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Celebrate the Jazz Now, Worry About Their Future Later

Utah has served as the model for all rebuilding teams. Even though its season ended in a sweep, it can be considered only a resounding success.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Leave it to the fans in Salt Lake City to know how to pivot. In a season (and postseason) full of fits and starts, full of knickknack injuries that piled up into something more, the Jazz continually found ways to shuffle their decks without letting their persistent setbacks dictate their identity on the floor. So, with the result of Game 4 of their second-round series against the Golden State Warriors more or less decided, the Jazz gave impending free agent Gordon Hayward a standing ovation with just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter as he headed to the bench. Shortly thereafter, small chants emerged in pockets of the crowd. And by the end of the game — a 121–95 victory lap by the Warriors, who remain undefeated in the playoffs — those muddied murmurs scattered around the arena had roused into a full crescendo. GOR-DON HAY-WARD.

Legend has it that if you repeat the name of your homegrown star enough times, he’ll stay with you forever. The chants didn’t go unnoticed.

"I’ve done a lot of growing up here in Salt Lake City," Hayward said during the postgame press conference. "And for them to stick with me — stick with us — through the downs that we’ve had, it means a lot. And I have nothing but love for this community. So that was pretty special."

It might be impossible to divorce this core from the failures that once defined it. Only three years ago, the Jazz were a pathetic 25-win team that Hayward threatened to leave for the Charlotte Hornets in the offseason of 2014. It serves as a contextual backdrop to their 51-win season full of what-ifs — for instance, what if the Jazz’s top six players didn’t miss a combined 103 games throughout the regular season and playoffs? Just how high was the ceiling for this team, had a few more things gone right?

The team became a cult favorite because it offered a refreshing break from established oligarchy in the Western Conference. They were the kids upgraded to the adults’ table — a team with two nascent stars, with skilled giants at every position, with a clear identity on both ends of the court. In a league that has largely embraced maximizing the number of possessions in a game, the Jazz seek to limit them to an extreme: By pace, theirs is the slowest series of the second round. Decision-making goes longform against Utah: Its legion of sentinels on defense keep opponents second-guessing their decisions; the third or fourth look on offense is always better than the first or second. After the franchise’s first 50-win season since the Jerry Sloan era, it’d be hard to say the team’s style is a detriment (it’s really not), but it did leave the Jazz on a perilous tightrope possession to possession.

The Jazz make basketball difficult; what that means to you says everything about how you view the team. But that mentality hit a dead end against the Warriors, who at their best play crystalline-pure basketball and at their worst can generate a quick three points from disarray better than most teams can from a clean look in the corner. The Warriors are the embodiment of I woke up like this; the Jazz are as meticulous as Hayward’s shimmering coif. It was an interesting style contrast in theory only; in practice, the Jazz were obliterated by 16.5 points per 100 possessions over the course of those four games.

A small-market team like the Jazz has to vacuum-seal their victories when they come; there are no guarantees. And somehow, after their best season since 2010, the franchise finds itself in a state of uncertainty. Hayward, in the past two seasons, has developed into one of the best two-way wings in the league and will be courted heavily by the likes of Boston and Miami, both of which could incorporate his jack-of-all-trades skill set seamlessly into their respective systems. Everything hinges on Hayward’s ambitions — does the pull of South Beach matter as much to a laid-back family man who just wants to play StarCraft after games? Would a mini Butler reunion with Brad Stevens in Boston really unlock the Celtics’ latent potential? Unlike Kevin Durant’s situation during last year’s offseason, Hayward isn’t staring down a god dream. There is no certainty that the other teams would be as successful as the Jazz would be if he stays.

The team’s secondary concern will be the status of their oft-injured floor general George Hill, who likely stays only if Hayward does. He’s made his desire for a max-level contract clear, but the fact that he wasn’t able to stay on the floor could significantly affect the market for his services. Even though he played only 57 total games (including the playoffs), Hill is undoubtedly the best Jazz point guard since Deron Williams. Should Hill depart and Utah not be able to lure a player on the caliber of Kyle Lowry, the Jazz will be taking a huge step back in the short term: the Jazz landed three ABC broadcasts over the course of the season (the first time they’d been on an over-the-air network since 2001); I’d bet that number plummets back down to zero if Shelvin Mack is the team’s full-time starter next season.

Thankfully, Jazz fans were greeted with an unexpected flash from the future Monday night. Dante Exum emerged as a jolt of energy in a second quarter that saw the Jazz outscore the Warriors 35–21. He was a wraith defensively, flying across the floor and through screens, finding his way into passing lanes; he played with unbridled aggression at times — which was as shocking as anything he’s done in his young NBA career. After a disappointing rookie season, a sophomore campaign that ended before it began with an offseason ACL tear, and a third season in which he was repeatedly promoted to starting duties then yanked back to the doghouse by Quin Snyder, Exum has offered enough in the Warriors series to convince the team that his potential is worth investing in.

For my fellow wide-eyed Exumites, here is where I deliver the goods: Should the Jazz ride out his development, Exum’s athletic ability potentially offers them a Rudy Gobert–like defensive figure at the initial point of attack. At 6-foot-6, he is blessed with freakish lateral agility and has the frame to develop into a stronger multipositional defender. On one possession Monday night, he even caught himself on a mismatch in the post against Zaza Pachulia and stood his ground until weakside help altered Pachulia’s shot. On offense, there might not be another player this side of John Wall with a more explosive first step; how quickly Exum can disarm a defender with a simple left-to-right crossover bodes well for him, especially as he develops more advanced ballhandling skills.

But entrusting him with starting point guard duties, even as he enters his fourth season, is a dicey proposition. Watching Exum play, the gradations of his development, both physically and mentally, are almost too transparent. The lower half of his body performs at a world-class level — he moves so lithely on his feet, it’s hard not to wonder why he seems incapable of controlling the top half of his body at times. Of course, there’s still time for him to reach his proprioceptive prime — he’s still only 21 years old. And, as Jazz fans will tell you, Dante will soon be entering his first real NBA offseason (his past two were spent in rehabilitation). How he responds to feedback and improves upon his readily apparent flaws will determine just how much he can be relied upon next season. If Game 4 brought any positive to the organization, it’s that Exum exuberantly reclaimed a spot within the team’s core.

During Monday’s presser, Snyder expressed discomfort waxing poetic about the season after getting so thoroughly dismantled by the Warriors. But as a noncompetitor, I think I’m in the clear. The Jazz, from start to finish, were one of the most interesting teams of the season, consistently exceeding expectations, and helped shape and define a leaguewide campaign we’ll remember for years to come. They’ve become the model for how quickly a team can ascend from the dregs of the league to get a seat at the table among the elites. It’s strange to think that, with all the moving parts in the summer, this season could sublimate into nothing more than a fever dream in a few months. But for now, the future is still real and it’s still bright.