2016-17 record: 51-31. 5th in the Western Conference. Swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors
Transactions: Losing a top player is never easy.
For the Utah Jazz faithful, it was downright devastating. The team had just got over a major hump and finally returned to the playoffs after four seasons on the outside looking in and scored what was considered in most circles a pretty big upset over the Los Angeles Clippers. The Jazz posted the third best defensive rating and 12th best offensive rating into the entire NBA and looked like a team that was poised to move on to bigger and better things in the near future.
But a sense of foreboding definitely hung over what should have been a joyous season in Utah because of the impending free agency of their top scorer and also elite defender Gordon Hayward. He was a key piece of the Jazz resurgence but there were those seemingly never-ending rumours linking him to the Boston Celtics and former coach at Butler, Brad Stevens.
But after such a great season – which included his first ever all-star selection – there had to be hope that Hayward would stay and continue to build on the success that the team had this past year and look to avenge their second round sweep of the Golden State Warriors.
Ultimately it wasn’t meant to be and Hayward moved on to literal greener pastures – Celtic green that is – for a reunion with his Butler coach and a chance to challenge for the NBA Finals on a team that finished on top of the Eastern Conference standings and with three East all-stars heading west this season and so many teams in that conference headed for the tank, Hayward’s impact will be a lot higher in the comparatively weaker East.
So with the departure of their top scorer and only all-star, things were looking pretty bleak for the Jazz. The success or failure of the off-season entirely depended on how they could address such a huge loss and regroup to stay competitive in the even more loaded Western Conference.
Thankfully for the Jazz that was a process that they started before Hayward’s when they sent a 2019 first round pick (previously acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for gifted play-making point guard Ricky Rubio. This move was a major coup for Utah as there are only three point guards in NBA history who have averaged more than 8 assists and two steals over a career: John Stockton, Chris Paul and…..Ricky Rubio.
The 26 year old Spaniard is an absolute ball-hawk on defense. Quinn Snyder’s excellent defensive system will allow Rubio to gamble even more on steals and he’s going to bolster the team’s less-than-stellar pick-and-roll defense with his ability to fight through screens and chase down opposing ball-handlers as he’s shown the ability to neutralize even the most elite level creators off the dribble on defense. Rubio’s got a high level defensive IQ and his attention to detail and ability to communicate with his teammates will help make an already top 3 defense even better.
Yes there are the concerns on offense and Rubio certainly is a downgrade from the departing George Hill in terms of his scoring ability, but Quinn Snyder has a way of getting the best out of players in his system and has stated a commitment to working with their new point guard on his shooting mechanics. What he lacks in scoring, however, he will make up for his ability to form one of the league’s most potent pick-and-roll attacks with Rudy Gobert. Rubio is one of the best pick-and-roll ball-handlers in all of basketball and he can the best out of the Gobert with his creativity and unparalleled court vision and passing ability.
Rubio is also going to prove invaluable in transition where the Jazz have struggled at times. They played at the slowest pace in the NBA last year and while I don’t expect them to dramatically speed up their game this season, the addition of Rubio will allow them to push the pace and get out a lot quicker than they were able to last season. Particularly in small line-ups, the Utah is going to get the jump on teams in ways they weren’t able to last season with Rubio running the offense as they’ll be able to execute fast breaks in ways they haven’t been able to since the days of prime Deron Williams as their new point guard is outstanding in the open court.
Ricky Rubio’s scoring deficiencies in comparison to George Hill are evident. Hill was second in team scoring with 16.9 points per game on 47.7% shooting including 40.3% from three point range while Rubio had his best scoring season yet with 11.3 points per game off 40.2% shooting including 30.6% three point range, but it’s mitigated by Rubio’s superior passing 9.1 assists per game vs. 4.2) and defensive ability. Rubio’s averaging 2.1 steals for his career against Hill’s 0.9 and last season Rubio’s D limited opponents to 4.4 shots per game against him vs. 5.3 against Hill and only hitting 38.7% of those shots vs. 39.9% against Hill. In that sense, Rubio represents a significant upgrade as a facilitator and defender.
The Jazz really got a bargain with acquiring Rubio who I would argue fits into their system much better than George Hill did and the benefit works both ways as well. Rubio gets to come into an established system under Quinn Snyder that will play to his strengths. I’d anticipate the Spanish point guard to have the best season of his career on his new team.
