It’s no secret to any frequent observer that Gordon Hayward has been among Utah’s most pleasant bright spots in another developing season. Shouts of “overpay” at his matched extension in the summer have subsided in short order, with he and fellow extendee Derrick Favors playing at near All-Star level and, indeed, perhaps representing the team’s only two firmly above-average starting caliber players at their positions. The two lead the Jazz in all common one-number metrics, and Hayward has proven their most consistent and versatile wing by a landslide.
Basic on and off court metrics are a simple snapshot of his impact. He’s the only starter with whom the Jazz approach matching their opponents on a per-possession basis over the course of the year1 – their offense has been equivalent to Chicago’s sixth-ranked league-wide unit when he’s on the court while plummeting to levels of ineptitude matched only by the Sixers when he sits down. They shoot the ball far more efficiently when he’s present, and a bottom-five turnover rate (that is, among the five most frequent) for the team overall is skewed drastically by the short minutes during which he rests, ones that would place the Jazz dead last in the league2. These numbers can contain static, but Hayward’s high minute total and the fact that he plays more time against starters than any other roster member may even undersell the reality somewhat in his case.
None of this is new information among those inclined to check up on such figures regularly. And yet, through an alternatively focused lens, it’s entirely possible these sort of gaudy differentials actually underrate the vast impact Hayward is having, particularly on other likely members of Utah’s long-term core.
A look across the remainder of the roster reveals that every other rotation player is badly dependent on Hayward’s presence for their own success, including Favors. No one else has been able to parlay their evolving skills into an on-court game that can keep the team afloat in his absence, this despite a system aimed at emphasizing team play and multiple options within, ideally, a plug-and-play environment. Have a look at per-100-possession numbers, per NBA.com, among Utah’s rotation players with and without Gordon alongside them:
Favors is the most intriguing puzzle piece. He’s undoubtedly had an excellent season, but the way the team nosedives when he plays without Hayward is cause for mild alarm. Their games don’t necessarily come across as particularly symbiotic, but without Gordon’s presence Favors sees huge discrepancies in seemingly independent areas like rebounding, fouls taken, and percentage of points in the paint (a big one for him). His shooting efficiency plummets without Hayward drawing extra attention, and nbawowy.com tells us his usage sees only a small increase.
But on the flip side, the Jazz have actually been marginally better in the 362 minutes Hayward has played without Favors, ones where his usage skyrockets. Some of this success, at least defensively, is surely due to Derrick’s most frequent sub being Rudy Gobert, with whom Hayward has clicked so far (more here momentarily), but remains troubling. Measures such as Real Plus-Minus3 support the notion that the dependency here flows mostly one way, rating Hayward among the league’s elite and Favors as merely slightly above average for his position. Again, these can sometimes be noisy figures, but there are large samples to draw from and the humungous nature of these gaps is real cause for concern.
Others on the roster fare no better without Hayward beside them, though many are slightly less worrying at varying places in their development. It’s unsurprising that Trey Burke struggles mightily under a heavier playmaking burden in such circumstances, as his inability to shake starter-caliber man defense and his propensity for playing it safe are accentuated. Jazz pace, already disappointingly lacking given preseason expectations, slows to a league-low rate when Burke plays without Hayward around to create separation and induce defensive rotations. Both Trey’s offense and the team’s as a whole crashes and burns, with higher turnovers, lower assist totals, and miserable shooting efficiency. Burke himself can almost never get to the line on his own4. And once again, Hayward has been so much better without the team’s starting point guard that even similarly legitimate concerns as noted above regarding Gobert and time versus opposing bench-heavy units are in large part drowned out by the massive gaps in play.
Enes Kanter, and to a slightly lesser degree Alec Burks, are interesting cases in their own right. Both have shown more aggression in non-Hayward minutes, with jumps in usage and other telltale signs like increased free-throw rates. Kanter is the rare Jazzman actually shooting more efficiently with Hayward on the bench, seeming to relish the chance to lead these units offensively. Burks has been less efficient but far more eager, though Hayward-less units have been able to maintain close to league-average offensive performance with Enes where they haven’t with Alec (defense craters in either case). Whether it would ever work financially5 is another question, but these themes are at least a broad stroke case for the potential of both these players, especially Kanter, as bench unit anchors for a contending Jazz team. If they can be coaxed to merely league average defensive levels versus primarily NBA backups, layering Hayward’s rest periods could become slightly less of a challenge.
And speaking of the bench, some of Utah’s subs present compelling scenarios of their own when Hayward is or isn’t alongside them. The Jazz post rare positive per-possession figures when any of Gobert, Exum, Booker, or Hood share the floor with Gordon, though the fact that the majority of these periods come against similarly weaker opposing bench groups can’t be ignored. Again though, the differences are so huge that they warrant a look even with this caveat firmly in place.
Gobert stands out, specifically for the way the team is impacted defensively on either end of the spectrum. Rudy has unquestionably been the team’s best defensive player… but not when Gordon sits. In well over 200 such minutes, Utah’s defense has ruptured to sub-Lakers levels in contrast to figures that would be league-best with both on the floor. This sort of dependency is really surprising from a player who, to the naked eye, seems to operate independently of his teammates on defense and, indeed, often cover many of their warts. Numbers like these, while only part of the picture, seem to inflate Gordon’s value not only offensively, but as a wing defender as well.
The list could stretch on and on, but the point is clear: this isn’t a capable NBA basketball team when Gordon Hayward hits the bench. This is fine for now, as coach Snyder continues to emphasize process while results matter somewhat less – and also while static and tangential elements are still in play just enough to foster remaining uncertainty about the numbers. But the timetable will accelerate before long, and the Jazz have to hope others on the roster are able to fulfill their promise. Some amount of reliance on a team’s best player is of course part of the game, but such dangerous levels for a player who likely tops out just below superstar caliber aren’t conducive to a winning atmosphere in the long run.