There are two lines of thought when it comes to themes like fatigue and over-taxation of a given player’s body. The first is more of a short-term view: A guy is leaned upon too heavily within individual games, asked to do more than his body and skill set permits, often with adverse effects. The second is a longer approach, where the cumulative load forced upon a player’s body over a larger period of time, even if considered mostly reasonable within individual games or groups of games, catches up to him eventually and dampens his effectiveness. These two themes are often congruous, of course, and there’s plenty of blurring of these lines among the NBA’s higher volume guys. In Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have something of an example of both.
Last season, after the departures of centerpieces Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, Hayward was asked to take on a larger burden for a rebuilding Utah team. He saw his playing time skyrocket into the league’s upper echelon, and was expected to do so much more during each minute than had ever been asked of him in the past. It took very little time for the weight on his shoulders to take its toll – Gordon underwent easily his toughest season as a pro almost from the start, enduring career-lows in nearly every efficiency-related category. He simply wasn’t yet ready for that nightly load, physically or talent-wise.
This year has been a different look entirely. Quin Snyder has entered the picture and made his mark, lessening Hayward’s minutes a tad and, perhaps more importantly, instituting a team-oriented offensive scheme that, in theory at least, eases some of the massive burden Gordon felt for much of last season.
Unfortunately though, the cumulative result of what still amounts to too heavy a load on Hayward has begun to catch up to him as we enter the season’s twilight. This doesn’t seem to be an issue of level of responsibility within any particular game – Gordon has been dominant for large stretches, particularly earlier in the year, even while still operating as the team’s unquestioned offensive leader.1 Rather, it’s a built-up effect over time.
First, some raw figures to help illustrate this. Hayward has played 2,560 minutes to date, which checks in as the 12th-most in the NBA this season. He has attempted 1,068 shots from the field, 18th in the league and one of only 25 guys to cross the four-figure barrier thus far. He’s taken 448 free-throws, good for sixth league-wide behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, LeBron James and DeAndre Jordan.
Perhaps most tellingly, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking data, Gordon has traveled a total of 178 miles during the course of NBA games this season, the seventh-most of any individual in the league. He’s running nearly 2.5 miles per game on average, easily the most of any Jazz player. Put that into perspective for a moment. Hayward has run the equivalent of nearly seven marathons since October – and that’s in games only! It doesn’t even account for practices, warmups, shootarounds, time in the weight room, and any other physical burden Gordon is placing on his body.
As noted above, the in-game burden appears to be a hurdle Hayward has cleared since last year. He’s obviously capable as Utah’s de facto offensive captain, showcased by a blistering start to the season that had some of us debating his fringe All-Star chances. But there’s no question the cumulative toll is beginning to show. It’s something of an arbitrary starting point to be sure, but have a look at a few of Gordon’s numbers both pre- and post-All-Star break:2
Pre-ASB: 46.0% FG, 39.2% 3PT, 57.9 TS%, 25.4% USG
Post-ASB: 40.6% FG, 28.7% 3PT, 53.4 TS% 28.1% USG
Gordon’s rebounding is also down significantly, as is his assist-to-turnover ratio, though in the latter case this may be due in large part to changes in Utah’s offense overall since the break. As one can see, his shooting efficiency has plummeted over the latter half of the season, and on a large enough sample that it’s almost certainly more than a slump. His increased usage as the team has adjusted offensively minus a certain Former Player definitely plays a role as well.
Maybe most indicative of the weariness Hayward is likely feeling is his performance over these two time periods on open jump-shots. Shooting ties directly to physical fitness more than most realize – a good shooting coach will tell you that a player’s legs are just as important as his arms on a given shot, and likely even more so the further the attempt is from the hoop. Pre-All-Star, per NBASavant, Gordon was shooting 43.4 percent on all open jumpers3 at least 10 feet from the hoop, not quite elite but certainly well above average for guys attempting these frequently. Since the break, though, his legs have clearly deserted him here to a degree; Hayward has shot just 35.0 percent on these same open jumpers, a big drop and good for just 58th of 67 guys shooting at least 100 of these shots in this time.
Gordon has appeared visibly tired on the court in recent weeks, and those watching with a keen eye can see the signs throughout his game – a bit less explosiveness in his first step, less attention to detail defensively, and many more shots falling short. He’s not the least bit out of shape, nor anywhere remotely close4, but such a load on a day in, day out basis will have an affect regardless.
What this means for both Hayward and the Jazz going forward is something of a twofold discussion. On the one hand, the fact that fatigue and overuse has been a notable issue for him in consecutive seasons is of course somewhat worrying; this is a player Utah will be relying upon to play a large role in what they hope will be a longer season as soon as next year, should they make the playoff push many anticipate. If they hope to sustain a multi-year run of high-level play, the burden on their leader’s body only stands to potentially increase.
But on the flip side lies team makeup, which certainly won’t remain the same and will hopefully ease a good deal of the responsibility Gordon shoulders every night. Alec Burks will return to the fold next year as another wing capable of generating offense, and nearly all of Utah’s young core will be expected to develop offensively next season – both in skill level and in understanding and execution of Snyder’s scheme. Burks’ expected return, coupled with (hopefully) a full season from a burgeoning offensive talent in Rodney Hood and perhaps the acquisition of another above average piece or two through either a trade or some of Utah’s free-agent cap space, could have a potentially gigantic effect on the stress Hayward is forced to place on himself.
The Jazz will surely be hoping that the trade-off here works in their favor. The team is proactive about players’ fitness and well-being, employing a dedicated training staff and even utilizing rest and recovery monitors that link to players’ cell phones to assist in the process.5 Another offseason of cross-training and commitment to his fitness will also do nothing but help Hayward here.
There’s no cause for alarm here, but it’s certainly a situation worth monitoring. Expect Snyder and GM Dennis Lindsey, both well-versed in themes like periodic rest for high-volume players after their respective time in the Spurs organization, to be keeping a close eye on not only Hayward, but on several of Utah’s most vital pieces going into next season.6
And in some sense, Jazz fans should feel encouraged that this is an issue at all – teams lacking Utah’s promise in the upcoming years would likely be far less worried about fatigue for a star player and more worried about, well, their team being better. These are the types of equations thrown into the arithmetic when a team reaches a certain level, and look for both Hayward and the excellent team leadership structure to be diligent moving forward.