Is Gordon Hayward Really Worth the Max?

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Is Gordon Hayward Really Worth the Max?
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Gordon Hayward is to this year's NBA free-agent market what Russia once was to Winston Churchill: a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside what might be a max contract.

The intrigue surrounding Hayward's uncertain future remains after a recent visit with the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, Hayward left Rock City without so much as an offer sheet from the Cavs, much less one in the max-salary range that was rumored to have been headed his way.

You don't have to be a full-blown capologist to understand why Hayward left town without the prospect of a big payday. As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski noted, the threat of the Jazz matching any contract for Hayward, a restricted free agent, may have deterred the Cavs from tethering their precious cap space to him until Utah makes up its mind. An offer sheet could still come, though the Jazz would have three days to decide what to do about it, leaving Cleveland twisting in the wind in the interim.

It's possible, too, that the Cavs' hesitation in this instance had less to do with Utah's supposed intent to match and more with Cleveland's own concern about whether Hayward is actually worth top dollar. 

Which wouldn't be all that surprising, seeing as how difficult it still is to nail down who Hayward is as a player, what his value is in a vacuum and what it should be on the open market.

 

On Point?

USA TODAY Sports

Four years into his NBA career, Hayward has already proved to be a productive player with plenty of upside to accompany a sizable dose of volatility and uncertainty in the growth of his game.

Few in the game today sport the sort of stat-sheet-stuffing versatility that Hayward, at 6'8", brings to the table. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Hayward was one of just five players to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and five assists during the 2013-14 season:

 

Gordon Hayward's Select Company
Points Rebounds Assists PER
Kevin Durant 32.0 7.4 5.5 29.8
LeBron James 27.1 6.9 6.3 29.3
Russell Westbrook 21.8 5.7 6.9 24.7
Gordon Hayward 16.2 5.1 5.2 16.2
Michael Carter-Williams 16.7 6.2 6.3 15.5

Basketball-Reference.com

In most respects, Hayward grades out as an above-average playmaker, even more so for his position. According to NBA.com, Hayward ranked sixth among forwards in drives per game (5.4), second in assist opportunities (11.2), third in assists (5.2) and fourth in assist percentage (.237).

Those numbers all represent massive leaps from year three to year four and not just because Hayward was more experienced and, thus, more trustworthy in the eyes of Utah's coaching staff. The Jazz began the most recent campaign without anything resembling a competent point guard. With rookie Trey Burke sidelined by injury, Hayward became Utah's de facto floor general, for better or worse.

As far as running the pick-and-roll is concerned, Hayward has plenty of polishing ahead of him. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Hayward turned the ball over a whopping 22.1 percent of the time he ran the league's pet play. That wouldn't be quite so problematic if he didn't operate as the ball-handler therein so often; 27 percent of Hayward's plays came as the point man in the pick-and-roll.

"It’s just trying to make a play," Hayward told Grantland's Zach Lowe of his turnover problems in the pick-and-roll. "And when you’re trying to make plays, sometimes it doesn’t work out. You’re going to have turnovers if you’re aggressive. It’s just a natural thing."

Perhaps the role of primary floor general just doesn't come naturally to Hayward—not yet, at least. In time, he could become a dynamic actor in the pick-and-roll, especially if he plays on a better team with a more consistent coaching staff. The replacement of Tyrone Corbin with Quin Snyder at head coach in Salt Lake City could bring a greater sense of stability to the team as a whole and to Hayward's role in it.

Luckily for Hayward, none of his suitors is likely to ask him to handle the ball as much as he did last season. If the Jazz keep him, Hayward figures to defer to Burke and rookie Dante Exum to run Utah's offense. If the Cavs snag him, he'll be the one catching passes from Kyrie Irving rather than the other way around. 

A reunion with former Butler coach Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics would put Hayward behind Rajon Rondo and rookie Marcus Smart in the playmaking pecking order. He'd find a similar situation with the Phoenix Suns, assuming they retain both Goran Dragic and restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe.

The list goes on, but the point remains: Hayward isn't a point guard by trade, and he wouldn't have to be wherever he lands.

 

Shooting Scars

USA TODAY Sports

Hayward's greatest attribute, at least on the offensive end, is his shooting stroke.

In theory, anyway. Hayward's overall shooting percentage has dipped from year to year, with his three-point shot providing some reprieve every other year thus far:

Gordon Hayward's Shooting, Year by Year
Minutes FGA FG% 2P% 3P%
2010-11 16.9 4.1 .485 .489 .473
2011-12 30.5 8.9 .456 .498 .346
2012-13 29.2 10.7 .435 .444 .415
2013-14 36.4 13.4 .413 .453 .304

Basketball-Reference.com

Now, some decrease in efficiency is to be expected when a given player, particularly a young one, sees his role in a team's offense expand. That's been the case for Hayward, who's had to take more shots and just do more overall to keep the Jazz humming along with each passing season.

