Charlotte Hornets: Making the case for the Gordon Hayward signing

Boston Celtics Gordon Hayward (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics Gordon Hayward (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Defending the Gordon Hayward signing for the Charlotte Hornets

When the Charlotte Hornets – a franchise in the thick of a post-Kemba Walker rebuild – inked Gordon Hayward to a massive four-year, $120 million contract, it was unsurprisingly met with scrutiny.

After all, the former all-star never lived up to expectations in Boston as the marquee free-agent signing of the 2017 offseason. We all know the story of Hayward’s star-crossed Celtics’ tenure – the gruesome injury in his debut, the returns marred by tentativeness and frustrating setbacks (including a mid-season benching in 2018-19), the ugly showing in the Miami series.

Add in the fact that Nicolas Batum was waived and stretched to fit him in  – basically adding another $9 million onto Hayward’s 2021-22 and 2022-23 salaries  – and the signing appears even more indefensible. However, I view this move as worthwhile from the Hornets’ perspective.

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Gordon Hayward was still an effective player in Boston, despite never fulfilling the hype. He rebounded from the injury into a high-end complementary piece; scaling down his usage, working more off-the-catch in the flow of the offense, and initiating second-units. Advanced metrics like RPM, PIPM, and RAPTOR all painted him as a net-positive in the +1 to +2 range.

Hayward settled more comfortably into this off-ball role last year, putting up the best shooting season of his career in 2019-20. Among the Celtics’ main rotation players, Hayward ranked first in efficiency at the rim (68.8%) and in the short mid-range (47.5%), and second in efficiency from the long mid-range (45.2%) and from 3 (38.6%), per Cleaning the Glass.

There was once a point where the Celtics – desperate for any answer of a zone-buster versus the Heat (and against Toronto as well) – rested their hopes on the return of Gordon Hayward, as strange as that sounds now. At the very least, he’s a good offensive wing who holds his own on defense (even if he’s slipped some there since his Jazz days). There’s a reason the Celtics and Pacers were both willing to go upwards of $100 million on him.

Everything in Charlotte revolves around the development of LaMelo Ball. He may possess lead guard potential, but there are too many warts in his game right now to be a Trae Young-style heliocentric engine right off the bat. It’s just not realistic (or sensible) to expect a teenager fresh off a 47.5 percent true shooting percentage season in Australia to handle that kind of burden. Hayward gives them another wing-creator while also drawing some of the more challenging assignments on both ends. This allows the Hornets’ scoring guards in Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier to capitalize on an increased number of spot-up possessions as well.

Is there any hope for Gordon Hayward re-discovering his old form from Utah? Back in 2016-17, when he was arguably one of the six best forwards in the league, Hayward was worth this contract according to FiveThirtyEight. Much has changed in the three years since, but I do believe that this signing has more upside than your typical mid-career veteran free-agent splash.

Before breaking his hand on November 9 in San Antonio, Hayward was enjoying his most prolonged stretch of high-level play as a member of the Celtics – averaging 20.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.6 assists on 56/44/84 shooting. This issue is that it was only seven games, and this trend of one step forward, two steps back plagued him throughout his time there.

Another reason for optimism – one that surely contributed to his departure – was the lack of opportunity in Boston. With the Kyrie trade/Kemba signing and the unexpected ascent of Jayson Tatum, Hayward was relegated to being a third (or even a fourth) banana even when he was supposedly 100 percent healthy.

The first line in the obituary of the 2018-19 team reads “too many cooks in the kitchen.” An encouraging sign for the Hornets is that Hayward actually produced last season during the brief chances he got as a focal point of the offense. The main difference is the free-throw rate – he just doesn’t attack the basket with the same ferocity or physicality anymore, whether it’s physical, mental, or a product of being in Brad Stevens’ system.

It may seem foolish for Charlotte to shell out this kind of cash for a player who isn’t going to move the needle. Why not embrace the full tear-down a la Sam Presti in Oklahoma City by gutting the roster and using cap space to hoard future assets? To start, bottoming out is far less imperative than it used to in regards to the draft. The Hornets themselves can attest to the new lottery odds, moving up from the 8th spot to third in 2020.

With the added play-in tournament, participating in games with higher stakes late in the season will be key for the development of their young players. When you look at the history of this franchise, they’ve never really added a player of Gordon Hayward’s caliber (even the diminished version). Here are the team’s largest free-agent signings since its inception in 2004:

  • Terry Rozier – 3 years, $58 million
  • Al Jefferson – 3 years, $41 million
  • Lance Stephenson – 3 years, $27 million

After that, you get into role players like Gerald Henderson, Ramon Sessions (twice!), and an over-the-hill Tony Parker.

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It’s not like Charlotte will be pressed for cap room going forward – other than Hayward, Rozier, and the Batum money, the only other long-term obligations on the books are rookie-scale contracts (as of right now). Ultimately, I see the Gordon Hayward signing as one that will help propel the Hornets towards relevancy without the downside of jeopardizing the future.