Gordon Hayward’s Incomprehensible Legacy

Gordon Hayward is perhaps the greatest modern example of parlaying one great season into a career of making far more money than a player of his caliber has any business putting into the bank.

The Boston Celtics signed him to a big free agent deal that earned Hayward about $90 million in three years between 2018 and 2020, then traded him to the Charlotte Hornets on a sign-and-trade valued at $120 million over four years.

Throw in the roughly $45 million Hayward made on his restricted free agent extension after his rookie deal, and the $10 million or so he made in four years after the Utah Jazz made him the ninth pick in the 2010 draft, and the guy’s made (or will make, since he does still have time on his actual current contract) over a quarter of a billion dollars playing basketball.

That’s impressive. Especially when you consider that Hayward has made just one All-Star team (2017), he’s never been All-NBA, he wasn’t on either of the All-Rookie teams in 2011 thanks to spending most of the season riding the pine behind Andrei Kirilenko, he’s never gotten an MVP vote, and while his career advanced stats are pretty good by the overall standards of the NBA—60.2 Win Shares, .127 WS/48, and 22.8 VORP—he doesn’t have the faintest hope of getting into the Hall of Fame unless he has one of the most unbelievable career resurgences in NBA history in his 30s.

Yet the Celtics paid him superstar money, and the Hornets, after watching Hayward spend three years proving he is not in any way a superstar and that the 2017 season was his lightning-in-a-bottle season, nonetheless took on $120 million in salary to get him for four years on a team that still hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016.

Charlotte is 29-28 this year, ninth in the East, and on pace to pull off their first winning season since that 48-34 run six years ago, but that’s not what you pay a franchise player for. Indeed, Hayward has been anything but a franchise player. He’s out indefinitely with an ankle injury, but his .092 WS/48, 0.5 VORP, and 16.1 points per game in the 48 games he’s played make him at best the fifth-best player on the team.

And considering Charlotte just flat-out stole Montrezl Harrell from the Wizards, shipping out the putrescent Ish Smith (negative Win Shares in 511 minutes in Charlotte this season) and the utter non-factor Vernon Carey Jr. (just 17 minutes in garbage time of four games in 2021-22) to get him, Hayward’s probably not one of the five best players on a team in a sport where five people play at the same time.

Harrell, incidentally, has .221, .228, and .231 WS/48 in the last three seasons. Since 2016, he’s never done worse than .183. At worst he is the black Domantas Sabonis. At best, he is a borderline superstar when teams do the best job of making use of his strengths. He is better in every way than even the 2017 version of Hayward…and Harrell makes $9.7 million.

There is this tendency among casual NBA fans to file a guy under “oh yeah, he’s pretty good” that sticks in spite of the evidence. A guy makes an All-Star team, or the talking heads at ESPN talk about him like he’s a major player in the league’s on-court power dynamic, or he’ll drop 30 points on national TV (Hayward did average 19.6 points per game in 2021, so he had plenty of eye-popping nights in the counting stats), and everyone oohs and aahs like “hey, that guy’s a star.”

Even if it’s just announcers setting the stage like “Tonight on TNT, live from Charlotte, North Carolina, it’s LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers taking on Gordon Hayward and the Charlotte Hornets,” that “name-and-team” convention implies that Hayward is worthy of being spoken in the same breath as LeBron.

All those perceptions contribute to something that neither the stats (Hayward’s 16.1 points per game, fifth on the team, along with everything else contributing to his modest 15.4 PER and middle-of-the-road advanced stats) nor the strength of his team (again, Charlotte is 29-28 and ninth in the East through games of February 11) bear out.

What you’re left with is a guy who’s going to have this wide gulf in his legacy between how he was perceived when he played and what the stats say the overall value of his career was worth.

We could all do worse in our lives than to make $250 million while never truly rising to any kind of level of greatness in our chosen field.

So enjoy yourself, Gordon Hayward. If there’s such a thing as the Greatest Mediocre Player of All Time, you might just be on track to be it.