Excluding one notable Bay Area team, the Utah Jazz had the best offseason in the league. The deals began early, sending the 12th pick for George Hill in advance of the draft. GM Dennis Lindsey continued to eschew convention as free agency doors opened on July 1st.
Almost immediately, he nailed Joe Johnson with a two year deal at market value. From there, the RC Buford disciple added another former Spur, trading away D-Leaguer Olivier Hanlan to move Boris Diaw into Utah’s cap room. While these moves are hardly the atomic bomb of adding Durant to a 73-win team, they should push the Jazz to the playoffs -- finally.
Utah entered the 2015-2016 campaign in uncharted territory, as a projected playoff team. Both media types and power rating systems forecasted them as a 45 win team. Injuries to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors knocked them off that trajectory, but the season was far from a lost cause.
The Jazz have one of the deepest cores of any young team. Gobert, Favors, and Gordon Hayward are headliners, while Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, and Trey Lyles look to flourish in ever-expanding roles.
Defensive excellence has become this team’s identity, powered by the incomparable Gobert. With a 7’9’’ wingspan and 9’7’’ standing reach, he challenges nearly anything at the rim. Opponents shoot just 41% within five feet against him, 11% below league average. And he’s far from a plodding rim protector. Drag him away from the basket, and Rudy smothers ball-handlers with his gigantic frame. He’s lightning quick and takes smart angles when guards try to blow by him. His awareness is incredible for a 24 year old center, often avoiding fouls as he challenges drivers.
Gobert aces the nuances of defense, which separates him from counting stat legends like Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond. The Frenchman seldom chases blocks at the expense of surrendering rebounds as Whiteside so often does. On/Off metrics affirm Gobert’s value to overall team defense. When he’s off the floor, Utah allows three more points/100 possessions, and grabs fewer rebounds at both ends of the court.
Throwing Derrick Favors alongside Rudy is almost unfair. Just like Gobert, he’s blessed with blinding quickness and superb instincts. While Favors’ 7’4’’ wingspan pales in comparison to his frontcourt mate, he still manages to swat away plenty of shots. He’s an impressive rim protector in his own right, with opponents shooting just 47% within five feet against him.
In tandem, they anchor some of the NBA’s most stifling units. Utah’s most played lineup of Raul Neto - Hood - Hayward - Favors - Gobert allowed just 98.4 points/100 possessions, a better mark than every NBA team outside of San Antonio. The shot-blocking from both Favors and Gobert allows both to wander from the basket, trusting in their length to help them recover on drivers.
The Pacers built a league-best defense in 2014 around their own 7’2’’ rim protector. Roy Hibbert rarely ventured far from the hoop, instead staying home to negate any drive or lob in his vicinity. Since there was no punishment for getting beat, Indiana’s perimeter guys could pressure ball-handlers endlessly.
Though Utah has the first 7’2’’ starter since Hibbert, the comparisons stop there. The Jazz let Favors and Gobert close out on shooters and show hard on screens. Many of Favors’ blocks are on recoveries to the hoop, rather than against a head-on driver. Gobert often challenges shooters in the deep corner, using his length to disrupt the shot or prevent it altogether. When guys drive baseline against him, Gobert is long enough to swallow up any hammer pass, and savvy enough to use the sideline as an extra defender to angle guys away from the restricted area.
Offense is presumably where the Favors-Gobert pairing would face major problems, as neither player is reliable outside of six feet. The onus is on Favors to improve, and he’s responded with increased volume from midrange. He shot a combined 38% from the baselines last season, and 37% from the elbows. That’s about league average (39%), but Favors faces the same problem that plagues all big men who expand their range. If he turns into Serge Ibaka, and begins shooting over 60% of his shots outside the paint, how many offensive rebounds will he sacrifice? Is it worth spacing the floor at the expense of easy putbacks?
The short answer? Yes. At least when Favors shares the court with Gobert, an offensive rebounding specialist himself. There are diminishing returns in having two elite rebounders, and spacing is necessary for Quin Snyder and his offensive machinations. If Favors grows into a league-average shooter from 15 feet and beyond, it will open up everything for Utah.
In its current state the Jazz offense is one of the league’s most distinct, if nothing else. As any DFS junkie knows, Utah grinds the game to a halt. They have played at the NBA’s slowest pace for two consecutive years, rejecting transition baskets in favor of a more deliberate offense. Per Synergy research, Utah ran the fewest off-screen plays in the league. They were second-to-last in transition possessions, and post-ups.
What they did run were back cuts, and plays designed to get shooters clean looks. Utah topped the league in hand-offs and spot-ups. They canned open jumpers, finishing with the 9th best 3P% on catch-and-shoot looks. Rodney Hood continued his growth into a knockdown shooter, nailing 39% of his catch-and-shoot threes.
