On July 4th, a flurry of confusing reports culminated in Utah Jazz star Gordon Hayward announcing his decision to join the Boston Celtics. The move deeply undercut Utah, as they lost a player posting 21.9 points per game with a 27.6% usage rate. Many teams find themselves in similar positions, and like those teams, the Jazz had to make some tough decisions. What direction should the organization go from here? The answer lies in the roots of this Jazz squad.
For some perspective, let’s take a look at the season Utah had last year. At 51-31, the Jazz made their mark by finishing in a four-way tie for the fifth best record in the league. Factoring in that Utah is in the stronger Western Conference, that’s not too shabby. This year was this Jazz unit’s first time in the playoffs. In the first round. Utah came out on top of the Clippers in a tight, injury encumbered 7-game series. The Jazz then went on, like the rest of the Western Conference, to get swept by the Warriors. While Golden State makes just about everyone look bad, reaching the second round in the tough Western Conference was no small feat for the young Utah core.
In terms of personal accolades, Gordon Hayward made his first All-star appearance since the team drafted him ninth overall in 2010, and center Rudy Gobert flexed his first All-NBA selection by making the second team as well as his first-team all defense selection.
Utah’s success didn’t come out of the blue, however. The team’s record has improved for four years straight, bottoming out in 2014 when they could only scrape together 25 wins. During the rebuilding process, the Jazz acquired head coach Quin Snyder, who has given the team an identity with their fantastic defense. In the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons, the Jazz ranked 12th, eighth, and then third in Defensive Rating. Last year’s squad only trailed the Spurs and Warriors defensively, the two best teams of 2017 by record.
Emerging as the backbone for that defense is Rudy Gobert. The seven-foot Frenchman has earned the nickname “The Stifle Tower” for his ability to deny opponents at the rim. In the 2017 season, Gobert led the league in blocks per game as well as defensive win shares. Rudy also ranked second in opposing FG% at the rim among players who played at least 50 games.
Last year, the Jazz ranked fifth in net rating, a measure of a team’s point differential per 100 possessions. Essentially, Utah is a top team in the league for any given possession. The Jazz play a slow half court game bolstered by a gritty defense, and successful defensive and offensive possessions are emphasized in their scheme.
But the past is the past; Hayward left, and the Jazz moved on. General Manager Dennis Lindsey worked hard this offseason to continue building a contending team, including some key roster moves.
At the point guard position, Utah replaced George Hill by trading Trey Lyles and OKC’s 2018 first rounder for Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio. Rubio is one of the best passers in the league and a defensive specialist guard that fits well on both ends of the floor with the current Jazz schemes. Starting SF Rodney Hood praised the distributor, saying “He always had his head up, he’s looking to get assists, he wants you to score the ball… He’s just a true pass-first guard.” The Jazz will need Rubio’s skills as a ball-handler after losing Hayward, who often initiated Utah’s half court offense. Combined with his ability to defend (Ricky was 2nd in the league in steals in 2016), Rubio is a great match for the Jazz. Rubio isn’t going to replace the scoring effort of the combined loss for Utah, though. He only averaged 10.3 ppg in six years in Minnesota. Luckily for the Jazz, their 2011 12th overall draft pick Alec Burks is coming into the season healthy.
Essentially an addition to the team, Burks is entering the season without ailment and coming off a solid preseason run. The guard has missed a total of 146 regular season games in the past three years, and Jazz fans are more than ready for the return of “Houdini.” Burks is a hybrid guard with an amazing knack for finishing at the rim, a skillset that works beautifully with Rubio’s propensity to find the open man.
A plethora of role players have been swapped out as well. Boris Diaw has moved on to greener pastures, but the Jazz acquired Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, and Ekpe Udoh to fill the gaps. While the three may not get much playing time as the younger players are given minutes for reps, Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson can only play so many minutes at small forward. It seems the Jazz will test Ingles starting at SG, with Burks and rookie Donovan Mitchell behind him in the depth chart, but the regular season could bring changes to the starting lineup, as Mitchell as looked good.
In a draft-day swap, the Jazz moved Trey Lyles and the 24th pick for the 13th pick. Utah then selected Louisville’s leading scorer, Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell has already had his share of big games. In the summer league, the rookie put up 23 points and 5 assists in his first game, and followed it up with 37 points and 8 steals. The fiery rookie has continued this display with 26 points in a preseason win against the Lakers, and has akready won the hearts of Jazz fans with his grandiose attitude. He made now-rival Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum look like a fool this summer. Utah fans hope for big things from him as, unfortunately, 2014 fifth overall pick Dante Exum may miss the entire season due to a shoulder injury that occurred in a preseason game against Phoenix.
Of course, the Jazz are not going to slide into the next season as good as they were last year. Multiple players are going to have to make up for what the Jazz will miss from Hayward in this coming season, and the loss of Exum takes away from the ceiling of the young core. It’s time for Rodney Hood to pick up some slack in the scoring department, and Joe Ingles title as league’s best glue guy isn’t going to cut it after having signed a 52 million dollar contract for the next four years with Utah.
Starting power forward Derrick Favors is Utah’s next big question mark. The big man saw a serious decline in last year’s season as a mix of injuries and bad games led to him seeing a significant drop in minutes. With Udoh and Jerebko as the followups in the depth chart, Favors has got to show up big time to maintain Utah’s reputation of a formidable frontcourt.
But Quin Snyder is leading the team through thick and thin. Ingles reflected that Snyder was the person that reinvigorated his passion for basketball, and Rudy Gobert is more confident than ever. When asked about how the Jazz were projected to have a worse year without Hayward, he said “If I was listening to projections, I’d probably be playing in France right now… People are going to be surprised what we do this year.”