It’s not easy for a small-market franchise to replace its only All-Star. When the Jazz traded Deron Williams in 2011, they began a long rebuilding process that started to bear fruit only last season. Gordon Hayward was their first All-Star since Williams, and it took him seven years to become one. Hayward and Utah grew up together, improving each season. But just as the Jazz were establishing themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, winning 51 games and making the second round of the playoffs, they lost Hayward in free agency. The Jazz pushed the rock up the mountain, only to see it roll back down once they were near the peak. Pushing it back up won’t be as hard the second time around.
The new-look Jazz don’t look all that different without Hayward. They made a few tweaks, but didn’t change who they are. In their first three games this season, they beat the Nuggets and Thunder convincingly and lost a thriller to the Wolves. Rudy Gobert, not Hayward, was always their most valuable player. Utah had a plus-8.1 net rating with Gobert on the floor last season and minus-2.9 without him. He has the relative length of a praying mantis (7-foot-8.5 wingspan), and he is more coordinated than a guy his size has any business being. His presence changes everything else on the court. Just as important, he plays with a chip on his shoulder, which sets the tone for the rest of the team.
Gobert’s ability to erase mistakes at the rim allows his teammates to be more aggressive. NBA offenses are designed to create space; Utah takes it away. The Jazz swarm opposing players when they get in the lane, fly around the floor, and count on Gobert to cover up any gaps. They had the third-best defense in the NBA last season, and have the sixth best this season despite facing three high-powered offenses. They don’t have any weak defenders. It’s hard to score on them in isolation, and it’s hard to move the ball against them. The Jazz keep teams in the half court (third-slowest pace in the league), prevent them from taking shots (second-best turnover ratio), and rebound the ones they do (ninth-best defensive rebounding percentage). Everyone knows their role and sticks to the game plan.
Gobert changes the game on the other end of the floor, too. The foundation of Utah’s offense is Gobert setting a screen and rolling hard to the basket. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 95th percentile in scoring as a roll man last season. He has the widest catch radius in the NBA. Lob the ball anywhere near the basket and he can throw it down. There’s not much a defense can do when Gobert gets it in this position:
There is more than one way to stretch the floor. The best shooters stretch it horizontally by forcing the defense to guard them far away from the basket. Gobert stretches it vertically by forcing multiple defenders to account for him as he dives to the rim. He has as much gravity as guys like Kyle Korver. Watch how the defense collapses on Gobert, creating an easy pass to the corner for Joe Ingles:
Utah traded for Ricky Rubio in the offseason, and allowed former starting point guard George Hill to walk in free agency. They are very different kinds of players. Hill is steady and methodical, a knockdown shooter who takes care of the ball and plays a low-risk, low-reward style of basketball. He colors within the lines, and he wants to play at as deliberate a pace as possible. Rubio doesn’t believe in lines at all. He’s controlled chaos. He is at his best when everyone on the court is scrambling and he can come up with things on the fly. Unselfish to a fault, Rubio sees passing opportunities that most guards don’t. There’s no point in having Rubio if he’s not allowed to run free. The Jazz still play at an extremely slow pace, but head coach Quin Snyder is allowing Rubio to run selectively. They are getting six percentage points more of their offense in transition this season, moving them from 29th in the league in that category to the middle of the pack. An elite defensive team should turn its defense into offense, and Rubio’s ability to push the pace will get Utah a couple of more easy baskets a game than last season.
The problem is what happens when Rubio has to shoot. He’s a career 37.5 percent shooter from the field and 31.3 percent shooter from 3. Defenders sag off him. Snyder has given him the green light to shoot when he’s open, and he’s taking 5.3 3-pointers per game this season, more than double his career high. Passing up an open shot can backfire on an offense since the team with the ball is playing four-on-five everywhere else on the court. Rubio will thread passes through windows so narrow they might as well not exist. There’s a trade-off to giving him the keys to the offense. The Jazz have gone from tied for 12th in the league in turnovers last season (13.6) to 27th (17.7). One of the big questions this season is how they can create enough space in the half court to survive.
