Jazz Offseason Report: What Tune Will Utah Play This Season?

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2016/17 Record: 51 – 31 (2nd Round Exit)

2017/18 Salaries: $111,201,646 (Over The Cap Team) – full UTA salary cap situation – here.

Incoming Draft Picks: WAS ’21 2nd, SAS ’22 2nd

Outgoing Draft Picks: Nil.

Jazz

The Utah Jazz’s offseason was always going to be centered around retaining franchise star Gordon Hayward. Almost every move the Jazz made prior to his decision were with him in mind, and all decisions now will try to fill the hole he has left. Yet, despite losing Hayward to the Boston Celtics, Utah’s offseason is one of general positivity. That’s not to say that the additions the Jazz have made off-set the loss of Hayward – for legitimate NBA stars are difficult to replace – but it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.

The first major move Utah made was flipping the 24th pick (Tyler Lydon) and Trey Lyles to Denver for Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick. Donovan Mitchell is Coach Quinn Snyder’s wet dream, a defensive beast that with has potential to be a high impact shooting guard on offensive offends. The trade was an early indication of how Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey would approach this offseason. The Jazz were an elite defensive unit in season 2016/17, and it was this defensive anchor which provided GM Lindsey an opportunity to hedge his bets; doubling down on defensive talent so that should they lose out on Hayward, the damage could be – in part – blunted.

As July 1 drew near, the Jazz had to prepare for the Gordon Hayward wine-and-dine-and-show-me-the-love treatment that all elite NBA players receive during the modern free agency period. To best help Hayward visualize the future of Utah Basketball, the Jazz initially looked to bring back Point Guard George Hill and Small Forward Joe Ingles. Ingles was relatively easy, and came on day two of Free Agency, agreeing to a four-year $52 million deal. Hill proved more difficult.

The Jazz would have known the lengths required to keep Hill after he knocked back an extension offer from the Jazz mid-season. Still, re-signing Hill was important as the Jazz felt it would help convince Hayward to stay. It is unknown what indications Utah received from Hill’s camp prior to 1 July, but they obviously weren’t confident of retaining his services, and with Hayward’s free agency meeting coming up fast, they bit the bullet and shipped the Thunder’s 2018 first rounder to the Timberwolves for his replacement, Ricky Rubio.

Unfortunately none of the early activity worked. Hayward would choose his former college coach and the Celtics in what would have to be one of the weirdest offseason announcements in recent memory; complete with a well worded Players Tribune article.

The question resulting from Hayward’s defection is ‘where to from here?’. The Jazz will have to change their tune if they want to compete for a playoff spot in a stacked Western Conference. The faint hints of a new tune have already been heard, establishing Rudy Gobert as the future of the franchise. This score makes sense, Gobert is now Utah’s best player and if Utah want to be competitive, they will have to rely even more heavily on their elite defense as a point of difference.

Being elite on at least one end of the floor is imperative for success in today’s game. The Jazz were certainly that on the defensive end last season, finishing third in defensive rating behind the Spurs and Warriors. Scarily, Utah got even better defensively when they replaced George Hill with Ricky Rubio. A comparison between the two illustrates that Rubio comes out on top in key categories in steals per game and defensive plus/minus. Rubio further enhances his statistical defensive dominance in defensive rating for last season per NBA.com, finishing nearly nine rating points better than Hill. Bringing the improved perimeter defense home alongside Rubio (and Donovan Mitchell), is the addition of 11 year veteran and defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha.

However, the loss of both Hayward and Hill will be felt most on the offensive end.   Per basketball-reference.com, Hayward and Hill were the top two ranked Jazz players last season in usage and points per game, as well as finishing second and third for offensive win shares. Utah weren’t able to bring in anyone that can create their own shot to the degree that Hayward could, and so any offensive solution will have to lie with the  pass-first players currently on the roster and a savvy coach. The solution should be an offense that doesn’t rely on one or two individual players for maximum success and instead seeks to score by committee.

The new conductor of the Jazz ensemble will be Rubio.  The second half of Rubio’s 2016/17 season with the Wolves was markedly better than the first, coinciding with an increased usage rate post the All-Star break, from 15.1% to 22.4%. Rubio is most effective when handling the ball, using his elite passing ability to find open teammates, and at the same time keeping him from the three point line (he cannot shoot, at all). It stands to reason that Rubio will absorb a fair chunk of the usage duties left behind by Hayward and Hill.

A major pillar of the offense next season for Coach Snyder will no doubt be the pick-and-roll partnership with Rubio and Gobert. Gobert was one of the most effective roll men last season, averaging 1.38 points per possession, putting him in the elite category. A Gobert and Rubio pick-and-roll game will no doubt benefit from being surrounded by a duo of wily Joe’s, (Ingles and Johnson) as well as Rodney Hood, all of whom shoot well above the last seasons average NBA 3pt% of 35.8%.

