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Gambling On Gordon Hayward

Mar 22, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Gordon Hayward (20) talks with referee Leon Wood (40) during the first half against the Orlando Magic at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

After a hideously slow NBA news day, word broke late Tuesday night that Gordon Hayward had reached an agreement for a 4 year, $63 million offer sheet with the Charlotte Bobcats Hornets (it will take same getting used to again.) Though Utah has vowed to match any offer for the 5th year wing, that certainly seems like an awful lot of money for a guy who frankly wasn’t that good during the 2013/14 season. Charlotte is making a gamble that we didn’t see the best of Hayward last season, with some evidence in support.

First the bad. In his first try as an offensive focal point after the departures of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson via free agency, Hayward struggled mightily at times. Though he set career highs in most major statistical categories (16.2 pts. 5.1 rebs, 5.2 assists and 1.4 steals, one of only 8 players to average 10/5/5), he had by far his worst shooting season, posting a True Shooting Percentage of .520 when he had never been below .564 in his first three years. He also struggled with turnovers, posting a career high even taking his increased minutes into account. The drop off in production was especially acute from distance. Despite shooting almost exactly 40% from three-point range over his first 3 seasons, Hayward was shot a miserable 30.4% on 3.6 3PA/GM.

On the other hand, the Jazz’s roster forced him into a lot of bad spots. Especially playing with the likes of Jamaal Tinsley and Diante Garrett at the point to start the year, Hayward was forced to assume a great deal of the offense initiation duties while remaining the number one scoring option. Utah’s offense was something of a train wreck as a result. Even though it got better once Trey Burke got back on the floor following a preseason broken finger, that only meant the Jazz had the 24th ranked offense in the league as opposed to dead last prior to Burke entering the starting lineup.

The burden this responsibility placed on Hayward can be seen in any numbers of areas, whether the turnovers, or the fact that he was forced into the highest proportion of  “dead zone”  shots (attempts neither at the rim nor from 3 point range) of any season of his career. In previous years, only around 45% of his attempts where from these less efficient areas, but in 2013/14 this percentage nearly reversed and 53% of his shots where from midrange.

Still, even with these mitigating factors, he seems a slightly odd candidate for a max offer sheet. After all, evidence to this point suggest he’s not legitimate first option on a team with any ambition.  Early moves in this free agency period suggest the league is obsessed with shooting. Wings who can’t space the floor tend to be seen as liabilities. While Hayward has a nice range of skills with his ability to do a little of everything, but so do Shaun Livingston and Josh McRoberts, both players who got far smaller deals. So what gives?

The easiest explanation for Charlotte’s largess is they don’t believe Hayward is a 30% three-point shooter. Per NBA.com He shot 26.8% on corner 3$, last in the league among the 111 players who attempted at least 20 in each corner. Prior to last season he shot 41.7% from the corners. According to MySynergySports, he shot 31.4% on spot-up 3s last season. In his first three seasons he shot 42.6% on these mostly catch-and-shoot attempts. All told, Hayward’s shooting wasn’t down just because he was taking tougher shots, he shot significantly worse on his easier shots as well. Simply reverting to career norms on spot up attempts and Hayward’s True Shooting would jump to a robust .556.

There are a number of reasons the Hornets can be optimistic about a bounce back year from Hayward if Utah doesn’t match the offer sheet. He’ll no longer be feeling the pressure of carrying a crappy offense in a contract year. He’ll get better looks off of ball reversal from Al Jefferson post ups (and remember he shot 41.5% from 3 in 2012/13 in a Jefferson-centric offense.) Perhaps most interestingly, maybe Charlotte identified a small flaw in Hayward’s mechanics they think they can fix.

Though, the contract represents a big gamble by the Hornets, it could pay big dividends for them. In the first year of Steve Clifford’s coaching regime, they became a stingy defense who were limited by their poor offense, primarily resulting from a lack of wing shooting and playmaking. Especially if he regains a dangerous three-point stroke, Hayward provides both.

Even if Utah matches as they reportedly will, Charlotte has shown they are no longer the laughingstock franchise they were only three seasons ago when they coined the term “Bobcatting” which describes a team which achieves the unlikely feat of finishing 30th in the NBA in both overall offense and defense.

Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He writes about basketball at places like Washington Post's #FancyStats Blog, TrueHoop Network's ClipperBlog and his own website Where Offense Happens. Follow him @SethPartnow and sethpartnow.tumblr.com