With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be considered legitimate title contenders. But the template they developed still exists. Borrowing heavily from the Spurs before them, the Thunder showed that stable leadership, savvy free-agent moves, an institutional knack for developing young players, and some incredible luck at the top of the draft can make any team, no matter the size of the market, a contender. As OKC faces a post-KD future, other franchises will try to follow in its footsteps. This week, we’ll be looking at who could be the next Thunder.
Outside of the Kevin Durant saga, the story of this year’s free-agency period has been the sheer number of teams signing average talent for huge money. Over $3 billion ended up changing hands, but the Jazz needed less than $26 million for the upcoming season to make a splash, trading for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signing Joe Johnson. It’s in line with the way they have built their team over the past few seasons, methodically adding pieces without rushing their timetable or sacrificing the present for the future. They have been on the brink of the postseason for years, and with the supporting pieces they’ve added, this could be the season it all comes together. If it does, they could take the reins from the Thunder as the next great hope for small-market franchises around the league.
Like Oklahoma City, Utah has built through the draft under the leadership of a GM from the Spurs management tree. Unlike Thunder GM Sam Presti, though, Dennis Lindsey wasn’t given three consecutive top-five draft picks to build a core from scratch after years of bottom-feeding. Lindsey was hired in the summer of 2012, just before a vision for the future began to take shape. The Jazz had traded Deron Williams for young players and picks in 2011, but they didn’t do a complete teardown, keeping a core of veterans alongside Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Lindsey has constructed one of the most promising young teams in the league despite the team, for many years, running on the mediocrity treadmill — not good enough to make the playoffs, but nowhere near bad enough to completely bottom out. It’s usually one of the most frustrating chains to break in the league, but the Jazz have made it fun.
Without the luxury of taking consensus stars at the top of the draft, the Jazz stick to a few core principles to find undervalued talent. They select for size and speed, and they look for versatility on both sides of the ball. They also give themselves multiple shots at the apple almost every year, ransacking the Nets’ cupboard in the Deron Williams trade and renting out their cap space for picks to allow the Warriors to sign Andre Iguodala. From 2010 to 2015, the Jazz consistently acquired core players with a height range from 6-foot-6 to 7-foot-2, across all positions. One of the few exceptions was Trey Burke, whom they acquired in 2013 and traded to the Wizards for a future second-round pick earlier this month. The 6-foot-1 Burke wasn’t able to adjust to the size and speed of the NBA game with his stature in Utah, and it was a misstep that the Jazz haven’t made again. They’ve remained true to a specific profile — players who have a larger margin for error because of their height and length — and it hasn’t let them down yet.
Rodney Hood is a 6-foot-8 swingman who can shoot over the top of just about anyone he faces. Rudy Gobert, with a near 7-foot-9 wingspan, changes the geometry of the game every time he walks on the floor. Trey Lyles has the size of a center and the shooting stroke of a wing, a game he developed during the season he spent at Kentucky playing as a small forward next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. Dante Exum missed all of his sophomore season after tearing his ACL last summer, but there’s still optimism in Utah surrounding his potential, particularly on the defensive end, because of the way he can play the length of the court and slide his feet as a 6-foot-6 point guard.
But is anyone on the Jazz roster capable of stardom? Gordon Hayward hews closest; his averages of 19.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists a game on 43.3 percent shooting last season surely form an outline of a playmaking star. But there is a ceiling to how high one can ascend in the NBA hierarchy as best player on a nonplayoff team. He’s been the de facto face of the franchise for years, carrying a huge offensive burden ever since they relinquished Jefferson and Millsap in favor of their younger crop of talent. He might be an All-Star next season not due to any improvement in his game, but because someone has to get the credit when a team makes the next step. Hayward just hasn’t had much veteran help around him in his time as a go-to player to facilitate that jump.
That’s where the additions of Hill, Johnson, and Diaw come in. The name of the game in the today’s NBA is 3-point shooting and defensive versatility, and this trio offers those skills in spades.
Hill (40.8 percent from 3 last season), Johnson (38.3 percent), and Diaw (36.2 percent) can space the floor, and they know how to make plays in close quarters in the half court, which is a must on a team that starts the spacing-deficient duo of Gobert and Derrick Favors. The new faces add much-needed experience to a roster that didn’t have anyone older than 28 last season, and even more versatility for Quin Snyder to experiment with.
Utah might not have a superstar in its midst, but its assemblage of talent can become a group better than the sum of its parts. The Jazz are an amoeba who can adapt their rotation and their style to play any team in the NBA. Of the 10 players in Utah’s immediate rotation, only Hill (6-foot-3) is smaller than 6-foot-6, but he’s one of the best defensive point guards in the league, with the wingspan of someone 6 inches taller than him. Gobert, a perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year, is Utah’s only core player who can’t be relied upon to guard multiple positions. Snyder can go small without sacrificing any length, and he can put out lineups with five players of at least 6-foot-7 who can switch screens and shoot. They can guard and attack from every spot on the floor, which is really tough to prepare for in a seven-game series.
Of course, they still have to make the playoffs first, something they haven’t done since the 2011–12 lockout season. What will separate this year’s team from their past few underwhelming seasons is the depth to handle injuries. Last year’s squad was sunk by Exum’s absence, as well as extended stays on the injured list for Gobert, Favors, and Alec Burks. Despite that, they still had a positive point differential on the season and were in the playoff race until the 82nd game. The Jazz have gotten better; much of the West has gotten worse. The Spurs are entering an era without Tim Duncan; the Rockets lost Dwight Howard and the defensive identity that he provided; the Thunder have been decimated with the loss of Durant; and the Grizzlies’ top-three players have all lost significant time to injury in recent years. Utah’s time to strike is now, and the field has never been more wide open.
All of the pieces are in place, and the Jazz should only get better from here. Hayward is 26. Favors and Burks both turn 25 this month. During the season, Hood and Gobert will be 24; Exum and Lyles will be 21. They don’t have a Steph Curry or Durant, but they are fully equipped to play strength-in-numbers basketball. If there’s a challenge to the Warriors in the near future out West, it’s probably not going to be from their peers. It’s going to be from the next generation, and no team has a deeper well of talented next-gen basketball players than the Jazz.