Jazz preview: Four-step plan for Utah to reach playoffs without Hayward and Hill

More than any other team in a stacked Northwest Division, the Utah Jazz are the one we're going to need to see to really understand what success is going to mean for them. They lost two players who comprised over 29 percent of their total individual possessions last year in Gordon Hayward and George Hill. Those players threw 46 percent of all passes thrown last season to Rudy Gobert, the Jazz's remaining best player. They added Ricky Rubio, a phenomenal passing point guard who struggles to score, but who can fill much of the playmaking role. 

But the Jazz just lost so much offense, for a team that routinely through the years has been an overweight iguana slugging through mud when Hayward wasn't on the floor, without a real adjustment. 

Even figuring out what a successful season for the Jazz is remains complicated. Are the playoffs enough? Is contending for the playoffs enough? Challenging a first-round matchup? Competing for the fifth seed? 

There's no real way to know, because for every positive, there are questions, and for every question, there's a reason for optimism. It's a dense puzzle and somewhere within it is what this season means for Utah.

For the Jazz to be successful, they have to rely on what they're great at and find tough answers for what they're not. 

I. RELY ON THE DEFENSE

The Jazz have never been worse than 15th at defense under Quin Snyder, and that won't change with the current roster. Utah is full of long, rangy defenders who can switch and cover nearly any threat. Obviously, Gobert helps the most with that. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year race for good reason. No rim protector impacts and deters perimeter penetration like Gobert, he's a nightmare to attack in the post, and is effective in switching on perimeter weapons as well. 

The Jazz are stocked with good defenders. Rubio is one of the best point guard defenders in the league, with length and quickness. Rodney Hood has strength. Joe Ingles practically has savviness pouring from his armpits. Joe Johnson knows every trick in the book and is tough as nails. 

It's also the system, however. The rotations are on point, the Jazz are disruptive in passing lanes, especially in the paint, and close out on shooters. Playing against Utah is trudging through mud and brush, while you're catching pneumonia. 

They fight over every screen. They so rarely screw up off-ball switches it's jarring. They close out hard on shooters, rebound, the works. There are no holes in their defensive system, so long as the players execute. 

That, honestly, will win them 30 games right off the bat, just by being an elite defensive team. You catch a squad tired from a road trip, or dealing with a locker room sickness, and those teams won't have the fight to beat Utah's defense. This is to say the odds of the Jazz being bad are very low. It's how good they'll be that's up for debate. 

II. GET A LEAP OR TWO

The Jazz need Hood to make the leap this season. Hood will have every opportunity to recapture the kind of explosive season he showed two years ago. Healthy and with a bigger role, Hood will be set up to succeed. He'll have a great passing point guard in Rubio to find him when he's open, and possessions to handle the ball in the pick and roll. 

He's even got the mid-transition pick and roll 3 in his arsenal. 

Hood was 68th percentile as a jump shooter last year via Synergy Sports, including good marks off the dribble, and in catch-and-shoot situations. His versatility will be beneficial, but his mindset needs to be right. Hood doesn't need to be DeMar DeRozan, going in isolation constantly. He needs to be Paul George, coming off screens, working in pick and roll, using the full arsenal he has. 

The other player commonly mentioned as the guy to fill the gap left from Hayward and Hill's departure is Donovan Mitchell, who had 26 points vs. the Lakers Tuesday night in the preseason. Mitchell was a steal for the Jazz when they traded up to get him last June. He's strong and capable as a scorer. The question will be if he gets minutes. For all of Jazz fans' understandable excitement about him, it's important to remember he's a rookie, and rookies have a hard time getting minutes for playoff hopeful teams. Mitchell's defensive instincts and capability are high, but the knowledge base just isn't there to understand everything that goes into systemic NBA defense. 

If Snyder gets desperate, Mitchell could bail him out by developing faster than expected. But I'm going to remain skeptical he's a serious-minute player until we see him get those minutes as a rookie. 

III. (SOMEHOW) WIN THE DIVISION GAMES

The Jazz have 10 games against Northwest Division opponents before January 1. Why is this relevant? Because they're going to be competing with Portland, Minnesota and Denver for seeds 5 through 8 in the West, along with a handful of other teams. If they wind up tied for a seed with one of those teams, the second tiebreaker after head-to-head record is division record. If the Jazz can find wins in what is an insanely stacked conference, that's going to give them a boot by not only finding wins where there should be losses, but give them an advantage in tiebreaker. Winning those games against the Nuggets, Thunder and Blazers is a way for them to build a win-loss profile that could get them in. 

It's more important for Utah to win those games than games vs. a comparable team in the East, or a team like, say, the Clippers. Find ways to beat those teams and it will help a lot more than it seems in an 82-game, seven-month season. 

IV. FIND A WAY IN

The playoffs are enough, honestly. To make the playoffs the year after losing both Hayward and Hill would be a tremendous accomplishment. Jazz fans, partially out of confidence in Gobert, partially out of spite for Hayward, want to believe this team will still be great, and that's a tall order. It took a stacked team to reach the 5th seed last year. But there are a host of ways they can still reach the postseason. 

The Jazz just need to be the team that doesn't fall apart or suffer injuries (which has been a problem for them over the last few years). Let Denver and Portland crack under the pressure, win those division games, beat the teams they're better than (most of the East) and the organization has maintained stability they can work with. 

Miss the postseason and a lot of questions follow. The seed doesn't matter. No one's going to criticize the Jazz for getting beat in short order by the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets or Thunder after last summer. Just make it in. That has to be the goal. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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