Shot distribution certainly plays into it, as well. Here's a look at Hayward's shot chart from his sophomore season in the NBA:

NBA.com/stats

Notice how he took fewer shots by percentage from close range—and more shots from the perimeter—in year three:

NBA.com/stats

And how that shift continued apace in year four, even with the ball in his hands as often as it was:

NBA.com/stats

The quality of shots has plenty to do with the overall outcome of those taken, which Hayward's charts would seem to corroborate.

What's more difficult to explain, though, is why Hayward struggled so mightily off the catch in 2013-14. Typically, shooters fare better when they've had the shot set up for them by someone else.

Not so for Hayward, who was more mason than marksman on catch-and-shoot opportunities:

Gordon Hayward by Shot Type
Points Per Game FG%
Drives 2.8 40.9%
Close Shots 0.6 43.2%
Catch and Shoot 4.1 34.7
Pull Up 3.7 39.8

NBA.com/stats

That's not a good sign for a guy who's supposed to be a floor-stretcher on the wing—even less so for someone who's up for the kind of payday that could set him up for life.

If nothing else, Hayward should be able to hold his own (and then some) on the defensive end while he gets his offensive game back on track. He has the size, athleticism and lateral quickness to guard any of the three perimeter positions and has already established himself as one of the league's premier purveyors of the chase-down block.

 

What's Hayward Worth?

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Still, in strict statistical terms, Hayward's contributions are far from commensurate with the salary he's after and could draw from a willing suitor.

According to analytics wizard Daniel Myers, Hayward's production was worth about $9.3 million last season. That's an uptick over the $7.2 million of value he created the season prior and a huge outperformance of the $3.5 million he actually took home at the end of his rookie deal.

But even that figure would be a far cry from what Hayward could earn on the open market. According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, a max offer from the Cavs would pay Hayward $63 million over four years, including a starting salary of $14.8 million. 

Keep in mind that this isn't the same sort of max that superstars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are currently seeking. Players coming off their rookie contracts are eligible for compensation on a lesser scale than are unrestricted veterans seeking out their third NBA deals. As Salt City Hoops' Dan Clayton detailed last November:

Other teams can offer Hayward the same starting salary (13.7M, if the salary cap stays the same next year), but are limited to smaller raises and a 4-year deal. So the total the Jazz could offer him could go as high as $78.8M over five years or $61M over four years, but another team can only offer up to four years and $58.5M, and if the Jazz were willing to match that deal, Hayward stays.

The numbers that Cleveland reportedly had in mind would seem to meet the expectations that Hayward and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, had when they tried (and failed) to come to terms on an extension to stay in Salt Lake City long term prior to last year's Halloween deadline.

According to the Deseret News' Jody Genessy, Hayward's camp had been after something between the deal Derrick Favors got (four years, $47 million) and the super-max one Paul George garnered a year earlier (five years, $80 million).

If that, indeed, was the case, the Jazz must not have initially tendered Hayward an extension offer within that range. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't be talking about him in this way right now.

The question is, will any team, Utah or otherwise, actually be compelled to fulfill Hayward's expectations?

We will soon find out. At present, the NBA is waiting on pins and needles to see where LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony wind up. Once they've made their decisions, the rest of the market should start to sort itself out.

Does Gordon Hayward deserve a max contract?

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Even then, Hayward might have to wait his turn behind a number of high-profile wings before he's the best player at his position who's still up for grabs. Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons and Paul Pierce could all get snapped up by squads before Hayward does. If that happens, there may not be many suitors around to drive up the bidding for Hayward's services.

And that's before factoring in the same concerns about restricted free agency that probably played into Cleveland withholding an offer sheet for Hayward, at least for the time being. With so many quality swingmen out there, who's going to want to tie up their cap space for Hayward, especially if the Jazz are planning to match under any and all circumstances?

At the end of this process, Utah could wind up simply bidding against itself and Hayward's camp, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Nikola Pekovic did last summer. After weeks of quiet negotiations, Pekovic emerged with a five-year, $60 million deal.

Hayward may well extract that much cash from the Jazz. Flawed though he may be, Hayward's still only 24. His best basketball should be well ahead of him. As is, Hayward's blend of size, skill and versatility makes him not just any valuable commodity but one of the most valuable available this summer.

Just not one quite worthy of a max contract. 

 

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