You have to look a little harder than perhaps you should, because the NBA isn’t a strict meritocracy and Salt Lake City is no Los Angeles, to see all the Utah Jazz have gotten right. Running a franchise in one of the league’s backwaters is somehow both anonymous and wearingly difficult, and you can do a superb job and still fail in the long run. The Cavs are great because LeBron James is from Akron. The Spurs were great because Tim Duncan trusted Gregg Popovich and Pop is a genius. The Thunder could be great beyond the upcoming season because Russell Westbrook is down for the cause. Everybody else in the small-to-mid-market phylum—Hawks, Magic, Nuggets, Hornets, et al.—is staring down long odds, future greatness-wise. Marquee free agents aren’t coming. Young stars will flee if they sense the project is stalling. To severely paraphrase a fictional pimp: it’s no picnic—is it honey?—trying to turn the New Orleans Pelicans into winners.
Here’s what the Jazz have done correctly over the past handful of seasons. In 2013, they swung a draft night trade for Rudy Gobert, who was no prize as a late first-rounder. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year last season. Then they bottomed out in 2014, as teams tend to under Ty Corbin, drafted Dante Exum with the fifth pick and Rodney Hood with the twenty-third. Exum, having suffered both difficulty spike-induced whiplash and an ACL tear, is still just a vague idea of a basketball player at twenty-two, but Hood was a good get so late in the going. That same offseason, the Jazz hired Quin Snyder, who turned an until-then mediocre unit into the best scoring defense in the league. In three seasons under Snyder, the Jazz have improved their record each year, topping out at fifty-one wins in 2016-17.
Along the way, they’ve made a few minor improvements. Joe Ingles has grown from a Euro-quality wing and Clippers cast-off into a more-than-functional floor-spacing forward. Joe Johnson was a steady hand off the bench last season. Crucially, and unlike most of the rest of the roster, he can create his own shot. George Hill was brought on to fill a massive hole at the starting point guard spot and performed well, and though he’s gone now, Ricky Rubio has been acquired to do the same job this year.
Which brings us to Gordon Hayward, who left for the Celtics over the summer. Hayward developed under Snyder from a solid player into a do-it-all second-tier star. His averages over the past three seasons (20.3 PPG, 3.8 APG, 5.1 RPG with a true shooting percentage of 57.4) compare nicely with Jimmy Butler’s (21.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 5.8 RPG with a true shooting percentage of 57.8), and the eye test would say that’s about what Hayward is: a slightly worse version of Jimmy Butler. In other words, he’s really good, and he fit well in Utah, where he was asked to do a lot, especially offensively, but Snyder doesn’t overwhelm his players with responsibilities they can’t handle.
So why did he leave? For one, Hayward and Brad Stevens have a tight relationship dating back to their days at Butler, so that was probably a big factor, but more than that, there is the simple fact that though the Jazz have gotten better for three years straight, they still have some intractable problems. The Rudy Gobert-Derrick Favors frontcourt is a spacing disaster that compels an already slow and laborious offense to work even harder for decent looks. Alec Burks, Trey Lyles, and Boris Diaw all got fifteen-plus minutes per game last season, which is indicative of a less-than-robust bench. And there is the reality that no All-NBA talent was ever going to join Hayward in Utah. Unless the Jazz majorly lucked out in the draft at some point, Hayward was going to continue to be the best player on the team, and he knows he’s more of a second or third banana on a genuine championship contender.
Of course, it’s already working out for Hayward. He has Kyrie Irving at his side now now (or vice versa, as Kyrie sees it), and if the Celtics make the Finals this season or push the Cavs to seven games in a playoff series, Hayward will feel completely confident that he made the proper decision to move on from Utah.
And regardless of whether Hayward excels or flips in Boston, the Jazz are in a predicament from which they’re unable to escape. Basketball operations VP Kevin O’Connor and GM Dennis Lindsey haven’t been perfect. It was their mistake to let Hayward test the restricted free agency market back in 2014 and sign him to a three-plus-one contract instead of a five-year max deal. They could have, at the very worst, kept him around a season or two longer than they did. And they’ve had their draft whiffs. The aforementioned Exum is trending toward bust-dom and they picked Trey Lyles one spot in front of Devin Booker in 2015, which in hindsight is a massive blunder. But personnel people screw up; it happens. The Jazz are still better at it than most.
Alas, to assemble a competitive team that would be stable over more than a couple of seasons, the folks in charge of the Jazz would actually have to be pretty damn close to perfect: building from the ground up, nailing every lottery pick, developing second-rounders and free agent nobodies, signing vets to reasonable contracts that run out before they get too old. Or, you can hit eighty percent of the time, miss twenty, and, in the middle of what was supposed to be your ascendancy, lose your most important player.
Surely, O’Connor and Lindsey have a savvy pivot in them next offseason—or even over this coming winter—and Snyder is an adroit enough coach to make the most of what they still have, but these, sadly or otherwise, are the nigh impossible conditions organizations like the Utah Jazz operate under: outsmart everybody if you want to keep your head above water, and if you want to truly compete, pray like hell for luck that’s unlikely to arrive.
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