James’ return to Cleveland caused Cleveland to abandon its pursuit of Hayward.
The best moment of the entertaining Celtics introductory press conference for Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward came when Hayward suggested LeBron James “squashed” a potential Hayward-Irving duo in Cleveland three years ago. Quoth Hayward:
“I went to Cleveland on a visit when I was a restricted free agent [in 2014]. Kyrie came in and was saying how much fun it’d be if I was on the team, kind of recruiting me to go there. Then LeBron came and that kinda squashed that whole thing. It came full circle, and here we are now.”
This got everyone chuckling and wondering if Hayward was “taking a shot” at LeBron.
But Hayward was simply stating facts. LeBron did stop him from signing an offer with Cleveland that summer, though not actively. His return to Cleveland was so stunning that it forced the Cavaliers to ditch their careful offseason plans.
Cleveland never expected to bring LeBron back in 2014
At the time, a reunion seemed ridiculous. James was coming off his fourth straight Finals appearance in Miami, while Cleveland appeared to be in shambles after a disappointing 33-win season.
Irving grumbled all year, shifting the Cavaliers into appeasement mode. They fired Mike Brown after just one season, in part because he failed to connect with Irving. The Cavaliers then marched to visit with Irving the first second they could when free agency began, armed with a five-year maximum contract extension and a gameplan to reshape the franchise in his image.
Irving felt loved and accepted the offer. Now, Cleveland needed to find him some long-term running mates. Their first choice was a restricted free agent on the Jazz.
Cleveland woos Hayward
Cleveland moved quickly to secure a meeting with Hayward, who they hoped would slot in alongside Irving and No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins on the perimeter. James still wasn’t a Plan A, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst at the time:
The Cavs had been hoping to secure a meeting with LeBron James but haven't been successful and moved on to make Hayward their top free-agent target.
The initial meeting didn’t include owner Dan Gilbert, but Internet sleuths tracked his private plane to a location that very well might have included Hayward.
Hayward appreciated the pitch, and the offer sheet was coming, if not already there.
That is, until a phone call from James’ reps slammed the breaks on the Cavaliers’ plans. As Windhorst and ESPN’s Dave McMenamin write in Return of the King, general manager David Griffin had to focus on the James pursuit while hanging on to Hayward and Chandler Parsons merely as contingencies.
Eventually, Hayward grew tired of waiting
As LeBron kept Cleveland waiting, Hayward blinked first. He signed a four-year, $63 million offer sheet with Charlotte that Utah matched quickly. Perhaps Cleveland dodged a bullet even if James didn’t come, because Utah surely would have matched Cleveland’s offer as well.
Meanwhile, James eventually decided on Cleveland, and the Cavaliers gladly threw their Kyrie-centered plans in the trash. The two stars existed uneasily for three years until Irving requested a trade in June.
3 years later, here we are
Hayward and Irving, together at last. One’s game blossomed in Utah, the other’s either stagnated or grew more mature in Cleveland, depending on who you ask.
LeBron no longer stands in the way of their union as teammates. Instead, he just stands in the way of their success.