Wayward Gordon Hayward has not earned a spot in OKC’s playoff rotation

Wayward Gordon Hayward has not earned a spot in OKC’s playoff rotation

Hayward has played better lately, but the eyeball test makes you wonder if the oft-injured NBA veteran is washed up.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 12, 2024, 2:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 12, 2024, 2:00pm CDT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Gordon Hayward caught the ball in the corner with one of an NBA player’s favorite scenes in front of him. A scrambled defense, with a desperate opponent charging at him from too far away.

That means an open 3-point shot from barely 22 feet away, or a straight line drive to the basket. Either one is money for most pros.

The ball had traveled from a Josh Giddey drive to Kenrich Williams in the right corner to Jalen Williams on the right wing to Cason Wallace on the left wing and finally to Hayward, where the Spurs’ Sandro Mamukelashvili was left to clean up with a closeout.

Hayward unhesitatingly drove past Mamukelashvili for an easy reverse layup in the first quarter of the Thunder’s eventual 127-89 blowout of San Antonio on Wednesday night.

But the prevailing thought of anyone who has watched Hayward play since his Feb. 22 Thunder debut was not the great ball movement and marvelous OKC offense.

It was this: Hey, Gordon Hayward scored in the paint.

What is routine for most players had become novel for Hayward, a former all-star whose career has declined fast in his 30s, with injuries and anonymity playing in the outpost of Charlotte.

Hayward was traded to the Thunder for Tre Mann, Vasilije Micic, Davis Bertans and two second-round draft picks.

Seemed like a good deal for OKC. Three players out of the rotation and expendable draft capital, for a player who figured to bring quality depth and playoff experience to a rising young team.

Instead, Hayward has looked out of place in the Thunder’s energetic play. Slow of speed defensively and slow to make decisions offensively. The 6-foot-7 wing has been ineffective on both sides of the ball. He’s played better lately, but the eyeball test made you wonder if the oft-injured Hayward was washed up.

Mark Daigneault kept playing Hayward, kept him in the bench rotation, but you had to wonder when the plug would be pulled. No way Hayward would be in the playoff rotation, right?

Not so fast. Daigneault won’t draw on playoff rotation questions.

“People talk playoffs before it happens,” Daigneault said. “They talk about it theoretically. But in reality, when you get to the playoffs, you’re playing one team. Who that team is, then how the season unfolds against that team, largely determines the decisions that are made.

“So it would be hard for me to commit to anything rotationally, tactically, about the playoffs as a whole, because we don’t know who we’re going to draw, who we’re going to play, and that will largely determine the decisions that we’re making.”

Fair enough. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario by which Hayward would continue to play the 16.7 minutes he’s averaged in 24 Thunder games.

Hayward himself admits he has struggled to fit in.

“It’s been a difficult adjustment for sure,” Hayward said. “These guys were rolling long before I got here. Also, I was out for probably two months with a pretty serious calf injury.

“So trying to find my rhythm, find myself back from that and also integrate into the team and find my spots where I can be aggressive and where I can help us. It’s been an ongoing process, so still working through that.”

Daigneault detailed what he has liked about Hayward.

“He’s got size, he’s a two-end player,” Daigneault said. “When he’s out there, you don’t drop off, helps your rebounding, helps you play defense, and he plays the right way on offense.

“So while he hasn’t had these loud pops of games, he’s not hurting us by any stretch of the imagination.”

I don’t know about that. Plus/minus numbers — the point margin for individual players while they are on the floor — tell a ghastly story for Hayward, especially compared to the Thunder’s other prime bench players.

In 400 Hayward minutes, the Thunder has been outscored by 41 points.

Over that same period, the Thunder is plus-86 in Isaiah Joe’s 490 minutes, plus-40 in Aaron Wiggins’ 455 minutes, plus-39 in Kenrich Williams’ 352 minutes and plus-22 in Wallace’s 536 minutes.

According to basketball-reference.com, the Thunder is 13.2 points better per 100 possessions, basically a typical game, with Hayward off the court. In the Thunder’s 16 seasons in OKC, Hayward’s on/off numbers are the fourth-worst among players with at least 400 minutes, surpassed only by Aleksej Pokusevski last season and Perry Jones and Lance Thomas in 2014-15.

Most other statistical categories are no kinder to Hayward. For example:

True-shooting percentage: Wiggins .612, Joe .611, Williams .581, Wallace .565, Hayward .548.

Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions, with a particular player on the floor): Wallace 110, Wiggins 112, Williams 114, Hayward 115, Joe 116.

Hayward has been stunningly ineffective on drives, to the point where he often has not even looked at the basket when he gets the ball in the paint.

Hayward has made just 12 of 27 shots from inside the restricted area, basically 0-3 feet from the rim. Hayward also has made just seven of 21 shots from 3-10 feet.

Meanwhile, Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey, two players who have struggled to finish at the basket, are shooting .612 (Dort) and .668 (Giddey) from the restricted area.

No wonder Hayward has been reluctant to attack the basket.

In Hayward’s defense, he has been excellent on 3-pointers; 15 of 28. That’s not a big sample, but over 50 percent shooting from deep is valuable. Maybe that’s where he can find his niche, as a standstill shooter, though the Thunder’s offense is predicated on driving from all comers. Even 7-foot-1 Chet Holmgren.

That San Antonio blowout Wednesday easily was Hayward’s best game as a Thunder: 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Of course, that was a Zombie Spurs team, with no Victor Wembanyama, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell or Keldon Johnson. Everyone should look good against a 20-60 team’s junior varsity.

“He was really aggressive and on the gas,” Daigneault said. “Played with a lot of confidence, right from when he got in the game. It was good to see. I give him a lot of credit for that. Really encouraging.”

Daigneault admitted that he has handled Hayward’s integration “delicately.”

Which is proper. The Thunder and Daigneault were correct to give Hayward every chance of showing he could help, come the postseason. But Hayward hasn’t shown that. The experimentation needs to end when the playoffs arrive.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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