It may be Rodney Hood who will benefit most from Hayward’s departure. Hood’s sophomore season avoided the traditional slump, and in 32 minutes a game he was good for 14.5 points at a 42% FG. Last season however didn’t follow the projected path of improvement, playing in only 55 games, averaging 12.7 points on 40.8% FG shooting in 27 minutes a game. If he can stay healthy, and increase his scoring punch whilst maintaining a similar efficiency, Utah will find in Hood a player who can help – again, in part – replicate Hayward’s production.

Utah have also added Ekpe Udoh and Jonas Jerebko, both of whom could be sneakily good signings for Utah. Jerebko is a handy stretch four that will be able to provide spacing for Rubio and Co., whilst also providing a valuable pick-and-pop option. Udoh brings a dominant EuroLeague stint back with him on his return to the NBA. He was a stat stuffer last season with Fenerbahce, averaging 20.7 points, 7.8 boards, 2.2 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game. Udoh will likely be Gobert’s back-up, and the added depth and dynamic he brings will no doubt better the Jazz. The additions of Jerebko and Udoh along with first round pick Tony Bradley could see Joel Bolomboy as the 16th man on a 15 man roster.

The hardest team in the NBA to predict next season – for mine – is the Utah Jazz. They have the coach, depth and potential in their youth to see them push for a top four spot in the West, but in a stacked conference it will all come down to exactly what tune the Jazz will play this season and whom exactly, plays it.

Projected Starting Five:

Projected Depth Chart:

Utah Depth Chart

Overall Offseason Grade: B

2017/18 Prediction: 40 – 42

Unfortunately for the Jazz, the Western Conference continued to get a lot stronger, whilst they lost two of their best players. The Jazz’s inclusions will offset those losses to a point, but it’s almost impossible to replace production from star talent without another incoming star. The Jazz will be competitive and their continued development will be intriguing to watch, but ultimately they will miss the playoffs.

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Player to Watch: Derrick Favors

The fact that Favors has played seven seasons, but is still only 26 years of age may be some cause for concern that the potential that he flashed in the earliest throes of his career may never be realized. Favors’ has always been on the cusp of stardom, but due to consistent unavailability he has never broached the threshold. But in the post-Hayward era, the Jazz will need to find a new star, and Derrick Favors could just be it.

Four Key Questions:

1. Just how good is Donovan Mitchell?
In some ways, Donovan Mitchell was a surprise at pick 13 in the 2017 NBA Draft. Yet, he was one of the most exciting players of both the Utah and Las Vegas Summer League’s. His defensive prowess is undoubtedly his best asset, but he showed an incredible ability to score including a 37 point game in Vegas. There is some depth already on the Jazz’s roster at the two, but Mitchell could be the x-factor type player that the Jazz could use.

2. Can Coach Quinn Snyder be Coach of the Year?
As outlined above, for the Jazz to replicate, let alone improve on their 2016/17 season, they will have to double down on their defensive capability, and potentially get funky on offense. If they can replicate last season with an (on paper) weaker team, then Snyder will be a very real candidate for the Coach of the Year award, where he finished sixth last season.

3. Can Rudy Gobert be a franchise centrepiece and All NBA First Team?
Rudy Gobert received 43 first team votes in the All NBA Team voting, ultimately finishing with a total of 339. Pelican Anthony Davis finished first with a total of 45 first team votes, and a total score of 343. With the Jazz pivoting towards Gobert as the franchise centerpiece after Gordon Hayward’s defection, and the potential for a Rubio-Gobert/ Spanish-French pick-and-roll connection, could those few extra votes find their way to Gobert resulting in the coveted first team All NBA honors?

4. Is this Dante Exum’s make or break year?
Dante Exum found himself as the starting point guard for eight games in November last season when George Hill got injured, averaging a shade under 30 minutes a game. When Hill returned, Exum suddenly found himself only seeing seven minutes a game over the next four games; including a DNP. That stretch exemplifies the up and down NBA career for Exum to this point. A solid rookie year, then a missed sophomore year due to a torn ACL and a fluctuating year three saw Exum challenged by Coach Snyder in his exit interview. He responded with a very good Summer League, and with George Hill in Sacramento and Shelvin Mack finding his way to Orlando, it could provide a perfect opportunity to establish himself as a bonafide NBA player, 6th man candidate and future starting Point Guard in Utah.


Info courtesy of:
Basketball Reference
Basketball Insiders
Real GM
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