As things begin to take shape this season, now is the time where we can separate the playoff teams (it’s never too early to talk about playoffs, right?) from the teams destined for the lottery. Out West, it appears that the Utah Jazz will end up somewhere in the middle of the pack of playoff teams.
But the Jazz have caught quite a break (poor choice of words) as of late, amongst their injury ridden season.
The Kings and Lakers both not only exceeded expectations but defied all probable possibilities with strong starts. But they’ve since plateaued during this month and don’t appear to be playoff threats.
The Timberwolves were another team in the discussion of possibly being able to lock Utah out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year but it seems to be a case of too much, too soon for the young pups.
So, here stands the Jazz. Dead last in pace in the league and almost hobbling along at 16-10 despite continuously missing important pieces on any given night such as Rodney Hood, George Hill, and Derrick Favors.
The return and rise of Gordon Hayward as a legitimate all-star player helped to stave off the slow start and Rudy Gobert has an astounding presence on both ends this year (top 3 in both offensive and defensive rating).
Now, it’s clear that this isn’t enough for the Jazz to be true contenders. Even if and when this team is fully healthy, they’ll eventually run up on the likes of the Warriors and Spurs.
But with Hayward, Hill, and Favors all currently headed towards free agency this summer, the Jazz have to compete now in order to keep this team intact, moving forward. As far as Favors and Hayward, they’ve been through this multiple times in Utah. This is the sixth year for both of them and there’s no doubt that as they start to enter their primes, it becomes more and more frustrating to continuously fall short.
As we saw with the Thunder last summer, and really over the course of the last 4 years, devastating injuries that ultimately cost star players valuable years to contend, can eventually drive that player away.
It’s no secret that Hayward, an Indiana product, is not too attached to the lights and sounds of a bigger market, and thus it’s fair to see him do what he can to strike a deal and stay in Utah. Favors, I can’t be too sure on. It’s clear that he’s significant to the success of this team and their low post offense starts and begins with him. But as he heads into his prime, it would only be wise of him to at least field meetings with teams. George Hill, another Indiana product, but also a Popovich product, has never been one to complain about where and when he plays, and is one of the better players at completely filling the role that’s asked of him. He’s playing out the best years of his career in Utah only months after everyone thought the Pacers go the better of that deal.
With these personalities and the foundation that has been set in Utah, it should be all handshakes and signatures in Salt Lake come July. Keyword: “should”.
Obviously, there’s a lot more that goes into NBA free agency than “this guy’s personality is ‘x’ and the team plays better with him because he can do ‘x’. If it were that easy, I would be a GM yesterday.
No, there’s more to it than that. I mean, why am I talking about free agency in December?
Because what happens now, will set the scene for what plays out this summer.
The organization has shown that they want to win. They brought in great veteran leaders that have either been to the summit of it all, or have stuck around long enough to know how to win games. This past offseason was a huge stride in keeping Hayward and Favors around.
But once you put the product on the floor, it has to perform well in order to get these guys to buy in (or cash in, I guess) for the long haul.
If someone gifts you a shirt this holiday season and you love the look of it but it doesn’t fit, you’re going to return the shirt, right?
That is what this year is all about for the Jazz. Right now the only leverage they’ll have to stand on in the offseason will be the success of this year’s team. If they can stabilize and maintain the health of their players, then the wins are going to roll in and we could be seeing them until at least early May. With that success, we should see the return of some familiar faces next season.