In a season full of disappointments and questions about his role, positives have been few and far between for Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward. Marred in what feels like a season-long shooting slump as the days count down to his impending restricted free-agency this summer, the young Butler product has had a tough time adjusting to life as a centerpiece for a developing team. His inconsistency, documented recently by yours truly, has raised concerns about his ability to be a franchise player night in and night out.
But as is frequently the case for players with his sort of talent, things aren’t just black and white. Elements of Hayward’s game have certainly failed to translate in his new role, but it doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that he’s some kind of lost cause as an NBA player. Far from it, and certain circles and metrics still see Hayward as a particularly valuable asset.
One of these metrics is APM (Adjusted Plus-Minus) and it’s recently-pioneered wins equivalent, the aptly-named SWAg (full description for both here).1 For the most recent two-year regressions on GotBuckets, Hayward checks in within the top 35 for both APM and SWAg rating 2. What allows him to retain such a high ranking for this metric while regressing in others? Let’s take a look.
It’s important to note right away that APM and SWAg are calculated as two-year regressions that do not weight the most recent season as more valuable than the previous one like some other advanced plus-minus statistics do. It also makes no adjustments for garbage time or clutch numbers. These are both relevant points for Hayward (the Jazz have unfortunately played quite a bit of garbage time this season – Hayward himself has already played 242 minutes with a score margin of at least 16 points, per NBA.com), but particularly the two-year element: those paying any attention to personnel changes in Salt Lake City already recognize the vast difference in Hayward’s responsibilities given the team surrounding him in previous seasons versus this one. And while the subject of role has certainly been discussed ad nauseam already, it can’t be underrated and, in this case, hits at the crux of both Hayward’s surprisingly high APM/SWAg rating and some of his struggles this season.
The two most major personnel changes in Utah, of course, were the free-agency departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. For obvious reasons, this changed the way Utah ran their offense – Jefferson, in particular, is one of the league’s premier post threats, and the Jazz frequently centered their attack around his skills there. Per Synergy, Utah has finished only 9.4% of plays out of the post this season compared with 16.1% last year and 17.1% in 2011-12 – and that’s only counting finished plays. It’s a fair bet to imagine these numbers would greatly increase when including plays that originated in the post and finished with a good look as a result of a pass out. In comparison, the Jazz have finished 23.0% of plays via the pick-and-roll (both the roll man and the ball-handler) this season compared with just 12.8% last season and 10.8% the year before – there’s no question the departure of two above-average post players in high-usage roles has vastly changed the way Utah runs their offense.
So how does this affect Hayward specifically? Perceptive observers will note that while his usage gap between the two seasons was an issue earlier in the year, Hayward is actually only using 1.4% more possessions while on the floor than last season due to a dip in recent weeks. But it’s the way he’s forced to get his shots and the areas he’s getting them in that have suffered without Jefferson and Millsap anchoring the attack. He’s already taken more mid-range shots through 55 games this season than he did all of last year, according to NBA.com – he’s at nearly five a game compared with just over three a game last season (although he’s shooting them at a higher percentage this year, to his credit). He’s also been able to shoot less spot-up jumpers without the open looks generated by Al and Paul, down to 16.9% of his finished plays compared with 21.7% and 26.8% each of the past two seasons, per Synergy. He’s shooting more threes overall, but a far higher portion of these are forced and contested compared with the mostly-open looks he was getting in previous seasons as a spot-up man, which contributes somewhat to his drastic drop in efficiency from deep (though doesn’t account for all of it, or even come close).
Perhaps the biggest change, though, is how much more frequently he’s being forced to create his own shot. Many have attributed some of his struggles this year to him pressing or forcing shots, and the numbers bear out support for this theory. While Hayward had a healthy distribution last season with nearly 70% of his baskets coming via an assist and 30% unassisted, this year the two are almost exactly 50-50. In particular, the closer he gets to the hoop, the lower his percentage of assisted field-goals becomes – good looks via off-ball cuts and screens as secondary actions around the post have been replaced by tough drives to the hoop and far more attention from defenses close to the basket without Jefferson and Millsap around to clean up.
Put it all together, and not only does it become easier to explain some of Hayward’s troubles this year, but we also get some insight into why APM and SWAg still rate him so highly. Of course, this isn’t simply a case of one good year propping up one awful year, not by a long shot. Expectations may have been higher for this season, but it’s not like there’s no value to be had from a player scoring 16 points a game to go with over five boards and five dimes plus nearly 1.5 steals a night. Hayward has upped his rebounding and assist numbers per-36-minutes somewhat significantly from last season, and is even shooting a tick higher from the line. He hasn’t developed into the defensive wing stopper many might have hoped for, but his overall Synergy numbers are roughly similar to last season despite playing on a far worse team defensively, and he continues to do at least an adequate job against the pick-and-roll and navigating screens.
It’s been a tough season for a guy who certainly had to be hoping for better results in his first year as a go-to option. But factor in major personnel changes and their effects – a big role alteration and a significantly downgraded supporting cast – and the blow begins to soften a bit. Add in a borderline elite rating from APM/SWAg and there’s no question things won’t stay this bleak forever. As Utah’s core evolves (and expands, after this year’s draft) over the next few seasons, a return to more organic offense should hopefully see Hayward regain his identity as a jack-of-all-trades swingman. He’s long, young, and clearly cares on the court – without a doubt, there’s a long, productive NBA career ahead for him.