Subtract any player from this group — Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson, George Hill or Rodney Hood — and the Jazz would not have won their 2017 first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Those four players scored two-thirds of the Jazz’s points in that series, and each of them came through in some big moments. All four are on the rosters of the conference finalists in the NBA playoffs a year later, the twist being that only Hill is a rotation regular.
Hayward was lost for the season after injuring his ankle in Boston’s season opener vs. Cleveland nearly seven months ago. The others’ stories require some explanation.
After the Jazz sent him to Sacramento in the three-team trade that brought Jae Crowder from Cleveland to Utah in February, Johnson was waived by the Kings, enabling him to sign with Houston. He was reunited with Mike D’Antoni, his coach long ago in Phoenix, and Johnson made a contribution to the Rockets as the team went through some injuries.
Now that Houston is healthy, though, Johnson is deep on the bench. In the Western Conference semifinal series vs. the Jazz, he appeared in the Game 3 blowout for the last four minutes, scoring two points.
Johnson will turn 37 next month, and the two-year contract he signed with the Jazz is expiring. So this likely could be the end of a great career. Johnson did not play well this season as age seemed to catch up to him. But the Jazz definitely benefited from having him in 2016-17, and he was vital in all four of the team’s playoff wins.
Hill signed with Sacramento last summer after the Jazz traded for Ricky Rubio in some combination of a pre-emptive strike before free agency and a decision to move on from Hill at point guard. Hill went to Cleveland in the Crowder trade.
He missed three games in the Cavaliers’ first-round series vs. Indiana, reminding Jazz fans how Hill missed the last three games of the West semis vs. Golden State with a toe injury last May . But he came back and played well in Cleveland’s sweep of Toronto, averaging 10.3 points and 3.0 assists in 31.8 minutes.
The Jazz sent Hood to Cleveland in what amounted to a straight-up trade for Crowder from their perspective (the Jazz waived Derrick Rose, who signed with Minnesota). Crowder gave them defense, toughness and 3-point shooting, making the trade seem like a victory for the Jazz — even though he went 3 of 22 from the field in the last two games against Houston.
That judgment partly reflects Hood’s struggles in the Toronto series, which did not end well for him. He fell out of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation after going shooting 1 of 9 in the first three games then he turned down the chance to play in the last eight minutes of a 128-93 win in Game 4.
Hood has apologized to Lue and explained that he wanted to give the available minutes to Jose Calderon, but it was not a good look. And his move certainly decreases the chances of him making any contribution to the Cavs against Boston or potentially against Golden State or Houston in the NBA Finals.