30 Teams in 30 Days: Jazz seem set to make next step

Utah got a bit older in offseason in hopes of reaching playoffs

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Since the Cavaliers won their first NBA title back on June 19, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason. NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2015-16 to the team with the best regular-season record — during the month of September as we look at 30 Teams in 30 Days. | Complete schedule

Today’s team: Utah Jazz

2015-16 record: 40-42

Who’s gone: F Trevor Booker, G Trey Burke, G Kendall Marshall, C Tibor Pleiss, SF Taurean Prince

Who’s new: PF Joel Bolomboy, PG Tyrone Wallace, PG Marcus Paige (via Draft); G/F Joe Johnson (free agency); F/C Boris Diaw, G George Hill (trades)

The lowdown: By embarking on a rebuilding project, Utah has steadily improved by 15 wins over the last two seasons and looks to rejoin the postseason ranks once again.

Over the last four years, the Jazz smartly built a nucleus through the Draft and also managed to keep those players intact with contract extensions. This summer, the strategy shifted a bit. Rather than bring in another rookie to join what was one of the youngest rotations in the league last season, the Jazz traded their first-rounder in a three-team deal that brought Hill, a veteran to help shore up the team’s biggest weakness.

Clearly, by refusing to put another rookie in the mix, the Jazz feel they’re ready to make a push for the playoffs in 2016-17.

And they might. In addition to Hill, they signed Johnson to a two-year deal and traded for Diaw, who brings championship experience from the Spurs. That’s three veterans and no highly-touted lottery picks. While those three veterans are likely short-term plug-ins, they can supply leadership, knowledge and raise the competitive level on the roster. The mix of youngsters and old-heads could be the tonic the Jazz need to take another leap in their development.

The casualty of this process was Burke, who was drafted a few years ago and at that time was considered the future at point guard. Utah was hoping he’d be a more coachable version of Deron Williams. But Burke mainly struggled in his time with the Jazz. He wasn’t a true playmaker, and as a result, most of the offense ran through Gordon Hayward as Burke came off the bench behind Raul Neto and later, Shelvin Mack, who arrived at midseason from the Hawks.

The point guard spot will now manned by Hill, unless the Jazz get a rousing return from knee surgery by Dante Exum. He’s only 21, and Hill and Mack are on short-term deals, so there’s time for Exum to learn the position and possibly own it in the near future.

Diaw was a salary dump by the Spurs and will be a welcome sight in Utah. The pudgy Frenchman is one of the smartest and more fundamentally-sound players in the league, and can still deliver quality minutes at age 34. Trey Lyles, last year’s No. 1 pick, had a very good showing at the Las Vegas Summer League. Young big man Derrick Favors has steadily increased his production each season and may be primed for a breakout season.

Johnson is no longer a big scorer or an All-Star, but remains functional at this stage of his career. He’s a good role model for Rodney Hood and Alec Burks, a pair of swingmen who made strides last season.

The face of the franchise, of course, is Hayward, a borderline All-Star with a variety of skills. But will Hayward opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer? Or will he sign an extension in Utah? At 26, Hayward is in his prime, just as salaries are starting to soar, and he’ll fetch a pretty penny on the market (expect the Boston Celtics to chase hard). The Jazz will have the funds, but if Hayward wants to reunite with his former college coach Brad Stevens and play in a larger market, Utah will be helpless.

After swapping their No. 1 pick, the Jazz came away from the Draft with a second-rounder in Bolomboy, who’s cut in the same mold as Rudy Gobert, a rangy, lengthy (though shorter) version who protects the rim and grabs rebounds. But on a deep team, he’s not exacted to see minutes.

And that was the extent of Utah’s summer. The Jazz are mostly hedging their bet that they’ll be able to improve from within, that Gobert, Hood, Hayward, Exum, Favors, Burks and Lyles will all improve and make it challenging for coach Quin Snyder to figure out a regular rotation.

The competition for roles and minutes should be fierce come training camp, because you could make a case for 10 players to get minutes. And that’s good, because in order for the Jazz to put up a fight for the playoffs, they need to see that level of spirit for a spot in the rotation.

Coming Next: Houston Rockets

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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