Many a Jazz fan will look back on July 14th, 2014 as a source of retroactive pride.
That was the day the Jazz matched Charlotte’s four-year, $63 million offer in restricted free agency to Gordon Hayward, locking him up for at least the following three seasons1. Many pundits, both nationally and locally, panned the deal as a sizable overpay for a player coming off a down season across the board, one where Hayward looked weighed down by the burden of carrying an NBA offense for the first time in his career.
Some eight months and change later, it seems almost comical that so many were so opposed, particularly those asserting names like Lance Stephenson and Chandler Parsons as preferable options on the wing. The Jazz may not have handled Hayward’s situation picture perfectly the previous summer2, but his own play combined with the league’s further understanding of the skyrocketing cap – knowledge it’s fair to give Jazz brass credit for anticipating – has made his value relative to the final number tough to question, particularly going forward.
It was certainly far more than just CBA minutiae that cemented the move as a positive one for the team, though. Hayward’s own performance on the court did most of the job, in fact. Let’s take a look at the specifics behind Gordon’s strongest season yet in the NBA.
Some of Hayward’s appeal lies in his multi-faceted game, but his main job remains putting the ball in the basket, and he reaffirmed his ability to do so efficiently and in high volume this year. Despite yet another leap in usage (from 23.1 to 26.2 percent of Jazz possessions while on the floor), he posted a nice increase in shooting metrics, both raw and advanced, across the board. The development was most noticeable in his open shooting from deep – Hayward was a worrying 32 percent on triples where no defender stood within six feet of him for the 13-14 season, per NBASavant, but leapt all the way to just a hair short of 42 percent, one of the 20 best marks among 72 guys in the league attempting at least 100 shots under these circumstances.
Utah’s still-developing personnel around Gordon required he improve significantly at creating his own shot, and he didn’t disappoint. He added noticeable muscle over the offseason, using it along with a deceptively quick first step to become a premier penetrator. He “drove” the ball3 over 100 more times this year than last despite playing one fewer game.
These weren’t empty forays into the paint by any stretch, either. Data from Synergy Sports indicates that Hayward was a mostly average attacker in the 13-14 season, generating just over .90 points per-possession on all drives to the hoop (including resulting spot-up jumpers). This figure jumped to over 1.03 per-possession points this year, and on a larger share of Gordon’s possessions to boot. His added strength allowed several developments to his isolation game, including a nearly un-guardable herky-jerky fallaway very few players in the league are capable of executing with such a combination of separation, angle, and accuracy:
Gordon clearly put in time with his coordination, and it can be tough for more casual fans to appreciate just the sort of physical strength it can take to execute these plays regularly. Hayward is typically timing the release of his shot as late as possible before he lands, meaning gravity is moving him further and further away from the apex at which guys almost universally prefer to shoot; even in situations where he’s unable to create separation from a defender, he often gets a clean look because they’re out of the picture by the time he’s releasing the ball:
And of course, much to this writer’s utter delight, he’s built in little counters for when a defender is sitting on his new pet move. Watch him punish Kevin Durant for over-pursuing the fallaway with a deft bit of footwork:
His newfound prowess keeping individual defenders more off-balance had an unsurprising positive effect on his ability to draw fouls, as well. League-wide, 54 guys this year finished at least 100 plays in isolation, per Synergy, and none drew free-throws at a higher rate than Hayward’s 22.9 percent. His overall free-throw rate (free-throws per shot attempt) jumped to .425, the largest of his career and among the highest in the league for non-bigs.
All the above did beget one question, though – why so few forays into the post? Gordon finished just six possessions from the block on the year, according to Synergy figures, actually down from 31 the previous season. It’s possible Quin Snyder preferred he focus his energy elsewhere within the team offensive scheme, but Hayward’s strength and growing variety down low does make one wonder if he could add another lethal element to his game this offseason.
