After hours of uncertainty, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and head coach Quin Snyder boarded a plane last July 4, heading home with the answer they didn’t want and lots of work to do.
It was a five hour flight. Lindsey and Snyder talked. They turned their attention forward. Steven Schwartz, now Utah’s director of basketball operations, started to write down their thoughts.
“Just to have those hours on the flight back were critical,” Lindsey said. “It did help give us a greater sense of purpose.”
Some of the items were philosophical, outlining guiding principals for the organization and the “Jazz DNA” Lindsey often references. Some were specific to basketball: To replace Gordon Hayward, they needed wing depth, long-armed defenders.
As he worked over the next few days, Lindsey relied heavily on a newly formulated roadmap.
“I looked at it constantly,” he said.
Regular season opener
Nuggets at Jazz
Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
What the Jazz look like now, heading into the regular-season opener against the Denver Nuggets, is largely the result of those hours on the plane. Lindsey knew he wasn’t going to recover Hayward’s scoring and playmaking on the free agent market. By the time Hayward made the decision to leave the Jazz for the Boston Celtics, that market looked more like a scrap heap.
So Lindsey went the other way. He brought in long-armed defenders who in the past have thrived in ball-movement type offenses: People like Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh and Jonas Jerebko. The result is a deep roster, an athletic roster, and a roster full of defenders on the perimeter and in the paint.
Will this be enough to make the playoffs in the rugged Western Conference? That’s the big question. When Hayward left, he took hopes of a deep postseason run with him. But even if the Jazz know they have to retool, they clearly hope to do so on the fly. They were able to secure franchise cornerstone Rudy Gobert to a longterm contract. And with Gobert, whom the front office believes is a top 10 overall NBA talent, the expectation is to challenge for the postseason, even with Hayward’s defection.
“I think one thing we got better at this summer is having a good bench,” Gobert said. “We have more depth, quality depth, with guys like Ekpe and Jonas and Donovan [Mitchell] and Joe Johnson. That’s going to help us this year.”
Jazz officials were no doubt hurt by Hayward’s decision. At the same time, Lindsey and Snyder came away hopeful about what they might build together.
And very early returns suggest the Jazz may not struggle as some pundits think. Utah won all five of its preseason games, including two away from Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz scored at least 100 points in all five of those games and displayed a kind of depth that’s not all that common in the NBA.
The changing of the Jazz
Gordon Hayward (signed with the Boston Celtics)
George Hill (signed with the Sacramento Kings)
Boris Diaw (signed with Levallois Metropolitans in France)
Trey Lyles (traded on draft night for the rights to Donovan Mitchell)
Jeff Withey (signed with the Dallas Mavericks)
Donovan Mitchell (acquired on draft night for Trey Lyles)
Ricky Rubio (acquired in a trade with Minnesota for a first round pick)
Thabo Sefolosha (signed in free agency)
Ekpe Udoh (signed in free agency)
Jonas Jerebko (signed in free agency)
More importantly, Mitchell, the prized rookie guard out of Louisville, looks ready to contribute on Day One. He scored a preseason high 26 points against the Los Angeles Lakers. He displayed a dynamic ability to get his shot off from anywhere on the floor, and against the Lakers he closed the game out with five consecutive points down the stretch.
The Jazz know Mitchell will have his growing pains, as all rookies do. But the biggest need coming into training camp was perimeter scoring to make up for Hayward’s loss. If Mitchell and Rodney Hood can do that, the ceiling for the Jazz improves.
“The whole process itself has actually been unifying for the organization,” Snyder said. “I truly believe we did everything in our power to present the situation [to Hayward] — I think a very, very attractive situation — and as you were going through it, you were affirming for yourself that good things are going on here.”
The Jazz want nothing more than Hayward to be a galvanizing experience for the organization, a positive turning point that leads to better things down the road.
Making the postseason in what amounts to a rebuilding year simply makes the taste of losing Hayward a lot less bitter. It won’t be easy because the Western Conference may be as difficult and challenging as it’s been in years.
And it has never been easy.
Obviously, the Golden State Warriors are the bully of the block, winners of two of the last three NBA titles. But the Oklahoma City Thunder fortified itself by trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul. The San Antonio Spurs are the Spurs. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap in free agency.
It seems like half the Eastern Conference all-star team migrated west during the offseason, all of which makes it more difficult for the Jazz. To make matters even more challenging, the Jazz are now in what looks like the toughest division in the NBA.
Where do the Jazz fit in? That remains to be seen. Traditionally, defense and depth helps win in the NBA, especially in the regular season. The Jazz have a lot of both, even if they don’t currently have a star offensive weapon. Does that get them to the postseason? If it can, the organization has a base to build on next offseason.
“We have a lot of pieces, new pieces,” Johnson said. “We have to grow and mature every day. We have guys in different roles who are going to get new opportunities. We have a long way to go. But we want to mature as a unit, and try and get as many wins as possible.”