped take his game to the next level during their two seasons together at Butler. And just as his scoring, size and solid defense will boost the Celtics, his departure is a major loss for a Jazz team that reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Hayward met with the Celtics, the Heat and the Jazz in free agency, with Utah getting his final meeting in San Diego on Monday. The Jazz had positioned themselves to make the most of Hayward’s prime, with big man Rudy Gobert anchoring their defense and recently-acquired point guard Ricky Rubio running the show. ESPN first reported that Hayward intended to sign with the Celtics.