The personnel changes have effectively created two versions of the Jazz. They play half the game with two centers in the game, and half with one. Derrick Favors starts at power forward and Ekpe Udoh, a former lottery pick who spent the past two seasons in Europe, comes off the bench at both frontcourt positions. Both Favors and Udoh are athletic enough to play on the perimeter on defense, but neither can stretch the floor on offense. The opposing defense can pack the paint when one of them is at power forward. Things change when Utah brings Joe Johnson off the bench as a small-ball 4. At 36, Johnson is an ageless wonder who dominated in their first-round series win over the Clippers last postseason. A supersized guard (6-foot-7 and 240 pounds) in his prime, Johnson has smoothly transitioned to the frontcourt. He spaces the floor (career 37.3 percent 3-point shooter) and he almost always has a mismatch at his new position, whether it’s taking slower defenders off the dribble or bullying smaller ones in the post. He’s a scoring machine, and he has the highest usage rating on the team (26.2) this season.
Utah doesn’t have one guy who can fill Hayward’s shoes, so it’s replacing him with a committee. The Jazz have seven players averaging between eight and 12 shots per game. With the exception of Rubio and their big men, everyone in their rotation can shoot 3s. Rookie Donovan Mitchell is the only one with fewer than three seasons of experience. The rest are in the sweet spot when their knowledge and physical ability are roughly the same, and a group with that much collective speed and savvy can be better than the sum of its parts. The ball moves around the court and finds the open man. There isn’t one guy on the perimeter that defenses can key on. Utah had a different leading scorer in each of its first three games. Gobert scored 18 points in 35 minutes against the Nuggets. Rodney Hood scored 20 points in 24 minutes against the Wolves. Ingles scored 19 points in 27 minutes against the Thunder. When everything is clicking, the Jazz play beautiful basketball:
The offseason additions (Rubio, Udoh, Mitchell, and Thabo Sefolosha) all fit the blueprint. The Jazz can go 10 deep with long players who can move their feet and know how to play basketball. The slightest guy is Rubio, one of the biggest point guards in the league at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds. The average wingspan of their top-10 players is 7-foot-2. Utah puts the pressure on opposing teams for all 48 minutes. Snyder mixes and matches lineups until he finds one that works on a given night, and his top bench players all have outrageously high net ratings at the moment. A great defensive team with continuity, depth, shooting, and multiple playmakers will succeed in the regular season, even in the loaded Western Conference.
Strength in numbers isn’t as effective in the playoffs. Teams with more star power shrink their rotations, minimizing the edge that deeper teams get from their bench. They can also game plan more specifically for their opponent, taking away its favorite sets and forcing it to rely more on one-on-one scoring. The Rubio and Gobert pick-and-roll, a staple of the team’s offense, isn’t as effective when they can’t work in tandem. Instead of sending help, which Rubio can pick apart, opposing teams could switch the screen and leave their big man on Rubio and their guard on Gobert. Neither can take advantage of a mismatch. Slower defenders can play a step off Rubio. Gobert rarely posts up and has averaged fewer assists per game (1.1) than turnovers (1.5) over the course of his career. The Jazz would have to rely more on their wings to initiate offense in that scenario. A team whose best shot creator is 36-year-old Joe Johnson has a low ceiling.
Utah’s X factor is the development of Burks, Hood, and Mitchell. All three have the talent to be big-time scorers. After playing in only 100 games the past three seasons because of injuries, Burks is a forgotten man around the league. A 2011 lottery pick, Burks is an athletic wing with the length (6-foot-6 and 214 pounds) and shooting ability to score from every area of the floor. Hood is even bigger (6-foot-8 and 206 pounds) and a better shooter, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy either. He went down with a calf strain against Minnesota and missed the Oklahoma City game, but it’s not expected to keep him out long. Mitchell, the no. 13 pick in this year’s draft, is the hope for the future. An über-athletic guard built like a linebacker (6-foot-3 and 211 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan), he was incredible in summer league but has struggled with the speed of the NBA game so far in the regular season. Mitchell could dominate on athleticism alone in the NCAA. He will have to polish his game in the NBA.
The one thing the Jazz never found in their rebuild was perimeter star power. Hayward was the closest thing they had, and he never even made an All-NBA team. Part of it was bad luck. Burks and Hood haven’t been healthy. Dante Exum, the no. 5 pick in the 2014 draft, tore his ACL before the start of his second season and will miss this season with a separated shoulder. Salt Lake City will likely never be a free-agent destination, so all Utah can do now is take more gambles on guys like Mitchell. The good news is that the top of the draft isn’t the only place to find stars. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard were no. 15 picks. Gobert was taken at no. 27 overall. A team that drafts and develops well always has a chance to find a diamond in the rough, and young players can really benefit from starting their careers with smaller roles on good teams. Utah has a strong foundation. Losing one guy won’t make it collapse.