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Trending Hornets: Is Gordon Hayward over the hill?

Let’s see what two advanced stats - PER and VORP - tell us about Gordon Hayward’s career trajectory

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Trending Hornets series evaluates the career trajectories of Charlotte’s players based on two advanced stats - Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) - as provided by Basketball Reference.

PER measures per-minute production standardized such as the league average is 15. A PER above 15 means a player contributed above league average. As a frame of reference, among this year’s PER leaders, the Top 20 players were 22.7 and higher, No. 21-40 ranged from 20.0 to 22.4, and No. 41-60 were 17.7 through 19.9.

VORP is a box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement level player. A VORP of 1.2 means the team was 1.2 points better off per 100 possessions with this player on the floor versus a league average player. Among this year’s VORP leaders, the Top 20 were 3.2 and higher, No. 21-40 ranged from 2.1 to 3.0, and No. 41-60 were 1.6 to 2.0.

This week we will look at the trajectory of Gordon Hayward (excluding his 2017-18 season when he played just one game).

Career trend overview

Gordon entered the league in 2010-11 as a skinny No. 9 overall pick out of Butler. He averaged 16.9 minutes per game as a rookie but struggled by posting a PER of just 10.7, well below the league average of 15. His VORP was also below that of a replacement player at -0.1. But Gordon’s game noticeably improved in Year 2 and continued progressing in Years 3-4, posting PERs above 16 and VORPs above 2.0 each season.

Those early improvements laid the foundation for Hayward to take his game to the next level over the following three seasons. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17 he averaged a PER of 20.2 and a VORP of 3.9, which are solid results. He was rewarded with an All-Star nod in 2016-17 when he put up a career-high PER of 22.2 (25th in the NBA) and VORP of 4.5 (20th overall) by averaging 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game.

Following his All-Star season he broke the hearts of Jazz fans everywhere in 2017 by signing as a free agent with the Boston Celtics. He played in just one game with the Celtics in 2017-18 (omitted from the chart above) due to injury then had a rocky comeback year in 2018-19 where his PER of 15.6 and VORP of 1.3 weren’t much better than his second NBA season.

But by 2019-20 he rounded back into form in Boston. His 18.1 PER and 2.0 VORP were solid, placing him just below Jayson Tatum (20.4 / 3.4) and Kemba Walker (20.0 / 2.9) and just above Jaylen Brown (16.9 / 1.4).

In 2020 Hayward signed a 4-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. His season was limited to just 44 of 72 games and he averaged 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. This translated to a good-but-not-great PER of 17.6 and VORP of 1.3.

What this means for the Hornets

To put Hayward’s advanced stats in context, his 17.6 PER was second among all Hornets regular players behind Cody Zeller’s 18.2 and ranked 61st in the league. His VORP of 1.3 was third on the team trailing Terry Rozier (2.1) and LaMelo Ball (1.4) and tied for 72nd in the NBA. With an average annual salary of $30 million per year through 2023-24, the advanced stats crowd would like to see more out of Gordon.

What’s most concerning is Hayward took a step back this past year when compared to his 2019-20 season, his last one in Boston. The hope from Hornets fans before this season was that by 2019-20 Hayward had fully recovered from his 2017 injury and would elevate his game even further by being the No. 1 option in Charlotte. That didn’t happen. His advanced stats in his first season with the Hornets were more like his early years with the Jazz, not his peak ones.

At 31 Hayward isn’t washed up by any means and can have some very good basketball ahead of him, provided he can stay healthy. His advanced stats chart literally paints a picture that he’s “over the hill” from his 2016-17 peak, but he’s still a solid player. When the Hornets signed Hayward I wrote an impassioned column praising the move, and I stand by that.

Next year will be a key one for Gordon Hayward. If he can push his PER and VORP back closer to his prime years in Utah, he can be the veteran leader who elevates the Hornets back into the playoffs. But if his play continues on his declining trajectory, the Hornets results as a team might mirror Hayward’s as an individual - good, but not quite good enough.