Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward suffered a dislocated finger this week, and it's going to be a while before he's back on the floor. Rodney Hood said he "saw bone" when the injury occurred. Estimates have put Hayward out somewhere between four and six weeks.
This is not great for the Jazz, to put it mildly.
Here are four things to keep in mind when it comes to Hayward's absence:
1. The schedule impact is complicated
Let's put Hayward's return time in the middle of the window, at five weeks. He won't have to work his way back into conditioning; he'll be able to run with the injury. So we'll put him back available to play on Friday, Nov. 11. The Jazz are in the midst of a five-game road trip at that time, and it's not uncommon for teams to wait until those road trips end before putting a player back in the lineup. Let's say his first official game back is Monday, Nov. 14 vs. Memphis at home.
In that stretch, Hayward would miss 11 games, roughly 13 percent of the season, off the bat. In that stretch he would be absent for seven games against teams that made the playoffs last year, though that includes Miami, which is a stretch this season. This actually works out OK, and here's why: Do you know why Gregg Popovich will rest his starters against the really good teams on national television, and then have them play against some lottery squad the night before or after? Because you don't want to waste ensured wins. The four games vs. non-playoff opponents (Lakers, Knicks, Sixers, Magic) are against teams that are so bad, and those are games the Jazz very much need to win. The value of winning a game against the Lakers when it is such a high probability win is higher than the value of winning a game against the Spurs, who are expected by most to be better than Utah this season.
You take the easy games. The Jazz play against the Spurs, Mavericks, Clippers, Blazers and Hornets -- all games you wouldn't be surprised to see Utah lose. They're just losses to good teams. You also expect the Jazz to have some stretches where they have injuries like most teams do. So if the Jazz go 2-3 against those teams, and manage the easier ones, they can begin 6-5 or 7-4, which would be a great start to the season. If Hayward's absence takes away those easier games, and they go 5-6 or worse, that's when it gets a little dicey, because now you're trying to climb out of a hole.
They can do that, for sure; it's just November. But sometimes slides linger and lead into more issues. That's the bigger-picture concern.
2. It's not Utah's only injury
Alec Burks had knee surgery last spring and still is without a timetable for return. Coach Quin Snyder has told reporters he expects him to be back before the start of the regular season. However, it's a concern since Burks is not back at this point. Derrick Favors missed time last April with knee soreness, and was a scratch this week with the same. Favors said if it was a regular-season game, he'd play, but that's still not a great sign. The Jazz absolutely cannot afford to lose any more starters if they want to get off to a good start.
If Burks is able to go on opening night, the Jazz can put him at 2-guard, move Rodney Hood to three and go from there. But the more likely scenario involves more Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson. Johnson was pretty good last year for Miami, but also spent a lot of time at the four. Johnson is a little long in the tooth to play that many minutes.
There's also the fear that this will be the start of a rash of injuries, which have ruined the chances of many a hyped team before them.
3. The defensive impact seems significant
I described Gordon as the Jazz's most important defensive player last week, despite Rudy Gobert being the best rim protector in the league and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Jazz defense was better with Hayward off the floor last year, but much of that was impacted by the injuries to Gobert and Favors. Hayward's offensive impact is obvious -- he averaged 19.7 points and 3.7 assists per game in a slow-pace system last season-- but defensively, he's often tasked with the toughest opposing wing. In a league with so many dangerous small forwards, that's a big deal.
But maybe not. That's the eye test, but not only were the Jazz better with him off the floor last year, but individually, Synergy Sports had Hayward in just the 18th percentile defensively. That looks bad, but then you have to consider that opponents only challenged Hayward one-on-one 66 times last season, and generally avoided attacking Hayward at all.
More than anything, it's the pivotal nature of the position that creates concern. Ingles is not a plus defender and Johnson has slid with age. Hood and Burks are both inexperienced. The Jazz may have to help more on perimeter drives which could increase fouls for Rudy Gobert and Favors.
4. It's an ominous start
There are extremely high expectations for the Jazz this year. Some have them as high as the 2-seed in the West, which is crazy for a team that failed to miss the playoffs and didn't add a star over the summer, even with injuries last season. They have no ostensible weakness and have good depth. Hayward, however, is a key component to all that.
Losing him right off the bat is bad, but fortunately it also wasn't a knee, foot or shoulder injury. Comparatively, the injury is minor, and getting him back in mid-November means there's a chance any stumble -- if there is one -- will be minor. But a lot needs to go right for the Jazz to live up to the hype this year. This kind of a start is less than ideal.