Utah re-upped with Australian swingman Joe Ingles on a 4 year, $52 million deal which is a high price to pay but not so much when you consider that part of the motivation for locking down Ingles so quickly was to help make the case for Hayward to stay and that “Aussie Joe” is coming off a break-out season that saw him shoot 44.1% from three point range and hit career highs in virtually every category and also become a key piece of the rotation in the playoffs as he averaged 30.4 minutes per game throughout the Jazz’s run.
Ingles will now enjoy an even greater role on the team after his break-out season as he will become much more of a front-court focal point with the departures of Hayward and Boris Diaw. The 30 year old will now have an even greater role on the offensive side of things and will get to further show off his sharp-shooting as well as have more opportunities to show off his handle and ability to attack off the dribble and also his solid mid-range game. Another skill I’m looking forward to seeing Ingles display more is his play-making ability as he’s going to get more chances to initiate offense and his court-vision and passing ability are going to be invaluable for the new look Jazz.
Defensively, Ingles also broke out last season on the back-end and established himself as a versatile defender who may not have elite-level athleticism but can guard just about anybody on the floor due to his drive and sound decision-making skills. He’s able to withstand switches as he’s shown the ability to keep up with opposing guards and ball-handlers and he’s also a great help defender who can read the opposition’s offensive sets and react accordingly which can turn into great opportunities in transition.
Utah further bolstered their defense with the addition of Thabo Sefolosha on a 2 year, $10.5 million deal which is a bargain for the 33 year old veteran who may not have the foot speed he once did but still has all the grit, smarts and work ethic to be a lock down defender on the wing. His still had the 12th highest defensive rating in the NBA last season – his 11th in the league.
The Swiss swingman brings a great deal of defensive versatility to the team and can also still hit from three which gives them some spacing on offense when he’s on the floor. Most importantly for the Jazz he brings a steadying veteran presence to the room and will having him around will go a long way in terms of mentoring younger players like rookie Donovan Mitchell.
Sefolosha has already made a huge impact on Salt Lake City community when he saved a woman from drowning on the Provo river.
The Jazz added some spacing in signing Jonas Jerebko to a two year, $8.2 million deal. The Swedish power forward can reliably hit from three and can help open up room next to Rudy Gobert or even play the 5 when Quinn Snyder rolls out small line-ups. Jerebko is an unselfish player who will fill a big need on the team with the skills he offers.
The team bolstered its big man depth by bringing Ekpe Udoh back to the NBA. During his time in the Euroleague, he developed into a a nice low-usage, defensively mobile centre who can back up Rudy Gobert if Snyder opts to go with Derrick Favors at the 4 rather than on the second unit.
Utah also signed utility man Royce O’Neale off the New Orleans Pelicans Summer League squad who will have the opportunity to compete for a roster spot. He’s shown the ability to play anywhere from the 2 to the 4 and should be a nice depth asset at the end of rotation should he earn a place on the team.
2017 NBA Draft: The Jazz made an big move at the draft when they sent Trey Lyles and their 24th overall selection in the draft to the Denver Nuggets for the 13th pick which they used to select Donovan Mitchell out of Louisville in what was a huge win for the Utah front office.
Mitchell stands at 6’3” but has an incredible 6’10” wingspan and a chiselled 211 pound frame that allow him to play well above his size. He’s an elite level athlete with great speed and body control in the open floor and can play above the rim with a 36.5” no step vertical. These physical tools provide him with tremendous potential as a scorer in both half-court situations and transition. His long strides, speed and powerful frame allow him to operate with confidence and absorb contact en route to the basket.
The former Cardinal was a very streaky shooter at times in college, but really grew as a perimeter threat as he tripled his makes from downtown as a sophomore while seeing his efficiency rise from 25% to 35%. He has sound shooting mechanics, great balance and solid footwork and rise in both pull-ups and spot-ups from deep. Mitchell should be even better as a deep threat in Quinn Snyder’s system.
The aspect of his game that will allow him to excel in Utah the most is his defense. After two years under Rick Pitino, Mitchell is a multi-positional stopper who can easily lock-up down either guard position or even opposing wings in some sets. His physical tools and length certainly help him in that regard, but it’s his drive and ability to compete that really sets him apart. Mitchell is willing to pull up court, get on the floor for loose balls and make life incredibly difficult for opposing ball players. His off the ball instincts are outstanding as well which was evidenced by his 2.6 steals per 40 minutes which is the best of the entire draft class.
In Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have landed one of the best and most NBA ready players in the draft and someone who will make the Gordon Hayward departure sting a lot less going forward. He’s going to immediately fit in with their system and with his work ethic and commitment to improving should see a lot of time on the floor this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name mentioned in terms of rookie of the year nominees with his ability to impact both sides of the floor.
