How do Gordon Hayward and the Jazz go from good to great?
BY ZACH LOWE, ESPN
The Jazz have crossed the line from curious to frustrated in imagining what their injury-riddled team might do if it could finally get healthy. They are sick of hearing how they are on the precipice -- how they are one of just four teams that rank in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession, how all the numbers underlying their ho-hum record hint at the great team lurking beneath.
"I'm not curious anymore," Rudy Gobert told ESPN.com last week. "I'm sure we can be a top team. Top four in the NBA. I feel like we could beat everybody. Why not?"
The coaches obsess with the next game, but even they can't help wondering. "It's all 'when' and 'if' right now," Quin Snyder, the team's head coach, told ESPN.com. "'When' this, and 'if' that."
This is not just a thought exercise. There are deadlines approaching, and hard choices for a small-market franchise that will have a tough time paying all five of its best players: Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, George Hill, and Rodney Hood. The Jazz face an urgent need for information about how those players fit.
"We still need to go through a process that we had hoped would be done by now," Snyder now. "Derrick and Rudy would be the most obvious example."
Ah, Derrick and Rudy. The two bouncy behemoths have played 1,886 minutes together over the two-plus years since the Jazz excised Enes Kanter and stumbled upon a monster-movie defense that redefined the direction of the franchise. The results have been mostly good, even on offense, where the two can clutter the same real estate -- and block driving lanes for their teammates.
With Favors eligible for a big-money extension now, six weeks after Gobert got his, the Jazz wish they had double that minutes sample to investigate. They really wish some of those minutes had come in the playoffs, so they would know whether those double-big lineups could squeeze out points against elite defenses primed for them.
"The answer to whether Derrick and Rudy can play together is unequivocally yes," Snyder said. "The bigger question is in what situations, and how best to maximize every player. On some level, you don't know. We might find challenges that are hidden to us now."
Snyder arrived in Utah with visions of a fast-breaking, Euro-style offense heavy on shooting. He adapted when he realized Utah might be able to build the league's stingiest defense around Gobert and Favors.
He slowed down the tempo, slotted Gobert and Favors at the elbows, and involved them as passers and screeners. If you want your bigs to defend their asses off, you'd better let them feel the ball on the other end.
For the second year in a row, the Jazz are jostling for dead last in pace. They jog it up, take their positions, and fly through complex sequences of cuts and screens until something cracks. "I used to say, 'Gosh, we are playing slow -- am I bad at my job?'" Snyder recalled, laughing. "But we just don't have a team that is going to be quite as good playing fast."
It requires a fine balance: Work the offense, but not so long that you run up against the shot clock. "You always want to get up shots in the segments of the shot clock where you can be efficient," Snyder said. "Teams that have more shooting are probably going to shoot faster, because they can find good shots early. We just kind of gravitated toward this style."
Teams that have more shooting. The Jazz can be a good team playing the Gobert-Favors combo 25 or 30 minutes per game. They just don't know if they can be a great one, and if they can't -- if they have to stagger them more -- whether it makes sense to pay both of them near-max contracts. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph navigated tight quarters with one-on-one post-up brutality and brainy interior passing. The Favors-Gobert combination can't sniff Gasolian playmaking, and only Favors has shown glimpses of a threatening post game.
Favors and Gobert are more mobile than most traditional bigs, but it's unclear if they can chase the league's deadliest small-ball groups. "How good are we defending the perimeter against a smaller team?" Snyder asked. "How does that look?"
Meanwhile, people with the team rave about the extra spacing and playmaking Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson bring at power forward (the latter in limited minutes). Hayward has more space to cut, and Gobert has mastered quick duck-ins timed for a Diaw rifle pass:
Trey Lyles is the blurry outline of a power forward who can shoot 3s and make plays off the bounce -- a clean fit who could clear the lane for either Favors or Gobert.
Decision-making timetables in the NBA don't wait for blurry outlines to crystallize. The Jazz have about $13 million in cap room they can use now to give Favors or Hill a raise, and a long-term extension based off that higher salary. They cannot extend both.
