During the 2020 offseason, there was no single transaction more roundly criticized than the Charlotte Hornets’ decision to sign Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million deal. Hayward was, after all, coming off of three injury-plagued years with the Boston Celtics, and simply had not looked like the same player since suffering a gruesome ankle injury1 five minutes into his Celtics tenure and missing the rest of the 2017-18 season.
That Hayward was injured again during the 2020 playoffs (he missed 12 games after spraining his opposite ankle in Game 1 of the first round) did not help his perceived value — especially after he returned and looked dreadful on defense while also shooting 41 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three. So when he got a contract from the Hornets that was nearly identical to the one he signed with the Celtics three years prior (four years, $128 million), there was an understandable bit of sticker shock.
Two months into Hayward’s Hornets tenure, one can quibble with the salary-cap gymnastics the Hornets engaged in to create room for Hayward on their roster,2 but it’s difficult to say his play has not justified his $28.5 million 2020-21 salary. In fact, if you removed identifiers like the year, Hayward’s age and team he was on from his stat lines during his final season in Utah — when he was named a Western Conference All-Star — and his first season in Charlotte, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them.
In nearly the same number of minutes per game (35.5 this year vs. 34.5 in 2016-17), Hayward is averaging 22.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 steals a night this season, compared with 21.9 points, 5.4 boards, 3.5 dimes and 1 swipe during his final year in Utah. His true shooting percentage is nearly identical, with a .598 mark this year — compared with .595 in 2016-17. His usage, free-throw and defensive rebound rates are slightly lower and his turnover rate just a tick higher, but beyond that he has seemingly turned back the clock.
Of course, he’s not 100 percent of the player he used to be. Even a cursory look at on-off data shows that he’s been a drag on Charlotte’s defense, which helps explain why he grades as 1.5 points worse than average per 100 possessions in our RAPTOR defensive metric. That’s not a surprise, given the number and significance of the leg injuries he’s suffered these past few years. Although he’s still able to use his athleticism and power to get where he wants on the offensive end, his ability to change directions multiple times in quick succession when he’s reacting to opponents (instead of driving the action himself) has been compromised.
That said, his effect on the Hornets’s offense has been more than nominal. The majority of the team’s rotation players have been part of more efficient units with Hayward than without him — some by significant margins. In particular, the three-guard lineup featuring LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham on the floor at the same time has seen a boost of about 5 points per 100 possessions when Hayward joins them in the game. Hayward’s ability to slide to the four and fit with any of Cody Zeller, P.J. Washington or Miles Bridges at center in those looks is key to making them work. (The only version of that group that’s been outscored is the one with Bismack Biyombo in the pivot — albeit in only six minutes of playing time.)
Hayward’s also been able to rather seamlessly flip between playing off the ball and with it in his hands, depending upon which of the three guards he shares the floor with. He has knocked down catch-and-shoot threes at a 45.2 percent clip, per Second Spectrum data from NBA Advanced Stats, the 21st-best mark among 130 players taking at least three such shots per game.3 That’s up from his 42.5 percent accuracy last year and way up from his disastrous 35.8 percent conversion rate during his first season back from injury. He’s also been assisted on a greater share of his two-point baskets this year than he was in Boston a year ago, indicating a greater willingness to work away from the ball.
When asked to create, though, Hayward has obliged — and excelled. He’s connecting on 44.9 percent of pull-up jumpers, 15th-best among 58 players taking at least five of those a night. That’s just about in line with the 45.9 percent he made last season, a healthy rebound from the awful 36.9 percent mark he posted in his first year back.
He’s not just creating for himself, either. Hayward has done a strong job setting up his teammates with quality looks — and were it not for them making those shots at a relatively low rate, he might have more assists to his name. Hayward is one of 19 forwards who has created at least 250 shots for his teammates so far this season, per Second Spectrum’s tracking. The names on the list with him are largely familiar ones, and only four of them have seen their teammates shoot worse relative to expectations off of their passes than Hayward has.
All of this, combined with the Hornets’ surprising leap into playoff position (even if said position seems tenuous), has Hayward in the mix for an All-Star berth. Given the volume of criticism lobbed his way this past offseason, that has to be considered a major win whether he ultimately makes the roster or not.
Of course, the Hornets’ splurge for Hayward will ultimately be judged on whether it helps lead to playoff success for a franchise that hasn’t made it past the first round since 2002.4 And that seems somewhat likely to depend more on Ball’s development than on Hayward himself, since the rookie guard is arguably the top 20-and-under building block in the league at the moment.5 Perhaps that alone is an indictment of the deal, since it renders Hayward as a supporting player in Charlotte’s rebuild, but his early play is at least putting to rest the on-court concerns many had when he signed.
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