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Trending Hornets: Gordon Hayward needs to reverse the arrow of his career trajectory

After 12 years in the league, the former All-Star needs to stay healthy and recapture his previous high level of play.

Denver Nuggets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/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 last season’s PER leaders, the Top 20 players were 21.8 and higher while Nos. 21-40 ranged from 18.9 to 21.6.

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 last season’s VORP leaders, the Top 20 were 3.5 and higher and Nos. 21-40 ranged from 2.2 to 3.4.

This week we’ll look at the trajectory of Gordon Hayward. (Note: Gordon’s 2017-18 stats aren’t included as he played just five minutes after suffering a gruesome foot injury in the first game of the year.)

Mick Smiley, At the Hive

2021-22 results and league ranks

PER: 15.1; ranked T-86th overall

VORP: 0.5; ranked T-181st overall

Career trend overview

Hayward spent his first seven seasons with the Utah Jazz and blossomed into one of the best small forwards in the league. In 2016-17 he made the All-Star team after averaging a career-high 21.9 points with 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists. His advanced statistics chart was trending skyward at that point. In 2017 he signed a massive free agent contract with the Boston Celtics but suffered a horrific foot injury in Boston’s first game that year and missed the rest of the season.

In 2018-19 - the year after his injury - he basically played himself back into shape averaging 25.9 minutes over 72 games. The following season he performed well for the Celtics, averaging 17.5 points and a career-high 6.7 rebounds per game, but it would be his last year in Boston.

In 2020 he signed a 4-year, $120-million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. His first season in Charlotte (2020-21) was derailed a bit by injuries but over 44 games he averaged a healthy 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game with a decent 17.6 PER and 1.4 VORP. Those aren’t quite All-Star numbers but Hayward’s first season with the Hornets was a success, injuries aside.

However, this past season was a disappointment for Hayward. He was once again limited by injuries and played in just 49 games. His 15.1 PER was essentially league average while his VORP of 0.5 wasn’t much higher than that of a replacement player.

After 12 seasons in the NBA, Gordon’s advanced stats clearly illustrate his declining performance. He peaked in 2017, got injured the next year, and has not been able to regain his pre-injury form. While he’s “older” at age 32, he’s still not “old” in NBA terms. Hayward is still the same age as guys like James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler who continue to play at All-Star levels. Despite this, it feels like Father Time is much more present in Hayward’s life than some of his high-salary veteran peers.

What this means for the Hornets

Gordon Hayward’s declining play as illustrated by his advanced stats is becoming a source of increasing concern for the Hornets. He just can’t seem to stay healthy, and when he’s on the court his play isn’t living up to his $30-million per year average salary.

When averaging out his league rankings for PER (T-86th overall) and VORP (T-181st overall), Hayward comes out ranked as the 133rd best player in the NBA. In a 30-team league with 150 starters, that’s nowhere near good enough given his contract.

In his two seasons in Charlotte, Gordon Hayward has played in just 93 of 154 games. Last year his PER and VORP weren’t very good and they’re declining. The Hornets need Hayward to smack Father Time in the face, recapture at least a measure of his former All-Star self, and stay on the court.

Despite his declining advanced stats chart, I’m still a Gordon Hayward optimist. With Miles Bridges’ situation so up in the air right now, Hayward can step in and fill some of the scoring void created if Bridges signs elsewhere or potentially faces a lengthy suspension. At 6-foot-7 Hayward has always been a good rebounder from the wing and an excellent passer. His ballhandling and distribution skills aren’t as important now given LaMelo Ball’s control of the offense, but Gordon can create shots for his teammates.

And sometimes Hayward’s outside shooting gets overlooked. Over the past two seasons he has hit 40.2% of his 3-point shots on 4.6 attempts per game, making him the team’s best 3-point shooter over that period of time. That ability to space the floor is important and keeps defenders honest.

Few things can help the Hornets progress from the perpetual No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference to a legitimate playoff team than a healthy, productive Gordon Hayward. He’ll have a lot riding on his shoulders this upcoming season.