Will this team be able to cope without Gordon Hayward?
Normally, a team like the Utah Jazz would be one of the most talked about teams heading into the 2017-18 season. It’s premier player, Gordon Hayward, left for the Boston Celtics in free agency, and it made several notable to flashy additions in his four-year, $127 million absence.
But this is not a normal preseason, and so the Jazz have been relegated to secondary or even tertiary status in any discussion of the looming NBA season. That’s not a critique of the sports media; their choice to talk about Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, and Hayward’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving, is more than valid. It’s been a crazy offseason, and the Jazz, outside of Hayward, have not featured prominently in it.
But, that’s not to say it didn’t make some nice moves to keep itself in contention for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. Head Coach Quin Snyder’s team, which finished 51-31 and made it to the conference semifinals last year, signed some low-key good players. And low-key may be the best position in which to be heading into this season. With less of a spotlight comes less pressure and lower expectations for a team which is still quite good.
Its core of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, and Joe Ingles is still solid. It has arguably the best big man/best defender in the league, and its wing situation sans Hayward is actually strong. There’s lots to like about this Jazz team, so let’s take a look at what they did this offseason.
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Obviously, Hayward is the big one here. At almost 22 points, five and a half rebounds, and three and a half assists on 47 percent shooting from the field and almost 40 percent from long range, that’s an All-Star sized hole to fill. He ranked second behind Gobert in every advanced statistic on Basketball Reference and was the go-to playmaker for the Jazz when it needed it.
George Hill, the team’s starting point guard, also did not return to Salt Lake City after an understatedly great year. In what was one of, if not his best, seasons, the former Indiana Pacer averaged nearly 17 points and four assists, but signed with the Sacramento Kings for three years and $55 million.
Boris Diaw and Shelvin Mack both also left, but for different reasons. The former, an unorthodox, veteran, stretch power forward, got waived by the Jazz. He will play in France this season and has an opt-out clause if an NBA team decides to pursue him. The latter, who was traded to Utah midseason last year on an expiring deal, signed a small contract, worth $12 million over two years, with the Orlando Magic.
The team also traded French center Trey Lyles to the Denver Nuggets for the rights to the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft, who could be an absolute gem.
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That potential gem is no other than Donovan Mitchell, a ball hawking, athletic combo guard with great range out of Louisville. He put on a clinic in the Salt Lake and Vegas Summer Leagues, joining the likes of Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, and Dennis Smith Jr. as some of the most likely Rookie of the Year candidates.
The team’s biggest get this summer was to acquire slick passing Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz replaced Hill with an above average point guard who should be able to works wonders in pick and rolls with the rim-running Gobert. Additionally, his court-warping vision should benefit the likes of Hood and Mitchell, who can receive the ball on the perimeter in advantageous positions. Unfortunately though, Rubio still cannot shoot, which may pose a problem if/when Gobert and Favors share the floor together.
Utah also went out and signed 33-year-old, two-way guard Thabo Sefolosha to a great contract of two years, $10.5 million. It was a low risk signing that could help stabilize the wing situation now that Hayward is gone, and Sefolosha has been an excellent perimeter defender and decent three point shooter for years.
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The team also signed the underwhelming yet pliable Jonas Jerebko away from the Celtics on a two-year, $8.2 million agreement and also resurrected the career of Ekpe Udoh, who has not graced an NBA floor since 2015.
Utah may have lost backup point guard Dante Exum for the entirety of the 2017-18 season with a shoulder injury. It will be the second full season that the young Australian will miss, meaning that Raul Neto will again have to step up in his place. This development also casts a more foreboding light on the team’s decision to let Mack walk in free agency for as little as he got. Look for Utah to play Mitchell at the one and/or to be active in trade talks for a backup ball handler.
5Dimes sets Utah’s win-loss total at 40.5, just a couple games under .500. Utah realistically could win 45 to 48 games and again contend for the fourth or fifth seed. It is a more known commodity than either Minnesota or the Houston Rockets, and in that light, makes them a more stable, if less sexy, playoff pick.
Yet, if a key player such as Rubio or Gobert were to suffer an injury, or if Hood cannot manage to shoulder a larger workload, things could veer off the rails quickly and disastrously in Salt Lake City. It’s not unreasonable to think that Utah could hit around 35 wins and miss the playoffs by a large margin.
I, however, am more predisposed to the former. I think 42-to-45 wins will be in the cards for the Jazz, a team which will be underrated due to its lack of a star. Remember, the post-Carmelo George Karl-era Nuggets were a formidable foe without a clear alpha in their ranks. Utah should embrace that animus this season.
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