The Utah Jazz face a critical decision as soon as next week: Whether to match a huge contract offer to their young swingman Gordon Hayward.
Virtually every prominent voice and writer[ref]Editor’s note: Including, by the way, myself (Andy Larsen). Dan Clayton also wrote this optimistic piece on Hayward’s future last week.[/ref] that cover the Jazz agree on two things: Not only will the Jazz match any offer, but they should. Even if that offer is the four-year, $60 million max deal.
Here’s the problem: It’s near impossible to find evidence to justify that stance in Hayward’s performance. Last year, he was roughly an average NBA starter, albeit a versatile one. While his game has improved — particularly his playmaking — key parts of his game have stagnated or even worsened since his rookie year.
Hayward’s defenders point to his age — he’ll be just 28 at the end of this four-year deal — and the widely-held opinion that the Jazz were not well-coached during his tenure. Take a new coach, add a new system and — presto! — Hayward’s performance will improve significantly so that he justifies the massive salary.
That’s the optimistic scenario. However, perhaps Hayward’s long-distance shooting numbers remain poor — or even worsen, as they have during each of his first four years — leaving the Jazz with a well-paid wing who doesn’t stretch the floor, an outright liability in today’s NBA.
Let’s turn to looking more closely at Hayward’s performance:
Is his versatility really all that special?
Much is made of Hayward’s 16-5-5 numbers (points, rebounds and assists) as evidence that he’s a uniquely versatile wing. However, that analysis ignores Hayward’s heavy minutes (36.4, 10th in the NBA last year). Let’s look more closely:
Assists: To judge how unique Hayward’s playmaking is, let’s use the “assist ratio” stat, which looks at “the percentage of a player’s possessions that ends in an assist,” rather than per game numbers which are distorted by minutes played.
Assists are Hayward’s best numbers — he showed significant improvement last year as he became the focal point of the Jazz’ offense — but other less-heralded wings do as well or even better. Among shooting guards, Hayward ranked 10th of 65, a very good mark, but behind Lou Williams, Lance Stephenson and Jason Terry, among others. If you count Hayward as a small forward, his 22.1 ratio would rank 6th of 66. He’s a great passer for a small forward — but, to be petty for a second, not quite as good as Gerald Wallace, Nik Batum, John Salmons and Tyreke Evans — and no one’s talking about paying them max money.
Rebounds: Similar to assists, we find a better measure of how well Hayward rebounds in “Rebound Rate,” the percentage of missed shots that a player rebounds. His rebound rate of 8.0 is very good for a SG — he ranks 8th of 65 — an excellent figure that trails a handful of versatile big guards, including Stephenson, Tony Allen, Iman Shumpert, Dwayne Wade and Vince Carter. Among SFs, Hayward’s rebound rate is a closer to average, as he would rank 43rd of 66.
In the modern NBA, the difference between SG and SF isn’t all that important. Glancing at the most frequently used Jazz lineups from 2013-14, Hayward most frequently played with Richard Jefferson, considered a small forward, so most label him a shooting guard. However, with the Jazz adding guard Dante Exum to Trey Burke and Alec Burks, it seems most likely that if Hayward is re-signed, he will spend the a significant majority of at least next season as the SF position, where his excellent assist numbers are even more outstanding, but his rebounds less so.
In short, while Hayward is undoubtedly a versatile player, it’s important to put those numbers in context.
A poor-shooting wing
I seem to be the designated Hayward-skeptic at Salt City Hoops, having in January pointed out the elephant in the young man’s room: His shooting numbers have all declined every single year since his rookie year.
Let’s look at an updated version of a chart I presented then.
We can sum up all that data in a much simpler chart focusing on TS% — true shooting percentage, a shooting metric that accounts for 3-pointers and free throws.
Those are alarming trends. In 2010-11, Hayward shot like Chris Paul did last year. In 2013-14, he shot like Jeff Green. Yes, young players go through growing pains. And, yes, Hayward may have not been helped by Coach Tyrone Corbin’s system. But, as I pointed out back in January, it’s extremely difficult to find NBA players who ended up with good careers who not only didn’t improve in their early years, but got worse.
I’ve continued to try and find “comps” for Hayward, trying to see if perhaps other players have struggled when young, but once they settled into a role and system, flourished. One query I did on the fabulous Basketball Reference site looked for big guards who were great passers but poor long-distance shooters. It returned names like Jamal Crawford, Alvin Williams and Larry Hughes — each of whom has had some big moments, but they’ve never remotely played near the $15 million a year level.
Another search, which includes slightly better shooters, returned a few other names: Rodney Stuckey, Jalen Rose and Grevis Vasquez. Valuable players, no doubt, but again none which ever justified near-max salaries.
It’s fair to say that 2013-14 Gordon Hayward shot the ball very poorly, continuing a disturbing slide. Those trends will have to reverse — significantly — if he is to play close to a $15 million per year level.
A mixed record on defense.
When you look for players like Hayward, a few names pop up who have had pretty darn good NBA careers, such as Andre Iguodala, a similarly versatile guard/forward who isn’t a great outside shooter. However, a big chunk of Iggy’s value comes from his defense. He’s widely considered one of the top shutdown wing defenders in the entire NBA, along with Tony Allen and Paul George and LeBron James.
How about Hayward? Of course, unlike offense, it’s much harder to quantify defense. There are crude stats — like DRtg and Opponent Production and Defensive Win Shares — which tend to show Hayward as a good but not great defender. The “eyeball test” would suggest that Hayward’s length and effort are assets, as he often forces the man he’s guarding to give up the ball, but he can struggle to stay in front of quick wings and to quickly rotate from the lane to the 3-point-line.
It seems relevant that Hayward played the most minutes on the NBA’s worst defensive team last year, but of course it’s very hard to tease out the role that his teammates and system played in that dismal mark.
If we’d sum up what we know about Gordon Hayward after his four season, it would go something like this: An excellent passer and a good rebounder and defender, but a poor shooter. Add it all up, and you get somewhere near an average NBA starter.
The Jazz have to think long and hard about matching any offer that compensates Hayward well above the pay that an average NBA starter deserves. They should consider, rather, whether they might be better off to continue to stockpile assets — young talent on reasonable deals, veterans signed to short contracts and draft picks.
As this current roster under new coach Quin Snyder matures, it will become clearer which players should form the core over the next half-decade, and which can be traded for talent to fill holes. Signing a decent player to great player money could easily end up being a move that hinders, not helps, the rebuilding Jazz.