What would Jazz look like if Gordon Hayward stayed, and teamed with Donovan Mitchell?

Would Donovan Mitchell become Donovan Mitchell with the Utah offense running through their former all-star forward?<br>

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), center Rudy Gobert (27), forward Joe Ingles (2) and guard Ricky Rubio (3) walk off the court during the game at Vivint Smart Home Arena Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. New York Knicks defeated Utah Jazz 117-115.

As the Jazz braced for Wednesday night’s meeting with the Boston Celtics, they have never been so glad to be immersed in a playoff race.

Maybe, just maybe, that would take focus off the subject everyone outside the locker room wants to talk about — and the topic that nobody inside the locker room wants to talk about.

Or, as Jazz small forward Joe Ingles said: “That’s so July.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Jazz coach Quin Snyder entertained a total of three questions from the media after practice, cutting short his session significantly. Ingles and Jae Crowder steered their responses toward competing for a playoff spot and that all games are important.

They needn’t have worried. The Celtics’ long-awaited visit to Vivint Smart Home Arena will be muted. That primary topic of conversation — former Jazz all-star Gordon Hayward — has been out all season with a badly broken ankle and likely won’t be in attendance. Celtics GM Danny Ainge, who has already made multiple visits to Utah in support of his son’s unsuccessful congressional campaign, won’t be on the floor.

Sure, there will be some hard feelings. After seven seasons in Utah, Hayward left for Boston as a free agent last July, a departure that left a sour taste in some local mouths over the way it was handled. The atmosphere will still be charged and emotional. But not nearly as revved up as if Hayward were playing.

Still, the question remains, if Hayward were playing, should Jazz fans have gone scorched earth and booed him on every touch? How much do the Jazz actually miss Hayward?

The argument can be made that they have put themselves in a pretty good spot without him.

“The part that Utah undersold is how good Rudy Gobert would be,” ESPN NBA analyst Bomani Jones said. “For Utah, it has two really good players and a great coach in Quin Snyder. So, even with losing Hayward, Jazz fans should be ecstatic on where the team is headed going forward.”

Entering Wednesday night, the Jazz are 42-32 and sit in the seventh spot in the Western Conference. They finished fifth a season ago. They are currently one game out of the fifth position.

No matter what happens in the playoff race, Utah is a team with two established stars in Mitchell and Gobert. The front office, led by general manager Dennis Lindsey, will have more security this offseason, with Derrick Favors being his most high-profile free agent. The Jazz are in a good spot financially, paying team-friendly contracts to starter-level players such as Crowder. The team is looking toward 2019 as a year it can potentially be in the running for a premier free agent.

Boston Celtics' Gordon Hayward watches from behind the bench during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Boston, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

“Moving forward, you have to be thrilled if you’re Utah,” said Amin Elhassan, a former Phoenix Suns front office official who now also works for ESPN. “You have arguably the best defensive big in the game and a young and dynamic young playmaker. They have no bad deals on the books and flexibility for the foreseeable future. Hayward will always be a ‘what if,’ but he didn’t leave a crater in the organization.”

“What if,” of course is the operative question. What if Hayward stayed and formed a wing tandem with Mitchell? If Hayward had re-signed with the Jazz, and Mitchell developed into the rookie-of-the-year candidate he is, one could make an argument that the Jazz would have been the third best team in the Western Conference, behind the Warriors and Rockets.

Yet, if Hayward stays, does Mitchell become Mitchell?

Hayward’s usage last season was almost 28 percent, which means he had the ball in his hands more than anyone. So, Mitchell almost certainly wouldn’t have had his current number of touches and shots with Hayward still in the fold.

One of the reasons Mitchell blossomed was Utah’s willingness to live with sometimes iffy shot selection and first-year mistakes. The Jazz committed themselves to his development and to riding out rough patches.

That strategy has paid off handsomely. Not only is Mitchell on course to average 20 points per game, but he’s also developed into one of the most lethal fourth-quarter scorers in the league.

“Mitchell isn’t the most aggressive of personalities, so would he have been assertive enough with Hayward still on the roster?” Elhassan said. “Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t have. But I don’t think anyone can say that definitively.”

Jazz players and coaches have long tired of the topic, although they understand why it exists.

That’s one reason they’ll be happy to get Wednesday night over with. It’s something they want to move on from once and for all. It’s also why they yearn to make the postseason. It sends a powerful message on the floor that they have in fact progressed.

“We have to go about it like there’s nothing different,” Ingles said. “They are playing well, even as a beat-up team. We’re finally getting healthy, and we know going in that we have to win as many games as possible. It’s an important game.”

CELTICS AT JAZZ<br>At Vivint Smart Home Arena<br>Tipoff • Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.<br>TV • ESPN<br>Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM<br>Records • Jazz 42-32, Celtics 51-23<br>Last meeting • Jazz 107, Celtics 95 (Dec. 15)<br>About the Celtics • They are looking for their fifth straight win. … The Celtics are without star guard Kyrie Irving, who recently had knee surgery. … Boston is all but locked into the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. … The Celtics are 27-10 on the road this season, the second best mark in the league. … Jaylen Brown returned from a concussion on Sunday and scored 19 points against the Sacramento Kings. He had missed six straight games.<br>About the Jazz • The Jazz are hosting the Celtics for the first time since all-star forward Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston in free agency. … The Jazz are 23-4 in their last 27 games, the second best record in the NBA over that stretch. … Jazz forwards Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko are former Celtics. ... Point guard Raul Neto will miss at least one more week with a fractured wrist.

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