The Jazz made another move to move up two spots when they sent their 30th pick and their 42nd pick to the Houston Rockets in order to acquire the 28th pick and select North Carolina Tar Heels freshman centre Tony Bradley.
Bradley only played 14 minutes per game last season behind upperclassmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, but was able to show enough flashes off the bench to be considered a good value in the draft. His per 40 minute averages of 19 points, 13.9 boards and 1.6 blocks on a 56.1% true shooting percentage are a good indicator of what he can become at the pro level, but his physical tools give the Jazz even more reason to be optimistic.
The 19 year old stands at 6’10.75” with a 7’5” wingspan and a 9’4.5” standing reach. His length really helps make up for his deficiencies as an athlete and relative lack of quickness. Offensively it allowed him to crash the glass at a rate of 6.9 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes. In addition to his physical tools, Bradley has a good understanding of how to track rebounds off the rim and throws his body around into open spaces while using his length to grab loose balls outside of his area. He’s also shown encouraging signs in terms of his shooting range with a soft touch out to about 18 feet of the basket and if he continues to develop his jump shot that kind of range should serve him well at the NBA level.
Defensively, he’s got all the tools to be a powerful rim protector and physical defensive presence, but still needs to work on his timing and overall feel for the game on that end. He’s also got to work on his tendency to foul which often negates his defensive ability as his five personal fouls per 40 minutes can attest. The result is that he’s often a bit tentative when defending physical bigs because of a fear of drawing fouls which is something he will have to work on a lot in Utah.
The Jazz have a very raw prospect with a potentially high upside. He’s got size and length that can’t be taught and if he can continue to grow his game and develop in Utah, he should become part of the rotation in the years to come.
With the 55th pick in the draft, the Jazz selected Nigel Williams-Goss out of Gonzaga. The 23 year old has started at Washington but sat out his junior year in order to transfer schools and become a Bulldog where he played a key role in leading the team to its first NCAA Championship game.
At 6’3” with a 6’7” wingspan, he’s got good size for a point guard and, while he isn’t a high-level athlete, has the court vision and poise to run an offense. Williams-Goss is particularly adept at the pick-and-roll which accounted for 44% of his possessions as he can keep the dribble alive while patiently studying opposing defenses and he can see above the defense to read screens. He performs crisp and accurate passes and rarely turns the ball over. The 23 year old does have a lot of work to do, however, in order to develop as an NBA level scorer.
Defensively, Williams-Goss makes up for his lack of athleticism with energy, smarts and a willingness to take on the toughest defensive assignment he can. He’s able to guard opposing guards and small forwards and provide defensive versatility due to his work ethic to stay in front of his man. He’s also an excellent defensive rebounder for the guard position as he’s willing to mix it up in traffic to grab boards and then lead his team out in transition.
The rookie will be starting his pro career outside the NBA as he has signed on with Serbian club Partizan for this season.
Outlook: Without Gordon Hayward, the team is going to slide down in the loaded Western Conference and well out of the playoff picture, right? Not so fast. The team has really re-tooled in a big way without Hayward and the new additions will allow them to stay a lot more competitive than some analysts believe.
The focal point is now Rudy Gobert and I believe that he’s poised for an even better offensive season than his breakout last year on that end which saw him average 14 points on 66.1% shooting which was second best in the entire NBA. The presence of Ricky Rubio is really going to get him going more than ever before as Gobert has never been paired with a guard who can run the pick-and-roll so well and that attack is going to be the focal point of the Jazz offense now.
Rubio has an assist rate of 38.5% and he’s never played with a finisher down low as talented as Gobert. The two of them are going to terrorize opposing defenses down low as Rubio will be able to find the 7’1”, 258 pound French centre anywhere in the paint and there are very few opposing bigs capable of stopping him.
It won’t just be Gobert’s scoring that keeps the Jazz dominant but also his rebounding. He was second in the NBA in offensive rebounds with 314 which will provide a ton of second chance opportunities. He also dominates the boards on the back-end with 721 which was good enough for fifth most in the league. That level of dominance on the glass will allow Utah to hang in there with just about anybody as long as their centre is on the floor.
Gobert is still the best interior defender in the NBA and coming off a season where he averaged a league high 2.6 blocks per game and 214 blocks total. The stifle tower causes opposing bigs shooting percentages to plummet when he’s patrolling the paint and will force any player to alter their shot when he’s down low. His dominance as a rim protector saw him named first team All-Defense last season and even though he was snubbed for the all-star team last season, he was named to the All-NBA second team largely based on his absolute dominance as a defender.