Also worth watching are some late-season fatigue concerns, though nagging injuries unquestionably played a role in a bit of a drop-off as the year drew to a close. The Jazz will hope and assume that circumstance accounted for much of the blip, and will work to change said circumstance in upcoming seasons when a playoff push is potentially in the cards.
Certain raw figures might suggest Hayward’s expansion as a scorer has hurt his role as a creator for teammates. He assisted on a lower percentage of Jazz baskets while on the floor, and saw his per-minute helper numbers drop as well.
But it’s important to examine the team context here as well. Though Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles came on as the year went along, the Jazz were mostly devoid of above-average shooters beyond Hayward himself. Utah was among the league’s worst open jump-shooting teams last season, and continued the trend this year – simply put, it’s tough to put together gaudy assist totals with so few shots being made4.
This theme is further illustrated by data provided by friend of Salt City Hoops Seth Partnow, scraped from SportVU pass and shot logs. Per Seth’s figures, 57.8 percent of all made Jazz 3s assisted by Hayward on the year were “wide open” (no defender within six feet) – one of the five highest figures in the league among nearly 100 high-volume passers. This isn’t necessarily proof of anything, of course; only made 3s are accounted for, and it’s theoretically possible that the remaining non-assist passes from Hayward to teammates for shots were cumulatively poor. But it’s a strong indication, at the very least, that teammate looks following his passes are frequently open ones, and with a bit more shooting prowess surrounding him, this could be a premier distributor by raw numbers as well.
Decoding Hayward’s performance defensively is trickier, with several bits of noise. The first and most obvious, of course, is the way his numerous responsibilities on the other end of the floor may or may not affect his defensive game. Snyder, for what it’s worth has several times reiterated his happiness with Gordon’s progression, particularly away from the ball where he’d struggled in the past.
The results were something of a mixed bag on the year, though, and it’s easy to see how some could get the impression that he’s a subpar defender. Utah’s defense was better this year on a per-possession basis while Hayward sat on the bench, and certain (admittedly incomplete) bits of data from Synergy suggest he stagnated in some areas.
Of course, that on/off court figure doesn’t account for a certain Former Player5, one with whom Hayward logged well over half his minutes before said Former Player was traded to a non-playoff team. Utah’s defensive efficiency figure during these minutes was 107.8, a bottom-five number in the league, but was much closer to average, at 103.0, when Gordon played without him. And from the point of the trade on, with the team as a whole reaching spectacular defensive levels, their performance with Hayward on the court was superior to that with him sitting. His defensive RPM also suggests a fairly large improvement on that end, though certain elements of that statistic can at times be inconclusive.
He’s far from a completed project on this end, of course. Hayward’s screen navigation could stand to improve – Snyder’s preferred tactic of sending the ball-handling defender over screens while the big man most often hangs back in pick-and-roll situations helped relieve some of the pressure when Gordon took a bad route, but he still too often left Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors with a two-on-one to contend with. He’s running straight into picks in P&R sets just as often as he was last year, per Synergy, and the Jazz are getting maimed on these occasions, with opponents shooting an ugly 54 percent.
But much of this is effort- and focus-related, and is likely to improve as Hayward’s role in the offense hopefully returns steadily to more manageable levels as other pieces develop. He’s fully capable here and often just lacks the combination of anticipation and energy to eagerly fight through multiple picks on a single play, something that should change when he can reserve larger bits of energy for that end of the floor.
Taken on the whole, it’s hard to be anything but encouraged by Hayward’s on-court performance this season. He was the engine making the Jazz run offensively, improving his game as scorer despite taking on a larger burden for the second consecutive year. The way the team’s offense cratered whenever he left the floor is certainly a concern going forward, but it would be even more so if they didn’t have a guy like him to pick up some of the slack.
And when combined with the new realities of the league’s financial explosion, the Jazz have to be happy with the deal they’ve got him at, if perhaps still wishing they had him locked into that fourth year. He’ll be a centerpiece again next year as they begin their climb back to the postseason.