NBA fans all know Chad Ford, the long-time ESPN writer who is an NBA Draft guru. Few do it better than Ford, whose analysis has been a constant for years. His ESPN work only entails one aspect of his incredibly busy, fascinating and inspiring life. His main gig is that of professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii. Ford’s daily schedule is a hectic one, full of teaching, research, traveling, family, church responsibilities and taking in a bevy of NBA, college and international basketball games. Between he does, he fits in calls with general managers, scouts and agents. It’s a non-stop life for Ford.
Despite his heavy load, Ford is truly one of the NBA’s great, genuine and kind men. Over the past few years, we’ve developed a friendship, having visited several times. Ford is always so kind and obliging. Even with his hectic life, Ford gave me the chance to visit him during my recent work trip to the North Shore. He shared his perspectives on the Utah Jazz. As a disclaimer, this was in mid-November, so the team’s nice start was in its early stages.
What are your overall impressions on the Jazz?
The thing that stands out to be about the Jazz is this: in this day and age, it is hard to have patience. You saw with the Philadelphia 76ers, for instance, they started a process. But then there is losing, ownership and fans get impatient and they pull the plug and go a different direction. I don’t think there has been any team in the NBA that has had the discipline the Jazz has had, to stick with this young core, let them develop, and recognize that “Okay, we’ll be competitive, but probably not a playoff team for a several years.” Jazz fans have prided themselves on having a very competitive team. And “we’re going to build this primarily through the draft and we’re just going to let this team develop.”
There have been a number of years where people have said, “Should we package some of these guys together and trade them for a superstar?” What stands out to me is, now, most people have the Jazz as one of the four best teams in the West. And they’re young, which means that they have a long window to compete. It looks brilliant. They have all homegrown talent, for the most part. They did go out and get Joe Johnson and George Hill, veterans who can help round out a very deep team. They have one of the deepest teams in the league. And we haven’t even see what Dante Exum is going to do. Alec Burks has been injured. Rudy Gobert is still very much in a developmental curve. Trey Lyles, too. We are starting to see peak Gordon Hayward and peak Derrick Favors.
I just think it has been a brilliant job. The most brilliant part about it was being confident that they had a group that should stick together. It speaks a lot to both Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey, who has brought some of the Spurs principles with him. In talking with Dennis, one of the reasons he wanted to join the Jazz was he felt that Kevin O’Connor – who doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves for this – had built this internally. He [Lindsey] has modernized the system in Utah for sure, from stuff he learned from the Spurs. He has established the same cultural values. That’s the big thing for me in the NBA. Culture matters so much more than people want to say. Getting the right players and a feeling that this is home, a feeling that the organization is invested in them. A coach that feels that the organization is invested in him. Quin Snyder has one of the better jobs in the NBA, because he has a management team – coming from that Spurs’ model – that says it is really important to get behind a coach and says “we’re committed to you long-term and we’ll be patient with you, as well, and not put ridiculous expectations on you.
You see it – players, coaches, front office and ownership – they’re all aligned. You and I can probably count on one hand how many teams we can say that about. That may be the rarest feat of all. Look, they don’t have a Kevin Durant, a Steph Curry or a LeBron James. We know, by watching the Finals each year, probably having a guy like that is big. But they’re [the Jazz] never going to get a guy like that in free agency. The only way they are going to do that is through the draft. And where they have drafted, relatively every year, they have drafted well. Probably the one exception was Trey Burke. You see guys like C.J. McCollum and Giannis – you can definitely see that that was their one big mistake. But every team makes mistakes. The Spurs make mistakes. Other teams do, as well. Their track record is really, really impressive.
If Dante doesn’t hurt his knee, he’s another year ahead. But in some ways, it was a blessing. I felt like the trade of the summer was Utah getting George Hill. What they paid for him and you’re seeing was Indiana got in Jeff Teague and what Atlanta got from that pick. Taurean Prince is not even playing and he wouldn’t have played in Utah. I don’t think anybody in the Jazz’s range would have gotten any minutes and instead, they get a starting point guard who can play the two. He’s a guy who recognizes that his role is to mentor Dante. He’s not taking away from Dante’s experience. I also think the Joe Johnson signing was a good recognition of what they could improve on. He’s another veteran that they won’t ask a ton of, but if he hits for the Jazz, it’s huge. If he doesn’t, it won’t sink them financially. And so far, Joe’s been a hit. Of course, Alec is hurt again. Johnson’s signing bought them some time.
Look, the Rodney Hood pick, the Trey Lyles pick… these were not consensus picks. The Rudy pick. These were not picks where everybody in the NBA felt these were obvious guys to get where Utah was at. Maybe they want Devin Booker. They took Trey in front of him. But, you could quibble, but Trey is going to be a fantastic NBA player and maybe fit in better for the Jazz.
