Gordon Hayward may be gone, but another sensible summer has Jazz in good position
With Rudy Gobert still around and even more depth than last year, it would be unwise to dismiss Utah
The Utah Jazz are going to be just fine. Yes, Gordon Hayward ruined their Fourth of July by deciding to join the Boston Celtics, but he didn't ruin their outlook. Unlike most teams who have lost stars in free agency, the Jazz are not rebuilding. They sure as hell are not tanking. There's no need for them to to reassess where they stand, change their identity or whine about what went wrong. Hayward will be missed, of course, but Utah's front office quickly moved on and completed three smart signings: floor spacer Jonas Jerebko, 3-and-D guy Thabo Sefolosha and rim protector Ekpe Udoh are now in the fold. Much like last year's additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, these are proven vets who complement their core.
When Hayward left, much was made of the timing. The vast majority of big-name free agents had already made their decisions and gone on vacation. Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey called the situation "problematic." Realistically, though, Lindsey was never going to be able to replace a 27-year-old All-Star who plays a position where All-Star-caliber players are hardest to find. Instead, the Jazz have to make up for his absence collectively. The good news is that they're well equipped to do just that. In fact, no one should be shocked if they win more than the 51 games they did last year.
To be clear, this is not a lazy application of the Ewing Theory. Usually, when a player of Hayward's stature leaves or gets hurt and his team gets better, it is because offenses are better when they're less predictable. Get rid of the high-usage scorer and the team will play more like a team. This case, however, is different. Hayward played within coach Quin Snyder's offense rather than going outside of it, averaging 16.5 shot attempts last season with a relatively modest usage rate of 27.6 percent, both career highs.
Utah will be OK precisely because it will not need to change the way it plays. It already passed like crazy, had multiple playmakers and stifled opposing offenses. Center Rudy Gobert, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, might never be as skilled as Hayward, but he was the team's most essential player. The system is strong enough to survive the loss of the go-to guy.
Lindsey's additions will ensure the Jazz are still as deep and versatile as any team in the NBA. Jerebko, one of the numerous solid rotation players the Celtics had to sacrifice in order to accommodate the Hayward signing, fits well with what Utah does. The stretch big man is mobile enough to switch some pick-and-rolls on defense and score over smaller defenders when he has the opportunity to do so. Along with Johnson and Joe Ingles, who was retained in free agency, Jerebko gives Snyder yet another option at power forward when he doesn't want two traditional big men on the court.
Sefolosha isn't the stopper that he was earlier in his career, but he is still capable of giving the Jazz good minutes against the game's best wing players. He won't force anything with the ball in his hands, and he won't make many mistakes on defense. His shooting has fallen off a bit in recent years, but all he'll really be asked to do offensively is take open 3-pointers. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-2 wingspan, he gives Utah yet another long, switchy wing. You can't have too many of those.
Udoh has been away from the NBA for the past couple of seasons, but he is joining the Jazz in better condition than he was in before his stint in Turkey. He is also returning to a league that values his specific skill set more than ever. Udoh was known as a solid shot-blocker when he was with the Golden State Warriors, but his best attributes were always his mobility and IQ. He can shut down pick-and-rolls and switch onto smaller players with ease. With him taking most of the backup center minutes, the Jazz could conceivably be even better on defense than they were last season.
It is worth revisiting, by the way, just how good the 2016-17 Jazz were. They finished third in defensive rating, behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors, holding opponents to 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets were better at rebounding. They had the statistical profile of a 54-win team, and that's without accounting for the fact that they were almost never whole. Hill, since replaced by Ricky Rubio, played the best basketball of his life but was only able to play 49 regular-season games. Rodney Hood missed 23 games, Derrick Favors missed 32 and Alec Burks missed 40, with all of them playing significant stretches not fully healthy. Utah's first unit -- Hill, Hood, Hayward, Favors and Gobert -- started only 13 games together.
This is not to say that the Jazz were definitively better than any of the teams that finished above them in the standings. It is not to minimize the real questions that come with Hayward's departure. (Is Hood ready for a featured role? Is the organization committed to the Favors-Gobert pairing?) It is merely to point out that, with better injury luck and more production from guys like Burks, Dante Exum and rookie Donovan Mitchell, they should still be a team to be reckoned with. Don't count them out.
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