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Despite Losing Gordon Hayward, The Utah Jazz Will Still Be Very Good

Without Hayward, the Jazz will resemble the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks and become a more balanced team that should remain competitive in the treacherous Western Conference.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA—a 30-franchise league where individual talent ultimately decides the fate of every team—losing a star in free agency tends to signal the end of an era, and a downshift into a new life cycle. It's impossible for even the most anticipatory front office to avoid the aftermath.

Earlier this month the Utah Jazz—an organically constructed, well-run franchise that's recently made a habit of making shrewd trades, brilliant draft picks, and systematic free agent signings—lost star player Gordon Hayward after having won 51 games and a playoff series in the cutthroat Western Conference.


It's an obvious gut punch to lose Hayward to the Boston Celtics. The Jazz scored a team-low 103.7 points per 100 possessions when Hayward was on the bench last year. He was their most talented all-around player and, at only 27 years old, a pillar Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey could build around.

But even though its short and long-term title odds took a massive hit at the same time numerous conference rivals got stronger, Utah isn't going anywhere. Hayward's points, athleticism, intelligence, and positional versatility are gone, but his departure will not fundamentally alter how the Jazz play. Their core identity remains intact, and without a go-to scorer to lean on, Utah will double down on a philosophy that made them so resilient in the first place.

Amazingly, instead of heading back toward the lottery, Utah will plow ahead with a roster that's simultaneously raw, experienced, talented, smart, versatile, and deep in ways that run parallel with the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, a star-less 60-win juggernaut that excelled on both ends; what they lacked in elite individual talent, the Hawks made up for with a selfless offense that was impossible to game-plan against, and consistently competent in every other area.

No Hawks player on that team averaged more than 17 points per game. But three averaged more than 15 points per game, and six players averaged in double figures. By comparison, last year two Jazz players averaged more than 15 points per game but only four averaged in double figures. That ratio figures to change after Hayward's departure.


Even if Utah's ultimate potential without Hayward is now lower, there's a benefit to unleashing lineups with no obvious weaknesses.

At the forefront is Rudy Gobert, a one-man Night's Watch whose presence singlehandedly guarantees a top-five defense. (Utah finished third in defensive rating last season, and Gobert finished first in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.) Even without Hayward's team-leading 21.9 points per game, Gobert's offensive improvement last year should splash a good amount of optimism onto a group that already uses his dominant rim protection as an automatic and unlimited bail bondsman.

Utah has surrounded Gobert with complementary two-way pieces that should sustain (if not improve) an imposing defensive unit without stripping too much off offensively.

Alongside the 2nd-team All-NBA center are reliable professionals who know how to play (Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson), exciting young players (Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum, Tony Bradley), and near-their-prime weapons (Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood) who are all ready to make the jump to the next level.

Dante Exum appears fully recovered from 2016 ACL surgery. Photo by Kyle Terada - USA TODAY Sports

Rubio is a badger at the point of attack. He shreds through screens, irritates shooters, and takes charges with a grin, all while existing as an avant-garde opportunity maker. Rubio is slightly below average at his position, but that's more to do with the absurd depth at point guard than his own shortcomings.


That said, those weaknesses are well known, and fair or not, they are slightly exaggerated as a result of his reputation. Guards who don't force their man to fight over a screen, or let him sag down to the edge of the paint without worry, are an easy scapegoat for a struggling offense. Rubio's shot is welcomed by opposing coaches, and the only observers who wince when he shoots are his own team's fans.

But, the Minnesota Timberwolves boasted terrific offense with Rubio at the helm last year. He also made 40.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes after the All-Star break, and just about everyone on Utah's roster will enjoy having him around—even if George Hill was acceptable in the same role.

Gobert, who's emerged as one seriously savage lob threat, will benefit from his new teammate's creativity. According to Synergy Sports, only three players were more efficient than Rubio feeding roll men last year (minimum 200 possessions): Chris Paul, John Wall, and James Harden. Rubio was also a train wreck in transition, but that shouldn't be as problematic with the slow-poke Jazz.

And unlike in Minnesota, Rubio will always have at least one more playmaker flanking him on the wing. Johnson and Ingles are two Olympic-level archers who're plenty comfortable running a pick-and-roll or carving a defense up from the post, while Hood, Rubio's probable backcourt partner in the starting lineup, will stand in as a discounted insurance policy for Hayward.


Hood, who will be 25 in October, is injury prone and less consistent than his ex-All-Star teammate, but he owns similar traits and a nearly identical physical profile. Utah will politely ask him to increase his usage and efficiency this year, and it's very possible he obliges.

Whether that broadened responsibility will negatively impact Hood's defense is something to watch, as will Jazz head coach Quin Snyder's willingness to field smaller units that widen driving lanes for his perimeter-oriented pawns. Hood is crafty, poised, and deliberate, but he lacks the athletic burst around the rim that's shared by any run-of-the-mill first option. He attacks closeouts with confidence, can snake a pick-and-roll, and is dangerous with his feet set.

But, in part thanks to Utah's larger lineups, Hood too often settles for the inefficient pull-up jumpers that Utah will need him to ditch; a thicker free-throw rate from him would do wonders for this team.

Speaking of two-big units, Favors' role lingers as a question mark Snyder will need to answer sooner than later. Can a bulky forward share the floor with Gobert for extended stretches, or is Favors—when healthy—simply the best backup center in basketball? It's a contract year for the 26-year-old, and a trade deadline deal is conceivable given the increasingly uncomfortable offensive fit. On the other hand, defensively, a Favors and Gobert tandem are an unscalable mountain for any team that's slumping beyond the arc. Turning the restricted area into a moat can be pretty damn convenient in a seven-game series. (Lineups that featured Favors and Gobert without Hayward only played 57 minutes last season, according to NBAWowy.)

Elsewhere, the most thrilling variables both reside in the backcourt, where Mitchell and Exum function as inexperienced, high upside ball-handlers who have the potential to add a different dimension to Utah's attack. Their battle for minutes as Rubio's backup is something to keep an eye on. There were rumblings in Las Vegas that Exum, who's already extension eligible, played in those exhibitions primarily so the Jazz could showcase his rapidly decreasing physical limitations to the rest of the league after having had left ACL surgery in early 2016. He just turned 22, and once more appears to have that special line-drive quickness in his back pocket.

Off the bench, Sefolosha and Jerebko may be confused with window dressing, but each allows Snyder to tinker with more like-sized lineups without sacrificing too much spacing. Both can shoot, put it on the floor, and keep the ball moving in a hand-off-heavy scheme that prohibits a defense from focusing on just one or two primary threats. Udoh will replicate 75 percent of what Gobert provides for a dozen minutes every night.

All in all, it's admirable depth for a team that now has multiple options to throw at any problem they cross. The Jazz are still a worthy opponent, even if the closest thing they had to a modern star is gone. Winning 60 games, like the Hawks in 2015, will be almost impossible in the treacherous Western Conference, but the Jazz have similar on-court ingredients and organization-wide temperament. As a collective, they'll make larger waves than the names on the back of their jerseys suggest they should.