Before you jump off the Gordon Hayward bandwagon, there are some things you should know.
Particularly if your discomfort at the idea of matching a max or near-max offer sheet1 for the versatile wing has to do with the-devil-you-don’t-know type logic, pull up a chair. I’ve got numbers.
Don’t get me wrong, $60+ million is a lot of money, and if that’s really what Hayward’s offer sheet comes to, the Jazz will wince for about a half a second right before they sign the damn thing and go out for an ice cream cone to celebrate. Why? Because none of the players you think compare to Hayward actually do what he does.
Grass often seems greener elsewhere, the saying goes, so it’s getting more common to hear a response like, “Just let him walk and go get So-and-so instead.” The problem is, in just about every case I’ve heard so far, So-and-so isn’t as complete a player as the Butler product.
For example, Chandler Parsons’ name comes up a lot as a guy who is roughly equivalent to Hayward. It’s easy to see why. The two check all the boxes for the lazy man’s comp: same size, body type, position and complexion. But they also have pretty similar raw numbers. Per 36 minutes, they both averaged almost exactly 16 points on roughly 13 shots. But does that mean their games are comparable?
“Parsons plays in an optimal spread floor system. His stats might be a bit juiced,” ESPN’s Ethan Strauss tweeted while defending a comment that Hayward is better than Parsons. In other words, he’s saying that Parsons raw numbers, while comparable to Hayward’s, have a lot to do with how he’s used and that he plays next to two All-NBA players.
Hayward also gets lumped in statistically and stylistically with players like Warriors guard Klay Thompson, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and even teammate Alec Burks, who seems to have surpassed Hayward on some fans’ boards as favorite Jazz wing.
The problem with all these comps: they don’t work. None of those guys do everything that Hayward does. To underscore this point, let’s look at each player’s possession identity to understand their profiles.
Per Synergy, Hayward had 1406 possessions that he “used” for an attempt, a drawn foul or a turnover, not counting the times when he used a particular play type to generate offense for someone else (more on that in a minute). For starters, the only player in this group who had more possessions allocated to them was Thompson, and that’s largely because he just never surrenders the ball. So already we can see that Hayward more central to what his team is doing than the others.
Hayward used 492 of those possessions as the P&R handler or in isolation, meaning plays where he’s responsible for creating. The only guy who came close to that number was Burks (17 fewer) and the other three were somewhere in the 200-300 range. They’re just not expected to create their own shot in the half court.
Where Leonard, Parsons and Thompson are getting the lion’s share of their offense is on play types where other people are creating for them. For each of those guys, 300-400 of their possessions were spot-ups, meaning go stand on the wing while Tony Parker, James Harden or Steph Curry forces defenses to collapse. Hayward was second-to-last among the group in spot shooting possessions, so he didn’t have the luxury of playing off of other guys. He was also dead-last in possessions used off the cut.
The transition column is interesting, too, specifically as it relates to the validity of the Parsons comp. Playing for the pedal-to-the-medal Rockets, Parsons got about 25% more transition possessions than Hayward. I was surprised to see Burks’ transition number so low relative to this crowd, especially since fan perception is that he’s an athletic, dangerous finisher in open court.
Leonard and Thompson are the only ones on this group that use a significant amount of possessions. This is probably because they’re punishing teams that try to cross-match those guys’ elite offensive teammates or aggressively switch on screens, another tactical advantage Hayward doesn’t benefit from.
Finally, Parsons and Leonard also get a lot of high-efficiency second looks, probably because they’re full-time threes, while the others in this group play interchangeably at the wing positions.
So far we’re painting the picture that the other guys on this list are largely system players who have elite teammates creating many of their opportunities. But this is just on possessions “used”; what about the possessions where they pass the ball?
Hayward has the ball in his hands a lot more than his peers in this group, and this is reflected on this pair of graphs. He’s touching the ball a great deal more than the others – close to 70 times per game.
