From the moment he entered the basketball community’s collective consciousness, Gordon Hayward has always inspired mixed reviews. Coming out of Butler following a magical run to the NCAA title game, optimistic scouts found him worthy of comparison to Evan Turner and Wesley Johnson, two other highly lauded swingmen who ended up being taken second and fourth, respectively. Considered a lock to be a positive locker-room presence and with a diverse game and several already-NBA-ready skills, those in this camp opined that Hayward deserved a real look as a top-five pick in a 2010 draft short on sure things beyond top man John Wall.1 Others weren’t so confident, citing Hayward’s lack of a single elite skill as well as motor and role concerns. Still others, including the Jazz, saw him as a mix of the two poles, a useful player with plenty of room for improvement and gobs of upside if developed correctly.
As is frequently the case, the safest expectation is somewhere in between, although a reasonable case can be made for either side with the right selection of data. Lots of Hayward’s development is still relatively unknown and difficult to track, as players with his particular mix of skills are somewhat rare. But one area that’s becoming a serious question mark, for both Hayward and his young Jazz teammates, is consistency. Die-hard Jazz fans know the feeling – sometimes Gordon looks like a force and a top-15 player in the entire NBA, and others he seems to do nothing but brick shots and sieve up defensively. Breaking things down in a more detailed manner, one starts to wonder: is Hayward the barometer for Jazz success this season?
It’s a tough question, one made tougher by some mitigating factors. For instance, while his numbers in wins versus losses fluctuate greatly, as we’ll get into momentarily, some of this is to be expected for many heavy-minute players on young, losing teams like Utah. Teams obviously tend to play better in wins than losses, and young teams in particular are prone to larger swings from game to game. The Jazz have been no exception, with expected large drops across the board, particularly in shooting – they shoot almost exactly 5% worse in losses than wins2, and advanced shooting metrics (eFG% and TS%) are even less kind.
That said, Hayward’s swings are noticeably more violent than the Jazz as a team in several concerning areas. His shooting is a major one, although again he’s far from the only one on the roster with that issue. More bothersome are his contributions elsewhere, specifically his ball-handling and distribution – his assist-to-turnover ratio drops from an elite 2.65 in wins to a ho-hum 1.49 in losses despite nearly equal usage numbers. He doesn’t rebound as well, turns the ball over more frequently, and his three-point percentage differential (39.6% in wins, 26.0% in losses) is frightening. His point-per-possession numbers swing wildly as well; per Synergy, he converts finished offensive plays at .98 PPP in wins and just .76 PPP in losses, a huge gap that’s equivalent to the difference between a slightly above-average offensive player and a team detriment offensively.
Finding on-court reasons for these trends (beyond simply, “Teams play worse when they lose, especially their best players,” which doesn’t cover the enormity of Hayward’s drop-off by a long shot) is far more difficult than spotting the trends themselves; in fact, definitive evidence that holds through extensive scrutiny was impossible to find. His usage numbers are almost identical in wins and losses, and he accounts for the exact same percentage of made Jazz baskets regardless of result. Many, including myself, have theorized that his much heavier workload is weighing on him particularly hard – offensively, at least, this theory breaks down on a game-to-game basis when you note that Hayward’s most efficient game of the year3 was also his highest usage game – he used nearly 34% of Utah’s offensive possessions while on the floor that night. To be clear, this isn’t to say that his increased workload has had no effect on his performance – it absolutely has – simply that a correlation to wins and losses in this vein is tough to find.
Similarly, while I certainly believe this new role has hurt his defense4, the filtering of defensive data available to us doesn’t really allow a detailed examination of how this might correlate to raw wins and losses.5 Using a fairly rudimentary form of analysis, Hayward put up a masterful 27-10 on just 12 shot attempts against the Pelicans on November 13th, only to follow it up with a dreadful 0-8 night for just six points against the same Pelicans only a week later. His defensive assignments for these two games were the same, as he spent the majority of his time on Eric Gordon, and he did roughly the same sort of defensive work. So why the difference?
It’s perplexing, as is the entire issue for Hayward. I spent a great deal of time in preparation for this piece trying to account for the enormous gulfs in his performance, and every time a beam of solution-y light began to show up, it would quickly be removed by a game or set of games that bucked the trend altogether.
With a gun to my head, I’d lean toward these gulfed numbers being more the cause of overall team inconsistency than Hayward individually, though again, both are absolutely the case here. Trey Burke and Derrick Favors, Utah’s other primary players, exhibit somewhat similar drop-offs in certain areas, particularly shooting.6 But neither’s all-around game suffers nearly as much, and neither shows such wild game-to-game swings. Burke, in particular, seems more prone to simply disappearing during bad games; this isn’t good, of course, but it might be preferable to continuing to press and causing further harm like Hayward does more commonly.7 Alas, the only firm conclusion we may be able to reach is that because Hayward is the primary option for Utah, at least offensively, his swings in play just correlate more heavily to team results than any other individual.8
With the summer rapidly approaching, Utah’s front office has some serious evaluating to do. Making the right call on Hayward in restricted free-agency will play a huge role in the franchise’s fortunes going forward, and he’s a lock to attract attention from other suitors around the league. These consistency questions, along with others many have discussed throughout the season, have to be weighing heavily on Dennis Lindsey’s mind while he contemplates the possibility of having to match a competitor’s offer that many expect will exceed Favors’ $12 million per year cap hit. A potential crossroads looms large for a franchise on the rise, and a misstep here could throw a major wrench in the team’s plans. Cheers, folks, and enjoy the stretch run.