Favors is five years younger than Hill; an extension would synch perfectly with his prime. Hill plays a position of greater need, especially after Dante Exum missed a year of development -- another lost chance to gather information -- recovering from an ACL tear. Exum is plainly unready to lead a functional offense, and it's unclear when (or if) he won't be.
Hovering over all this is perhaps the most nervous free agency case in Jazz history. Hayward is six months from the open market, right as the league and union ready a new collective bargaining deal. The new CBA should help Utah; it will likely widen the advantage incumbent teams get, in money and years, re-signing their own guys. (Sorry, Thunder.)
Hayward has been waiting longer than anyone to see whether this version of the Jazz can win. "It's been like this, with the injuries, for the past couple of years," he told ESPN.com. "It's frustrating."
Extending Hill now is the best hedge against Hayward leaving. Losing both would eviscerate Utah's perimeter rotation; it is Utah's doomsday scenario. But Hill may wait out Hayward's decision; the two are close, with shared Indiana roots and Indy-based trainers. Even so, Hill would at least listen if the Jazz approached with an offer today.
"I was never one who wanted to move from team to team," Hill told ESPN.com. "If the opportunity to stay is there, I'd love to take it."
Winning would make the best sales pitch for both, so Utah cannot make any future-for-present moves -- including something with Favors -- that set back this year's team. And they need Favors in reserve in case Hayward or Hill bolts.
Utah wants to get healthy and show Hayward this nucleus can do damage in the postseason. "It comes down to where I can compete for a title," he said. "Where I live -- that doesn't affect me. The limelight doesn't matter to me. I just want to make a run at it."
If he keeps playing like this, damn near the whole league will make a run at him in July.
The intervention for Gordon Hayward happened inside a Chevy rental in Las Vegas two summers ago, after a Team USA mini-camp practice. Jason Smeathers and Rob Blackwell, Hayward's longtime trainers from Indianapolis, watched Hayward sulk through the session. As Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and LeBron James talked trash and traded secrets, Hayward dribbled alone. Smeathers stopped the car and asked Hayward: "Do you even want to be here?"
They asked Hayward why he didn't talk to any of the world's best players, or pick their brains. "They wouldn't talk to me," Hayward demurred, according to his trainers. They had seen this before. Hayward sometimes wore Durant's signature shoes, but would never approach Durant after games against the Thunder. Hayward's friends had to tell him: You're a star, too. You are their peer.
It took a while for Hayward to internalize the message, but last summer, he felt ready. He stayed in Salt Lake City to be close to his newborn daughter, and to work each day with Johnnie Bryant, a Utah assistant. (The Jazz include incentives in many contracts that allow for bonuses if players stick around in the summer, sources say. Gobert's massive new extension includes some.)
Hayward ripped apart his workout routine and started from scratch. He tried boxing to help his footwork and balance. He practiced spinning in a complete circle on one leg, tapping the floor, and spinning back the other way. He'd stand on one leg, move the other one in and out, and try not to fall over. He hit the weight room harder.
He ran through sets without a ball, and started watching film of his workouts. "I wanted to see: Am I doing it right every single time?" Hayward said. "I think there is a still a big leap for me, and I want to get that out of myself. I couldn't do the same stuff I've been doing every summer. I wanted to be uncomfortable."
He quietly reached out to Kobe Bryant to see if the retired superstar might tutor him on the art of the midrange. He ended up spending a week with Bryant in Newport Beach. "He's one of the best to ever do it," Hayward said, "and it was one of my best weeks ever."
It paid off. Hayward is having a career season. He's a legit All-Star candidate who does everything well. He powers through contact, and shoots his mid-rangers with a little less lean. His core is so solid, he widened his stance at the foul line to improve his balance; Hayward is shooting a career-best 89 percent from the stripe.
Almost everyone with max-level cap room will at least call Hayward's agent. His beloved college coach works in Boston. The Clippers explored a sign-and-trade for Hayward in the summer of 2014, when he was a restricted free agent, per several league sources; Doc Rivers loves him. The Clips have no easy path to max space, but as the Warriors showed in maneuvering for Andre Iguodala, any team that needs mega-space can get there in a pinch.
Hayward is emblematic of Utah's perceived place in the NBA hierarchy: really good, but far short of being a No. 1 option on a championship team. He's not quick enough to blow by some wing stoppers, and he's a league-average 3-point shooter -- encouraging given the difficulty of his attempts, but not scary enough to bend opposing defenses.