Gordon Hayward is the engine of Utah’s offense, the only facilitator on a team bereft of point guards. None of the rotating cast of Neto, Trey Burke, and Shelvin Mack were starting-caliber players last season, which thrust Hayward into his massive role. He was third amongst all forwards in time of possession, behind LeBron and Point Giannis.
Two years removed from his worst shooting campaign, he has forced defenses respect his jumper. He can shoot off the dribble when defenses go under him on screens, or shake defenders into oblivion before raining stepback fire. Hayward has even perfected his Klay Thompson impression, snaking around teammates off-ball as if he’s on a slalom course before draining a catch-and-shoot three.
Hayward’s driving spiked as well, even within a cramped offense. Of non-guards, only LeBron had more drives this season. As defenses exploited Utah's non-shooting bigs to clog the lane, Hayward still found inventive ways to get his shots off.
George Hill should help space the floor with the starters, and has plenty of experience playing with ball-dominant forwards. Hayward's role with Utah is comparable to Paul George's on Indiana, and Hill complements those types perfectly. He shot 45% on catch-and-shoot threes while providing excellent defense. Hill’s diminutive frame belies his defensive prowess, and switchability. He has a 6’9’’ wingspan, and can guard 1-3 with relative ease. In this current age of increased analysis and visibility, it’s difficult for a player of Hill’s caliber to be so underrated. Maybe it’s because he played off-ball as a point guard in Indiana, or that he was involved in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. Or perhaps it's that he was one of approximately 12 Hills on the 2016 Pacers.
No matter what factors have led to Hill’s anonymity, there’s no obscuring the truth: He is a top-15 point guard in the league. He’s certainly better than Jeff Teague, whom he was traded for. Replacing Neto with Hill in Utah’s lineups will open up the floor, hasten the pace, and improve team defense.
Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw will also serve vital roles, albeit in a more limited sense. Just earlier this year, Johnson looked to be on his last legs as the primary scorer in Brooklyn. Iso-Joe was a shell of himself, his drives to the hoop playing out in slow motion. He shot just over 40%, got to the line once per game, and was a turnstile on defense.
That all changed in Miami, where Erik Spoelstra used him as a small-ball power forward. Johnson stopped worrying about shot creation, and instead was content to nail corner threes and post up helpless guards. In 24 games he upped his scoring while maintaining a stellar .518/.417.765 slash line. He can continue that in Utah as a valuable floor-spacer with the bench units. Trevor Booker’s departure will open up more time for Johnson and Lyles, who could excel offensively as a forward tandem.
I’m less bullish on Diaw’s fit. He’s slow enough that it restricts him exclusively to center, despite providing absolutely zero rim protection. That would force one of Gobert/Favors to play alongside him, unless Utah wants to hemorrhage points with their bench units. Diaw is a great passer and generally seems like an awesome human, but his role in Utah is murky. Lyles seems poised to become the de facto “playmaking 4,” off the bench, and Gobert has a stranglehold on the 5.
Acquiring Diaw came with almost no risk, and the Jazz can easily get off his contract next summer. At a minimum, he will be a tremendous locker room presence, and a veteran mentor to guys like Lyles and Exum. Any value he provides on the court will be gravy.
Utah’s lineups next year will have a ton of upside on either end of the court. They can go offense-heavy with Hill - Hood - Hayward - Lyles - Favors, or dominate against bench units with Exum - Hood - Hayward - Johnson - Gobert.
The presumed starters of Hill - Hood - Hayward - Favors - Gobert is perhaps the best 5-man unit to combat Golden State’s apocalypse lineup. They have the length and speed to switch on screens, and recover whenever Curry or Durant inevitably beat their man.
It’s strange to say about a core that has never made a postseason together, but Utah may be the toughest out for Golden State in the West. Their roster is filled with All-Star level talent, even beyond the top-3. Hood became a volume scorer after Alec Burks' injury last season, with no drop in efficiency. Exum is still brimming with potential as a 6’6’’ point guard of the future. And Lyles is the most sought-after type of player in the NBA -- the playmaking forward.
If just one of those guys hits, Utah is set up for a long run of success. They already look the part of a top-5 team in the West, possibly better if Memphis succumbs to injury. The Jazz are blessed with a beloved coach who doubles as a master tactician. When Quin Snyder agreed to a long-term extension this season, it was a testament to Utah’s desire for greatness.
Snyder said of his extension, “More than anything, it is confirmation of our collective commitment to building a championship team.” After another offseason of shrewd moves and maturation of their youngsters, Utah appears primed for a breakout season.