Health will be a key to the Jazz. According to the “Man Games Lost” metric, the amount of the injuries the team suffered through last season cost them 9 wins which was by far the most in the NBA. Even with the loss of Hayward, just having more luck with injuries will make them a much better team at times and allow them to stay competitive.
No player on the roster personifies that Jazz’s ongoing health problems than Derrick Favors. After two straight seasons of averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds, he hobbled in and out of the line-up all of last season and saw his production plummet by 7 points a night and his rebounds drop by 2 per game. A healthy Favors would go a long way to replacing some of the scoring lost with the departure of Gordon Hayward and with his mid-range game he can provide some spacing either beside Gobert or on the second unit in smaller line-ups.
With all reports being that the 26 year old is ready to go, there is every reason to think that he can rediscover his old form and help lead the Jazz back to the playoffs. The team is really going to need him now more than ever.
I’d expect a huge season from Rodney Hood as well. In situations last season where the 24 year old took to the floor without Gordon Hayward – and therefore as more of a focal point on the offense – he averaged 22 per 36 minutes while shooting 46% from the field and 44.1% from three point range. Those are big time numbers if he can replicate that performance for an entire season.
There is every reason to believe that Hood can break out. He’s more than willing and able to create his own offense and will also be sharing the floor with Ricky Rubio who will be by far the most gifted facilitator that Hood has played with in his young career and will be able to find him for tons of quality looks. The organization has faith in him as a primary scorer and he’s got all the talent and ability to make good on that.
Veteran Joe Johnson is back for his 17th NBA season and Quinn Snyder plans to deploy the 36 year old as a primary scoring option off the bench. The 36 year old proved himself more than up to the challenge as he was a key piece of the Jazz’s first round victory over the Clippers and the seven time all-star averaged 12.9 points off of 43.6% shooting and added 3.9 boards and 2.5 assists in 29.6 minutes per game during the playoff run.
Iso Joe still has a lot left in the tank and with his dedication to health and fitness is seemingly ageless and could definitely handle a minutes increase and take on more of a sixth man role this season. Beyond that he’s also an excellent role model for the younger Jazz players as the 7 time all-star still has a level of dedication and commitment to improving his game that is really quite remarkable for a man of his age.
Dante Exum was also poised for a big break-out this season but he suffered a painful shoulder injury that could keep him out for the entire season. So much for health this year.
But in every cloud, there is a silver lining and in this case it means increased minutes for Donovan Mitchell as the rookie is poised to operate as the primary back up to Ricky Rubio at the point. With a bigger role on the team than anticipated, Mitchell could break out in a big way and push for rookie of the year honours if he rises the occasion with such a huge opportunity. There is every reason to think that he’s up to the task.
Alec Burks and Raul Neto should also get some increased minutes in the back-court with Exum’s injury.
While the loss of Exum hurts, the Jazz still did very well in addressing the Hayward departure and have some hope of replacing the scoring loss with the emergence of Hood, a solid rookie campaign for Mitchell, a return of form for Derrick Favors and the Rubio-Gobert pick-and-roll attack which is poised to take the league by storm.
What I find most encouraging about the Jazz is their depth. New additions Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko give them a great deal of line-up versatility and allow Quinn Snyder to throw a lot of different looks at opposing defenses. They are a much deeper team at virtually every position than they were last season and I really think that depth – alongside what will hopefully be more luck with player health – will allow them to weather the loss of an all-star a lot better than most think they will.
Most importantly, playing Utah is going to feel like getting punched in the mouth. They are going to be even better and more gritty defensively with the new additions. Rubio is going to rack up the steals, Sefolosha is going to lock opponents down on the perimeter and Gobert will be playing with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove with so many doubts that this team can succeed with him as the man. Quinn Snyder has an excellent system focused on stifling defense and has even more personnel capable of carrying it out.
It’s Snyder’s system and an even deeper line-up that I think will put the Jazz over Portland, New Orleans and Memphis for the 8th and final seed in the Western Conference play-offs. They’ve been there before and know what it take to get back – even without Hayward.
If defense wins championships, it can also clinch play-off spots and there are few teams better defensively in the NBA than the Utah Jazz.
Prediction: 42-40. 8th in the Western Conference. Bounced out of the first round by the Warriors in a likely sweep, but back in the playoffs.