There are a good deal of players in the NBA that can demand a maximum salary. LeBron James, for one, is well deserving of the max and then some. Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, too, are well worth every penny their teams are allowed to pay them under the collective bargaining agreement.
According to various reports flying around the Internet, Gordon Hayward could be joining that elite company, with the Cleveland Cavaliers on the verge of offering the swingman to a deal that would reportedly start at around $15 million per year and total more than $60 million. On the contrary, there are reports that the Utah Jazz are ready to match any offer to their restricted free agent, which may be holding up Cleveland’s offer.
The idea of Hayward in northeast Ohio is very intriguing. It comes on the heels of getting Kyrie Irving to put his name on a five-year, $90 million contract extension and, of course, picking up Andrew Wiggins with the top pick in the draft. Along with Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and last year’s top overall pick, Anthony Bennett, you’re looking at the core of the Cavs’ roster for the foreseeable future.
The question that hovers around these rumors is how exactly Hayward came to be valued that highly.
Up and Down Career
If you’re surprised to see Hayward fetching that large of an offer, you’re not alone. Last year in Utah, operating as the top option on offense for a very bad team, Hayward struggled mightily with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap both taking up homes in the Southeast Division. While his counting stats all took a leap thanks to playing seven more minutes per game than he did in 2012-13. The rest of his stat line from this past season is not pretty, though.
Does this mean that Hayward is a bad player? I’d say no, not by any means. But it almost certainly means that he is not equipped to be a team’s main creator. While he showed plenty of promise mostly coming off the bench in 2013, Hayward took a huge leap in responsibility for a team that had no intention of being good. While his usage rate didn’t jump too much, he lost two guys in Jefferson and Millsap who soaked up 25 and 22 percent of possessions when they were on the floor, respectively. Hayward went from having the fifth-highest usage rate amongst Jazz regulars to being the top dog. The numbers show that he either wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility or isn’t the type of player equipped to handle it.
Hayward’s three-point shooting is on one hand concerning and at the other time explainable. It’s not common for talented 23-year-olds to completely lose the ability to hit from deep, so there’s probably something else up there. Namely, he lost the gravitational effect of Jefferson on the block. While his percentage from deep has fluctuated pretty greatly across his four seasons, the drop down to 30 percent appears to be from added degree of difficulty on a higher volume of shots.
This is what makes the fit in Cleveland so intriguing. The Cavaliers certainly have more than enough guys that demand the ball in their hand, and Kyrie and Waiters still haven't quite figured out how to play nice and share the ball. How dangerous could Hayward be operating on the wing without the ball, waiting for a kick out after Irving or Waiters slashes to the hoop? Would his already impressive assist numbers and rates (Hayward assisted on 24.1 percent of made baskets when he was on the floor in 2014) climb even higher when allowed to attack an already broken-down defense? Would Hayward's three-point percentage climb back up to a respectable rate when his looks come off of those kick outs instead of off the bounce? That's likely what Cleveland would be banking on if they offer him a contract at the max or something close to it.
What's He Worth?
So does a player like that deserve a maximum salary? Hayward’s salary will be somewhat smaller than some of his fellow maxed-out hoopers, thanks to the clause in the CBA known as the Derrick Rose Rule. If a player makes an All-NBA team twice, is voted as an All-Star starter twice or wins the MVP award, the maximum they can earn rises from 25 percent of the salary cap to 30 percent. Rose, obviously, and Durant are two of the big names who have met those benchmarks. Four years into his career, Hayward has come nowhere close. In fact, by our measurements, he was a harmful player. Hayward finished 2013-14 with a minus-4.6 nERD, meaning that the Jazz approximately lost 4.6 games because of Hayward. Utah only had three players finish better than zero in nERD last season, but Hayward was the fourth-worst on the team in the category.
Meanwhile, some of the swingmen in Hayward’s soon-to-be pay grade - Durant ($17.8 million 2014 salary, 27.0 nERD), Griffin ($16.4 million, 12.6), LaMarcus Aldridge ($14.8 million, 5.0) and Russell Westbrook ($14.7 million, 4.2) all did a hell of a lot more to earn their hefty checks.
It’s obvious that Hayward isn’t in the class of player that generally earns the kind of salary he’s about to be pulling in. So where does the former Butler star’s performance put him in terms of his colleagues?
One of the best comparisons, production-wise, is another player who was a bit confounding when he entered his restricted free agency a few years back: Jeff Green.
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Their playing styles are very different; Hayward is a very strong decision maker with the ball capable of running an offense for times, whereas Green is bordering on being a stretch-4. Still, their production is very similar. Green is a bit more of a volume shooter from long range and is a little better at it, but they both come in at below-average from distance and mediocre on two-point attempts. They even get to the line and rebound at similar rates, despite the size differential between the two. Most tellingly, Green came in at a minus-4.7 nERD, 0.1 lower than Hayward, while Green posted 3.3 win shares and Hayward registered 3.6.
Here’s the problem: Green is in the middle of a four-year, $36 million deal that was widely panned at the time. While Green’s career arc is very different from Hayward’s, having been traded while still on his rookie deal and also missing a year after heart surgery, he was still a very talented player who hadn’t quite put it together. Now, he’s stagnated as a pro and his contract doesn’t seem moveable.
It seems likely that the Cavs, Jazz or whoever ponies up for Hayward is going to be paying nearly double what Green makes, while also paying him significantly more than All Stars like Stephen Curry, Rajon Rondo and DeMar DeRozan. Hayward is a nice player, and if and when he signs his new contract, his team will likely be banking on him improving all over the court. Should the Jazz want to fork over that kind of money for a guy who might not be capable of developing into a No. 1 option? Should the Cavaliers want to pay their second or third banana upwards of $15 million a year?
The answer should be no. But in this new NBA, with more teams coming into the summer with cap space to burn every year, teams are itching to throw money around.
That doesn’t mean they can’t be smart about it.