It was a whirlwind trade deadline for Utah. At the last hour the Jazz pulled off a trade that landed them backup point guard Shelvin Mack in exchange for a second-round pick. In his new role, Mack will be asked to provide the same good defense and steady play as rookie starter Raul Neto. Oddly, the deal didn't get a lot of coverage.
This might seem like—might even be—the least significant move made at a trade deadline which most NBA teams happily slept through. But just because pairing Mack with his former Butler teammate, Gordon Hayward, probably isn't New York- or LA-grade exciting, doesn't mean it can't qualify as Salt Lake City-grade excitement. This has little to do with Mack, or the relative dearth of nightlife options in SLC—by not making a big splash at the deadline, Utah signaled that it doesn't believe it's "one player away." They might believe they already have everything they need, and they might be right.
It doesn't make sense to compare Utah's youthful core to most prospect-laden teams. The difference is that the boom-or-bust period has come and gone in Utah, and the kids are already good. Utah has reliably developed their draft picks into above-average NBA players. Utah's potential for improvement is still there, but this team's floor is nearly as impressive to consider as its ceiling. Hayward is the team's star, and Rudy Gobert its greatest pillar of potential, but no one is personifying the team's emergence more effectively, or more quietly, than Rodney Hood.
Hood is averaging 15 points, three rebounds and nearly three assists in his second season. Perceived as a valuable three-and-D player, if he's perceived at all, Hood has also shown a ball-handling ability that allows him to create shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. With injuries to key players like Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Dante Exum, Hood has shouldered greater scoring and distributing responsibilities at various points this season. "Similar to Gordon [Hayward], when you're playing without basically three starters, you have to step up," Jazz coach Quin Snyder told me. "And to [Hood's] credit he's been not only willing, but able to do that. I'm not surprised, but I'm pleased."
At 23, Hood has already shown he can do everything that was projected for him out of college. If he begins to really excel at a couple of those things, he'll be a very sought after player—not a star, maybe, but the type of player that really good teams always seem to have in the lineup.
Hayward has been carrying the offensive burden of this team for so long that no one has bothered to notice that, at 25, he's having the best season of his career. "Hayward's just so good," an Eastern Conference scout told me. "He gets you baskets when you really need them."
Coming into Utah's matchup with Dallas, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle made clear he wasn't undervaluing Hood and Hayward. "As a young wing tandem, I don't know of any two that are better," he said. "You got one righty and one lefty and they can both shoot it. They can both make plays." A few hours later, they did—Hood took a handoff and sunk a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime and Hayward hit a step-back jumper over Zaza Pachulia at the buzzer to win the game in the extra session. Hood finished with 29 points. Hayward finished with 20. This is becoming something like business as usual.
Rudy Gobert (23) and Derrick Favors (26) are just as young as Hood and Hayward, but are much larger humans. If you watch the 7-foot-1 Gobert closely as an opposing guard dribbles the ball on the baseline you might actually catch him smiling at the prospect of someone trying to put up a shot in his vicinity. Favors, on the other hand, excels because he is simply stronger than most NBA players. He also knows how to score.
Even with two formidable bigs, the Jazz' youngest player, Trey Lyles, is making a strong case for playing time as a rookie. Lyles' minutes and production have been up and down, but—as he did in his sole season at Kentucky—he has shown moments that suggest he could be a taller, more athletic version of David West. Lyles can stretch the floor as a shooter better than Favors, which makes him a great fit next to Gobert. This might make Favors a valuable trade chip in the offseason if he isn't ready for a diminishing role. In the meantime, Snyder can use Favors' strength or Lyles' speed to expose mismatches.
After Utah's overtime victory in Dallas I asked Hood about the team's goals. "Really, we haven't talked about the playoffs," Hood claimed. "If we make it that would be amazing, especially with us being such a young team. But it's just game by game, getting better."
Getting better, game by game, is a clichéd answer NBA players use to avoid talking about the future; Hood seems ahead of the curve in learning how to do that, too. But some clichés are more true than others, and the Jazz really do seem to be getting better each game, if only because none of their core players have plateaued in terms of development.
Putting the emphasis on the future only makes sense, both in terms of locker room rhetoric and for this team in this moment. Utah's 20-year point guard and 2014 fifth overall pick Dante Exum has missed the entire season with a knee injury. Alec Burks had mid-season surgery on his fibula, and won't return this year. Utah looks ready to make the jump next season even without doing much to change the roster they already have. (The Jazz have even gotten the marginal moves right: that Shelvin Mack trade that was barely a blip on the NBA radar paid immediate dividends on Sunday night when Mack scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting to go with six assists and three rebounds in a loss to Portland.)
But even with Hood's claim that they aren't talking about the playoffs, we're still almost certainly going to see them there. The Jazz currently have a hold on the eighth seed, and with Memphis' season in jeopardy following Marc Gasol's injury and an apparent decision to punt at the deadline—and with the Clippers facing a brutal schedule sans Blake Griffin—Utah could make a run up the standings between now and April.
If the Warriors, Spurs, or Thunder face Utah in the first round, the Jazz could very well steal a victory in the series. It's hard to predict much more than that, but one win should be enough to fire up the pontification about what's wrong with whatever championship contender Utah beats once or twice.
That's the way the NBA discourse runs, but Utah will steal a game not because the Spurs have some secret weakness, but because Gobert makes scoring in the paint a frightening proposition, and because Hood and Hayward can create and get off shots all over the court, and because slower, weaker big men can't stop Favors or Lyles. This won't be like last year's Pelicans team, who made the playoffs with an emerging superstar and a bunch of role players. Utah is a complete team with a wide distribution of useful players, a serious defensive mentality, and a plan for years to come.
In a way, Utah not thinking about the playoffs gives them an interesting advantage. They don't have the burden of expectation, but they do have the urge to make a statement. For a team with a small championship window like the Clippers, that's a dangerous match-up. But there isn't any team, anywhere, that would be glad to see the Jazz in the postseason. They're already at that stage, and they're there ahead of schedule. It's just a matter of how quickly they can take the next step.