SALT LAKE CITY -- When the Jazz hired Quin Snyder as a first-time NBA coach in 2014, “it was clear to ownership and myself that he had something prove,” general manager Dennis Lindsey said Wednesday -- an image that hasn’t left Lindsey three years and calendars full of vindication later.
When the Jazz came within hours of making the 2016 playoffs (despite a string of injuries that would have overwhelmed a roster with a weaker mindset) and when the Jazz did make the 2017 postseason (and came back from a 2-1 first-round series deficit to beat the LA Clippers), they were proving something ... both times.
When the Jazz traded for Ricky Rubio, a deal that became official Wednesday, it was with Lindsey gushing, “We think Ricky Rubio’s going to be a 2017 facsimile of Jason Kidd” and “I could see him leading the league in assists,” but also, in the more-telling assessment, in what has fast become a badge of honor around this franchise, “We have a point guard with something to prove.”
So, yeah, Gordon Hayward reportedly left the Jazz on Tuesday and left them badly, with a mangled announcement to the only professional home he had known, not just the public, and what’s next?
It is a massive setback to what had been a roster with an upward trajectory obvious to the entire league. Hayward was the best offensive weapon and a solid complementary piece to Rudy Gobert’s elite backstopping defense. Hayward was also an All-Star at age 27 whose development into a standout small forward on the doorstep of his prime embodied the growth of the entire Lindsey/Snyder operation. Replacing Hayward, especially after possible candidates went elsewhere as the Jazz circled waiting for a decision, will be very difficult.
“The timing has been problematic,” Lindsey said. “Timing has been problematic.”
OK. But seriously. What’s next?
If this is the worst possible basketball outcome, the best player possibly leaving for nothing, although possibly with a partial return via a sign-and-trade with the Celtics, it’s also one of the places that could handle it best.
The Jazz are resilient in ways some teams that had longer playoff runs than being swept in the semifinals could only dream of capturing. It has been that way for years, a driving force behind the maturation into what appeared to be a postseason regular, and so, too, will it have to be again.
Hayward is gone to Boston. He leaves behind a star defender at center, the knowledge that Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors need to step up in a big way, the promise of lottery-pick rookie Donovan Mitchell and a locker room that doesn’t back down from a fight. Replacing Hayward is just the latest in a series.
“I think they have character,” is how Lindsey put it as part of the first comments to the free-agent departure that rocked the organization, apart from statements by management the day before and Snyder earlier Wednesday. “Look, there’s one thing that Quin and I both wanted out of the group. We wanted a little more proactivity out of our players. But the one thing that our character always showed is they responded to challenges during the season, whether that be injuries or getting down in a game and coming back or a loss in the next game. That’s usually a sign of great character, that you have a response. Do we need to be more proactive and more physical and tough on the front end. Absolutely. We’ll try to procure to that and emphasize that. But I would imagine they’ll have a great response with their work.”
The Jazz aren’t denying their lives just got a lot tougher. But they didn’t just come up with a giant excuse if things don’t go well in 2017-18 either. They will be leaning into the challenges -- just like all the years, these guys who have something new to prove.
“It’s time for us to pivot,” Lindsey said. “It’s time for us to move on.”
To where being the obvious question. In the moment, the search for front-court depth will lead everywhere, the general manager said, maybe Europe, maybe a free agent churning away in summer league. Someone with something to prove. Lindsey specifically mentioned finding a player who is hungry.
In the long term, there is the additional, greater problem that finding reinforcements: the rest of the Western Conference, the teams that have been stockpiling stars while the Jazz have been losing theirs. The blueprint for a big window of postseason appearances does not exist anymore. It is covered by splashes of Celtic green.
Lindsey was asked at the end if he still has a playoff team.
“I don’t want to go there yet,” he told NBA.com. “We’ll compete well. How about that?”
It’s good enough for now. It will have to be.
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