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The Utah Jazz Are Fighting the Fringes

In an eventful offseason, the Utah Jazz lost two of their best players. Now retooled and reloaded, can the team replicate last season's success in 2017-2018?

By Charles ManiegoPublished 7 years ago 4 min read
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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For many, the Utah Jazz’s offseason revolved around one man — Gordon Hayward. Hayward’s Fourth of July free agency announcement left “STAYWARD” supporters with fireworks of disappointment. George Hill, Utah’s lead playmaker also departed. Hill perhaps played his best season in his lone season with the Jazz. While Hayward went eastward and Hill headed to Sacramento, the Jazz strode forward. 2017-2018 will be a test in the team’s resilience.

In 2016-2017, the Jazz thrived on precision and control. On the offensive end, they played at the slowest pace in the NBA, grinding defenses to a halt. Quin Snyder often leaned on the tandem of Hayward and Hill for much of the offensive load. But the Jazz stood out in a loaded Western Conference due to their defensive prowess. Rudy Gobert, the Defensive Player of the Year, imposed his length on opponents every night. While he was the anchor of Utah’s defense, the team’s cohesiveness on switches and on the perimeter often stymied the NBA’s elite.

The Jazz outlasted the Los Angeles Clippers in one of the few exciting first-round playoff matchups. Utah established a foundation in 2016-2017, despite a clean sweep by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semis. Their 51 wins in 2016-2017 were the most since 2009-2010 — when Jerry Sloan was still head coach and Deron Williams was still a superstar. (Yes, that seems like a really long time ago.) The #1 song in 2010 was "TiK ToK" by Ke$ha. Seven years later, both Kesha and the Utah Jazz play different styles.

Now, two of the team’s 2016-2017 pillars are gone. While Quin Snyder’s slow-ball tactics will continue to manifest themselves on court, the talent will be dramatically different. Judging by their current roster construction, the Jazz are aiming to compete for a playoff spot once more. In a packed Western Conference, the Jazz decided to take another stab at relevancy.

Reloading, Not Rebuilding

The departures of Hayward and Hill led the team to retool, not rebuild. The Jazz’s most notable summer acquisition was Ricky Rubio. The book on Rubio is written now — a quality player with standout flaws. As he matured in Minnesota, Rubio became a leader for a team still trying to find footing in the league. His playmaking and passing abilities are still as orgasmic as they were when he first entered the league. His shooting — percentage wise — is still one of the lowest marks for any modern NBA player. But 2016-2017 was the first time Rubio shot over 40% from the field. Progress, right?

While Rubio may not provide the scoring firepower that George Hill did, Utah’s new point guard at least fits into the team’s schemes on both ends of the floor. As a playmaker, Rubio can set up a rim runner like Rudy Gobert or play pick and pop with Derrick Favors. Rubio has always been a good defender — despite Minnesota’s poor defensive performances over the year. In a more mature squad, Rubio’s defense could take another step forward. While he may have gone to another small market team, Rubio has always been a highlight-worthy player.

Two veteran additions, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh also fit the Jazz’s defense-first mold. Sefolosha was a calming presence in Atlanta for three seasons. Ekpe Udoh was the defensive centerpiece on Euroleague Champions Fenerbahce. While not the sexiest of signings, the two are solid depth signings.

The Utah Jazz traded youngster Trey Lyles to move up in the draft, selecting Donovan Mitchell. A late riser in the draft, Mitchell impressed in Summer League. He showed explosiveness off the floor, hustle end to end, and maturity on the floor. Yes, Summer League is sometimes a mirage. But rather than being a work in progress, Mitchell could be a long, steady scoring guard in the mold of George Hill. While the Jazz’s backcourt may be loaded with decent talent (Rubio, the recovered Alec Burks, Dante Exum, and Joe Johnson), Mitchell should have a chance to shine.

The Utah Jazz in a Sea Full of (Playoff) Contenders

It’s cliché to say that the Utah Jazz improved quietly. While the team, as currently constructed, may be a step down from last year’s group, they can still be a force in the West. But the offseason may leave the Jazz as a fringe playoff squad. Even a few of last season’s non-playoff teams took leaps forward. Yes, the Minnesota Timberwolves took ten steps forward. Newly acquired Paul Millsap and analytic Twitter’s patron saint, Nikola Jokic, will lead the Denver Nuggets in the playoff push. The Boogie Cousins-Anthony Davis tandem could click before Cousins hits free agency. While the top of the West may be a lock (Warriors, duh), the rest of the Conference could be up for grabs.

But the Jazz’s stifling defense and their continuity could outweigh the offensive firepower of those teams. The team has the best rim protector in the league in Rudy Gobert. Rubio has always been a plus defender, despite the loaded point guard crop. On the wings, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson, and Sefolosha possess the intellect, girth, or length to stymie teams that force switches. Johnson, despite his older age, is still a bucket factory in crunch time. The addition of Rubio could lead to easy baskets in transition or in the half court.

It’s a new look Utah Jazz and a new look Western Conference. The team still could be a tough regular season opponent and a frustrating matchup in the playoffs. Utah may have lost its best player in Gordon Hayward and another fine piece in George Hill, but the framework of a solid team is still intact. They will be relying on internal improvement and their own chemistry to replicate their solid 2016-2017 campaign.

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About the Creator

Charles Maniego

Basketball, Society, Science & Medicine. Unbalanced.🍦🔬🏀🤼 ✈🤷🤙🏽

[@ignisyon]

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