Nobody died. That’s an important distinction in this discussion about Gordon Hayward. I’m fairly sure that none of the traditional stages of grief involves pretending the departed person never existed.
Who? That’s a common response to my unscientific poll about how Jazz fans are processing the loss of Hayward in free agency and how rookie guard Donovan Mitchell’s emergence plays into their answers. Mitchell clearly is mitigating the misery while altering — softening, maybe? Or hardening? — Utahns’ views of Hayward, who spurned the Jazz after seven years and signed with Boston.
The fallout from that move has become one of the most fascinating fan-base studies in Utah sports history, and understandably so. The Jazz never invested so much in any player, developing him into an All-Star and building a team around him to the point of winning a playoff series, only to lose him. In the case of Deron Williams, the Jazz traded him. Paul Millsap’s timing was different, with the franchise’s growth stalled, and the Jazz could have done more to keep him.
Hayward left with the Jazz on the rise, riding the momentum of beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs and looking like one of the NBA’s top five teams. And then he was gone, and all of those classic emotions came into play: disbelief, guilt, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Growing acceptance has followed now that Mitchell is playing his way into the hearts of Jazz fans and the fabric of this state. This is Donovan Mitchell: He attends University of Utah football and basketball games then apologizes to BYU and Utah State fans, not wanting to slight them.
Mitchell promised he would immerse himself in this community, and he’s doing it. “I love it,” he said this week. “I said that when I first came here. I’m not one to lie or say things to please people. I really enjoy it here.”
Mitchell is filling Hayward’s void in multiple ways with his personality and performances such as his 41-point outburst last week vs. New Orleans. The only trouble is the Jazz could have both Hayward and Mitchell right now, and how good would their future look in that case?
That’s why some percentage of fans never will get over Hayward’s move. In early July, they were angry about how he left a franchise that seemingly did everything to accommodate him and how he made his free agency play out longer than necessary, hamstringing the Jazz’s efforts to replace him.
Then came the varied emotions evoked by Mitchell’s summer league exploits (denial), Hayward’s major injury in the Celtics’ season opener (guilt), Rudy Gobert’s knee injury (depression), Boston’s success without Hayward (bargaining), snippets of national interviews with Gobert and Joe Ingles about their former teammate’s decision (back to anger) and the Jazz’s recent six-game winning streak (acceptance).
Those are generalizations, and judging the fans’ state of mind is anecdotal. Yet the Jazz’s rebranding and retooling in the absence of Hayward will remain a major theme of the franchise for years to come, and Mitchell is a central figure.
Wow. Imagine the Jazz without him. If you ever questioned the vision of general manager Dennis Lindsey — and I’ve done so — he sure delivered this time. By trading Trey Lyles and swapping first-round draft positions with Denver, Lindsey landed a player who’s captivating this community and seemingly just will keep getting better. Even in Tuesday’s loss at Oklahoma City, Mitchell scored 31 points. He’s averaging 26.1 points in the last six games.
“Donovan has an aptitude and a willingness; from those two things come progress,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. He loves telling the story of a cross-court assist to Ingles during Mitchell’s 41-point game, when another player might have taken a tough shot to keep scoring.
“He’s done that, too,” Snyder said, chuckling. But “he wants to become a better decision-maker. … He wants to be a good teammate, and I think his feel for that is something that’s helping him improve quickly.”
Mitchell is creating quite an impression around here through 25 games. He’s making some people forget about the franchise’s most recent All-Star, even those who may never forgive Hayward.