Just How Vital is Gordon Hayward?

December 29th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Isaac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Isaac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

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:

Hayward On/Off

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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. The fact that Exum has the highest net rating with Hayward is a good sign though. It shows that maybe eventually we will see Exum be the main cog with Hayward being second, or at least that he could be a big piece on the level of Hayward. Then we wouldn’t be relying solely on the one guy

  2. IDJazzman says:

    Anyone that watches the Jazz can see how dependent the team is on Hayward. When he is on the floor offense and defense usually flows, when he is off, it is usually ugly. One thought here gives hope for the future. Hayward has a lot more hardcore development time (playing against starting lineups), than any other player on the Jazz, I believe that Favors is the only one close to his total playing time, against starting lineups. Playing time develops and the players on this team have a long ways to go, because of young players being recently added and decisions in the past of not playing the young guys over veterans. I have been a Hayward supporter, even all of last year and on his new contract. It is good to see his critics being silenced by his play.

    • Mewko says:

      How long can he continue this play, and how much more can he refine his game? He just entered his prime.
      Can he sustain this star play by the time Dante Exum comes around? He’s 5 years older than Dante. Hopefully Dante can grow up faster than Gordon did. Hopefully Dante can enter stardom before his fifth year.

  3. Neil Arnold says:

    I was disappointed that you didn’t comment on the Ingles case. Given the strikingly low differential (compared to all of the others save Kanter – really Kanter?) between the presence and absence of Gordon, it seems that this team (and maybe more importantly the Snyder system) requires a very skilled and smart wing facilitator. An awareness of this may also explain the surprising statistical case of Jingles.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      I try not to run on TOO much (often unsuccessfully), and in this case wanted to focus more on players who have a good chance at being highly relevant future pieces.

      • Paul Johnson says:

        I think Ingles could have a future with the Jazz as a key bench player. I am guessing that he is a much better shooter than he has shown, but is still adjusting his shot to playing at the NBA level. He is also a much better defensive player than I thought, due to his length. If he improves his strength, is able to learn how to play team defense, and is able to improve his shooting (on the NBA level), he could be very good off the bench for the Jazz–kind of a “Hayward-lite” type of player.

        • Ben Dowsett says:

          He’s certainly been improving lately, especially defensively as you alluded to. But while I try not to be too negative, and he’s certainly a great locker room presence by all accounts and a good experienced player to help with Dante and others’ maturation, he would need to raise his 3 point shooting by about 10% or more to have a shot as anything but a spot minutes player for a real 9-deep contender like the Jazz hope to be in a couple years. He is also only under contract for one year.

          • Paul Johnson says:

            Based on information found on Wikipedia, Ingles shot around .400 on three point shots in the Euro-league the past two years (.394 for 2012-2103 and .417 for 2013-2014). He has very good court sense, always seems to know where he should be on the court spacing-wise, and is a good play maker/passer. If he could transition his shooting to shoot around the same percentage in the NBA as he did in Euro-league (the past two years) and could add some strength–so that he could finish better on drives to the rim, and could play better NBA defense–he has the potential to be a very good bench player for the Jazz going forward.

        • Ben Dowsett says:

          Gotta respond here to your 1:37 12-30 comment, we replied too often ha:

          Gotta remember that Euro 3-line is shorter, and that level of competition is far weaker. 53 of his 60 attempts from 3 this year have been either “Open” or “Wide Open” per SportVU definitions, AKA no defender within 4 feet – yet he’s still shooting 25% even. Shooting can vary, to be sure, but I see no evidence that this is a competent NBA shooter.

          Furthermore, I think the idea of him as a “smart” player with great court sense is overblown and just not true. He’s neck and neck with Exum (a 19 year old with no professional experience, ever) for highest TO% on the team, and constantly stops the ball amid meaningful rotations and stalls the offense. I do think he’s improved well recently on the defensive end, but he’s still nothing but average at best, and gets crushed by any athletic wing.

          Bench player is an absolute ceiling for what I’ve seen so far on a real NBA contender. I just don’t think he’s really an integral part of the future, though he’s been great for Dante and the locker room this year.

      • Neil Arnold says:

        So if I may run (too much?) with your constraint, part of my point is the suggestion that we may be short on pieces like Hayward and Jingles, given the system. Further, it suggests that – in spite of approving of Coach Corbin’s Burks at point guard experiment (I do think that it made him a better player though it was tough to watch at times) – there may be additional questions about whether Burks will develop into long term wing piece for this system.

        • Ben Dowsett says:

          We are indeed short now with AB’s injury, but the rub is that this doesn’t necessarily matter as much in a year like this. The Jazz won’t mortgage even a small piece of the future to add depth, and Ingles is competent enough among the current wings that he’ll see time. But they didn’t pay Burks this summer to shelve him without a long trial period, and when this team is attempting to contend, I just don’t think there will be a place for a guy as limited as Jingles.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks for this eye-opening article, Ben. Well done.

    Before reading this, I thought that Favors (and, possibly, Gobert) was the team’s MVP with Hayward a close second. But these numbers clearly suggest that Hayward is far-and-away the team MVP. I’m especially disappointed with how Favors’ performance craters when Hayward goes to the bench.

    Hayward is something of this squad’s Stockton – everything just runs better when he plays. I think it was the PHI game where Burke was ineffective at running the offense late in the game (he would often walk the ball up and end up shooting an inefficient shot). With the game on the line, Hayward started bringing the ball up and went right to work with Favors with some PnR play. That’s when UTA med that big push to win the game.

  5. Pingback: Gordon Hayward is Tired | Salt City Hoops

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