There are times in sports when it’s still OK to chill, to relax, to sit tight and let it happen gradually, which is sometimes tough to understand in this microwave world where folks want everything quick. Like, yesterday.
But what you see today from the Utah Jazz is a result of just that, of team executives putting a long-term plan in place and then having the guts to stick with it. And their reward for that is a team starting to crystalize into a respectable unit that’s built and equipped to make a deep run in the playoffs this spring. Even better, it’s a team built to last.
This makes the young and frisky Jazz the model currently being copied in other places. Look no further than Los Angeles, where the Lakers, who play the Jazz Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT), want to be just like Utah when they grow up. And maybe that happens. Maybe someday Julius Randle will be a poor man’s Karl Malone, and D’Angelo Russell will be the team’s best point guard in decades, and Brandon Ingram will make regular trips to the All-Star Game. Maybe the Lakers will look back at their low point — losing by a franchise-record 49 to the Mavericks the other day certainly qualifies — and measure how far they’ve come.
It’s very possible that the Jazz blueprint — draft players, develop players, retain players — will be the most copied in the future. That’s because the new labor agreement is forcing teams to do just that. The rules will make it tougher in the future for A-list free agent stars to switch teams, and even B-listers will have heavy financial incentive to stay put as well, putting the onus on general managers to go the home-grown route. It’s cheaper, and on a certain level more rewarding and satisfying, as long as you keep one very important thing in mind.
“I think we have been patient,” said Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. “Sure, we would all love to be championship ready and competitive as soon as possible. But patience helps in this situation.”
Patience has allowed the Jazz to levitate in the West, to where they’re arguably the third best team in the conference. It indirectly encouraged fans in Boston to give Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, a free agent this summer, a wishful standing ovation last month in Boston. And it allowed the Jazz to survive a handful of injuries this season by reaching into their depth for players who have stepped in and stepped up to fill voids.
"I have a lot of responsibility. I expect myself to play like [an All-Star]. If we’re going to win games, I have to be like that."
After posting losing records in three of their last four seasons, the Jazz own signature wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, are on pace to win 50 games and, if healthy, stand to make noise come springtime. This is what executives envisioned six years ago this February when they traded moody point guard Deron Williams, in what was a shotgun divorce. Williams had argued with coach Jerry Sloan that season (prompting the long-time coach’s resignation) and, as a free agent in two summers, was seen as a risky re-sign.
In return from the Nets, the Jazz received Derrick Favors and a pair of first-rounders, and a foundation was laid.
Fast forward to now, here’s the core of the Jazz: Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, Favors, Dante Exum and Joe Ingles. The oldest of that group is Ingles at 29. Then there’s veterans George Hill, proven to be an excellent off-season pickup; the reliable Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw, who brings championship knowledge. Maybe there’s not a superstar on the roster (Hayward and Gobert might be All-Stars) but plenty of assets to keep or trade, along with room under the salary cap in which to maneuver.
Put it another way: How many teams would trade their situation (roster, youth, cap flexibility, coach, front office) for Utah’s? Ten? Fifteen? More?
Hayward has increased his scoring and role every season and is now 22.7 with almost six rebounds and four assists a game. He’s trustworthy in late-game situations and impacts games in other areas besides scoring.
“I have a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I expect myself to play like [an All-Star]. If we’re going to win games, I have to be like that.”
Gobert is a paint protector and intimidator grabbing almost 13 rebounds and blocking a league-leading 2.5 shots (and altering many others). Gradually, his offense is improving (13-point average), to the point where Utah can run plays for him.
Hood is emerging as a solid secondary scorer, same for Burks if he ever managed to stay healthy for a long stretch. There’s Hill, who has stabilized the Jazz point guard spot, seen as the team’s main weakness before the season. Hill is averaging 18 points and stretching the floor and having perhaps his best season ever, all things considered. Everyone else is filling roles: Johnson, Ingles, Diaw, Lyles.
There are two big questions: Favors and Exum are still trying to regain their momentum after suffering injuries, Exum two summers ago and Favors earlier this season. Both represent upside; should either or both gain traction, it’s a win for Utah.
Also, understand that Utah, despite its youth, is a very mature and aggressive defensive team. The Jazz rank first in defending the wing and the rim, and this is a credit to coach Quin Snyder, whose players are buying into his philosophy.
“Given who we are, we can’t be just pretty good defensively, we have to be around the top in the league,” said Lindsey.
Health is also the key; Utah is 15-3 this season when Hill (injured for a spell early in the season) and Hayward are on the floor, losing only in Memphis, to OKC on Russell Westbrook’s winning shot and to in Denver on Tuesday.
The only Draft pick Utah whiffed on was Trey Burke, while Exum still must prove worthy of being a 5th pick (he’s only 21, however, so there’s time). Otherwise, Utah has found gold through the Draft and gave those rookies time to grow. For example: Gobert was the 27th pick (obtained in a 2013 draft-day trade with Denver), gangly and raw. The Jazz was sold on his potential early, dumped the more polished (on offense) Enes Kanter to open more minutes for Gobert, and haven’t looked back.
“There’s something organic about drafting a player and seeing him develop and stay with your team over the years,” said Lindsey. “Maybe that’s a little pollyanna but I do think the fans tend to gravitate to those players, like Gordon and Rudy. There’s a family emotion. I’m fairly certain that’s a good thing for sports.”
They extended Gobert’s contract and of course the big task is doing the same this summer for Hayward, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Teams will line up for Hayward, with the Celtics and his old college coach Brad Stevens likely at the front. And this raises an old issue for the Jazz.
In the past, the top free agents avoided Utah, which continually ranked as the most least desirable place to play. Lindsey believes that scouting report is outdated, citing the physical beauty of Salt Lake coupled with a region that has grown more diverse (though still nowhere near that of bigger metropolises). Besides, players crave money and a place to win, in no particular order. He likes the team’s chances of signing Hayward and, if the opportunity presents itself in the near future and other free agents.
“People have seen what we’ve built, they know Quin, the culture, so we got a very good reception with the players we were able to get,” said Lindsey, mentioning Johnson and Diaw. “We try to get the message to NBA players about what a great place this is to live and where our team is headed. Also, other than major league soccer and Triple-A baseball, you’re the show, not only for the city and state but the region. You come here and do well like John [Stockton] and Karl, you own the state.”
Even with a flexible team that can play up-tempo and half court, and a defense that’s vastly underrated, and a coach who has shown to have the right touch, the Jazz are new to this territory. Youth must continue to serve them well come playoff time, and that’s a big unknown. Will players tighten up in the heat of a seven-game series against the Spurs or Warriors? Will that defense put the handcuffs on Harden and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni?
“We need continued internal development,” said Lindsey. “We need our players to continue to get better as they age.”
Lindsey and the organization aren’t putting that development to a stopwatch. They’ve been patient to this point, so why change? These are gradual steps the Jazz are taking, and in due time, maybe they’ll take the elevator instead of the stairs.
A team that leaned on the draft to remake itself is thriving, and maybe the biggest compliment paid to the Jazz? Others are taking notice and taking notes.
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