Again, Thompson is a funny outlier here. Where the other guys all pass the ball on 80-90% of their touches, 42% of the time Klay touches, he keeps it, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. And he’s not keeping it to hold it, because his time of possession is also the lowest of all these guys despite having the highest usage. Basically, he catches and then quickly “uses” — takes a shot, draws a foul, or loses the ball — the play.
That’s very different from Hayward, who creates 25% more teammate points per game than the next guy in this group, and 2-3 times as much as the others. The 50 passes per game means that not only is he creating more of his own offense than these other supposed comps, but he’s doing far more facilitation for everybody else, too. Keep that in mind before making a casual comp to someone who reminds you of Hayward.
In an ideal world, you could get this type of complete performance from Hayward but add better talent around him, thus fully unleashing his unique abilities that make him stand out from this crowd. If that happened, it wouldn’t take much for Gordon to reach impressive statistical levels. I threw out that I think his ceiling is as a do-it-all, 20/6/6 guy. Let’s see how realistic that it.
First, scoring. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon didn’t take a noticeably bigger chuck of shots last season, at least on per-minute basis. His per-36 or per-possession FGA numbers were essentially flat from 2012-13. He’s a guy who, pretty consistently now, is going to take 13 shots and 5 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. He did that the season before with the vets still in Utah and he did it last season as the supposed #1 option.
The problem was the much-discussed efficiency drop. He had career lows from the field and downtown, but that’s only part of the story. In his first three years, he was getting 27% of his attempts at the rim, 29% from three, and 33% on two-pointers from farther than 10 feet out. Last season, he dropped to 21% of his attempts coming around the basket and 27% from three while his mid- and long-range 2s went up to 39% of his shots. Having higher-quality teammates and a more spread system might allow Gordon to get the types of shots he’s comfortable with. If he were to maintain his minutes and attempts from last season but return to his previous eFG%, he’d be averaging 17.6 with no other changes.
Then you figure that Snyder has promised more running. The Jazz played at the fifth-slowest pace in the NBA last season, and they scored just 12 points per game on the break. If Snyder wants to run more, the chief architects of the Jazz’s transition offense are going to be Dante Exum and Hayward. It’s not hard at all to envision Hayward adding an extra bucket a game in the open court if the Jazz make a team-level focus on that, and suddenly he’s right at or near 20 points.
What about assists? Hayward had 5.2 assists on 11.2 assist opportunities last season, which means six times per game he put someone in position to score but that player missed the shot. I have no mathematical proof that it will happen less this upcoming season, but if the Jazz put more legit NBA talent around him, it’s more likely that those shots fall. Enough to cover a 0.8 per game gap? We’ll see. Also, if the offense is going to be more pick-and-roll based, Hayward is currently the Jazz’s best P&R handler, so that could led to more assists as well.
From a rebounding perspective, the addition of Exum and probable departure of Richard Jefferson means we’ll see Hayward spend more time at small forward. More possessions also means more rebounds, so even if he doesn’t see a positional bump to his rebounding percentage, a slight uptick in pace could help him on a rebounding front. Even a 3-possession increase to the league average means six more total possessions (three each team). Let’s assume based on minutes that Hayward is on the court for five of them (on average). His rebounds-per-100-possessions number would suggest that he could see a +.4 bump in rebounding average from that one factor alone.
Now, if the Jazz are contending in the next few years, it’s because Exum, Derrick Favors and others have improved, too, so at that point the Jazz may not be as Hayward-dependent and his numbers might be back to something like 17/4/52. But in the short term, 20/6/6 is a real possibility, and would put Hayward in pretty elite company3.
For Hayward to join that group would make him an elite-level, Swiss-army utility player that could be the Robin to someone’s Batman on a very good team. And even if he doesn’t quite reach that zenith, the comp exercise above shows he’s already got a better worst-case scenario than players like Parsons, Thompson and others who only do for their teams a portion of what Hayward does for the Jazz.