He doesn't draw double-teams on the block, and the lack of such a threat can bog Utah's offense against tuned-in crunch-time defenses.
So what? How many championship-level No. 1 options are there, really? Three? A half-dozen? What are you supposed to do if you don't get one? Tank over and over, until you win the lottery in the right season? Cross your fingers that the next generational superstar will be born nearby and want to play for his hometown team aside from the occasional stint at the beach?
Utah is counting on the combustion effect of mixing enough really good players. Gobert has made his own leap to that level, with Hayward. The big man is the co-favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, and he is transformed on offense. He's catching more cleanly on the pick-and-roll, and finishing around the basket with astonishing force.
Gobert leads the league in field-goal percentage, and he's sniffing 70 percent at the line. He's not worried about getting fouled any more, and when big men cross that Rubicon, they become much more confident cramming dunks.
Opponents barely even try shooting around the basket when Gobert is on the floor, per NBA.com, and he's (literally) the biggest reason only 19 percent of opponent 3s come from the corners -- the third-lowest mark in the league. With Gobert enveloping the paint, Utah's help defenders can stick close to shooters dotting the arc.
Both Gobert and Hayward could still improve. Hood could blossom into a borderline All-Star. Exum is only 21, and he can credibly guard multiple positions -- and even supply some emergency rim protection:
They have extra first-round picks coming from Golden State (2017) and Oklahoma City (probably 2018), and when they're not chasing point guards, the Jazz generally draft well. Those picks could morph into trade chips.
Hell, they could even use the long-forgotten Alec Burks, out after ankle surgery. When healthy, he injects some north-south speed that can puncture defenses when the whir of cuts and screens gets Utah nowhere. The Jazz are hopeful Burks could be back in January, and that they'll have a chance to see their full team well before the trade deadline, sources say.
With paydays for everyone else looming, Burks, making eight figures annually through 2018-19, has always seemed a likely salary-dump candidate. Utah just can't afford to keep everyone. Slough Burks, and Utah is still looking at a $140 million-plus payroll in 2018-19 if it retains Favors, Gobert, Hood, Hayward, and Hill -- not to mention Exum, up for an extension after this season. Even glitzy teams blanch at rocketing $20 million over the luxury tax.
Utah may well do nothing for the time being. It can hoard that $13 million in case a trade pops up. Hill may rebuff extension offers pending Hayward's choice. Utah wants to see how Favors' knee recovers before lavishing him with an extension, and Favors might prefer to wait until his own free agency in 2018.
If Utah extends anyone this season, the bet here is on Hill. Dennis Lindsay, the team's GM, drafted Hill in San Antonio, and Utah has no ready replacement for him. If both Hill and Hayward sign on long-term, I'd expect the Jazz to gauge the trade market for Favors in the summer and lean on stretchier power forwards. (They'd also have to identify a new backup center, since Favors effectively plays that role when healthy. Jeff Withey has been solid in Favors' absence.)
That's not ideal timing, since Favors will be, barring an extension, on an expiring contract -- and tough to trade for good return.
The new CBA could help Utah there, too. The league and union have discussed giving capped-out teams more financial flexibility in offering extensions, though it's unclear if any such change will end up in the new deal. That would pump up Favors' trade value, since any team trading for him -- or anyone else on an expiring contract -- would have a better chance at locking him up long-term before he hits the market. Teams with cap room (like Utah now) already have leeway in extending guys, and that should remain the case under the new CBA, sources have said.
With or without Favors, this may not be a "championship-level" nucleus in a superstar-driven league. But it could be a damn good team for a long time, and sometimes funny things happen to teams who hang around the 50-win range. If enough players hit, the Jazz could turn into a version of the 2003-04 Pistons -- a huge, defense-first team with a bunch of (allegedly) second-tier stars who combined to form something greater.
If you don't have a top-10 player, maybe having five top-30 guys will do the trick. It's certainly worth investigating, especially with players who believe so deeply in themselves. "I think we can beat anybody," Gobert said. "Defensively, we can be the best. We are not scared of anyone."