I am really bullish on the Jazz. I think they will be one of the four top teams in the West. I don’t think they are on par with the Spurs, the Clippers and obviously, the Warriors. But I think this will be a valuable year for them to gain some serious playoff experience and be competitive. And then you watch San Antonio and the Clippers and there will be some long-term vulnerabilities that will start to manifest themselves. As for the Warriors? You gotta hope there are some chemistry problems. If they are healthy and the chemistry is good, it’s hard to not see them winning.
But the Jazz cannot control that. This was their time to start to put together a competitive team. Sometimes teams try wait it out and see when there is an opening to really go for it. But I think the Jazz needed to go for it now. I think they recognize it would probably be a miracle to knock off the Warriors. But I think, as early as next year, we might be talking about the Jazz as the second best team in the West.
What are your thoughts on the Gobert extension? How might that affect moves with Favors, Hill and Hayward?
One blessing for the Jazz is that the salary cap went up. They would have had some problems had it not. This would have been a team that would have had to break things up, just because of the reality of hitting luxury tax, something I just don’t think Utah can do long-term. Now with the cap going up and going up again, they have a lot more flexibility to keep their guys.
I thought Rudy’s deal was right on par with what is should have been. I don’t think they paid him too much, nor do I think that he got paid too little. You’re talking about that may be, literally, irreplaceable in the league. It’s not like if you don’t sign him, there’s five other Rudy Goberts out there just waiting to be signed. His length, mobility, his shot-blocking presence… there are few centers who have that. That, to me, is always to question if you are going to sign someone in free agency. You’re spending big money. The answer is, if the guy is irreplaceable to your team, always yes. Gordon is great, but there are other Gordon Hayward types out there. Even with Derrick Favors, there are other options to a certain extent. For Rudy, there’s no other available options. Locking Rudy up was a slam dunk.
I think for George Hill, the big question will be, what do they see from Dante this year? How ready do they think he is to step in? This is a team that wants to be a perennial playoff contender now. Is Dante ready, after the season, to carry that level of basketball? Because people will come after George Hill. If he keeps this up, he’s going to make a lot of money next year. He’ll be the hardest one to justify retaining when Derrick and Gordon are out there. Eventually, they’ll have to find out how to re-sign Rodney Hood. And Dante Exum will be coming up. George Hill will be the question mark. Whatever happens, Hill will thank the Jazz whatever happens, because he got in a situation where he will make a lot of money. He will be the hardest one for them to justify how to afford him, while affording everybody else.
What might Dante Exum’s ceiling be?
He’s got the potential to be a superstar. One, we will want continuing seeing that ability to hit the jump shot, the 3-pointer. He is still figuring out the aggression part on offense. There are times where he looks afraid to score. But we’re seeing evidence that he is getting less shy about that. But he’s a kid that for sure, if he puts it all together, the Jazz will look really smart for drafting him. He can be a top five or six point guard in the NBA someday. On pure potential, he has the highest of anyone on the Jazz. It’s going to take longer for him to develop. We might not know for two more seasons. But if he hits his ceiling, even more than Rudy… I’m not that we feel really confident that Rudy is going to be a dominant offensive player. He’s probably close to his ceiling defensively already. I just don’t see Rudy having the potential to be like Joel Embiid on both ends. Or Karl Anthony-Towns. I just don’t think he has that ceiling on the offensive end. But the Jazz might not need him to be that. The one nice thing they will have with Rudy is one of the few guys who can defend those centers.
When you talk about culture, it is the culmination of all these decisions and a process. If Dennis was sitting here with us, he’d say it’s a “process, process, process.” That’s his thing. And if you have a good process, the outcome usually will be good. It is never fool proof, but it will usually be right. The Jazz have bought into this process 100 percent and they are living by it. Very few teams have the discipline to live by a process.
How good can Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles be? Can Gobert, Favors and Lyles coexist long-term as a three-man big rotation?
They can co-exist. There are minutes there. You are increasingly seeing teams be cautious with this, in how much you want to run a player down. This is more and more in the forefront of NBA teams. Getting a guy in the 30 to 35 minute range is about as high as you want to play him on a given night. That opens up a space for a guy like Trey Lyles, especially when Derrick can swing over to the center spot.
Rodney Hood is going to be the long-term starter. He and Dante Exum comprise the back court of the future. Alec, at this point, has lost that battle. Some of it is not his fault, with the injuries that are there. But even if Alec was healthy, I think Rodney Hood offers more potential. Alec’s the better athlete, but on about every other metric, Rodney’s the more attractive player at shooting guard. Think about that… they got Hood at #23 in the draft. And Gobert at #27. You wonder why the Spurs have been so good so long. It’s the ability to get that talent late in the first round. It’s interesting. Teams like the Jazz and Spurs seem to have more success later in the draft than earlier. Because I cover the draft so much, there is sometimes this herd mentality at the front end of the draft. “These are the six, seven, eight guys.” As you get further in, though, things become more team-specific. Guys these teams personally like. There is no consensus #23 pick or #27 pick. There’s just not. But there is a consensus top five. The mistake the Jazz made with Trey Burke was they focused on a need: point guard. There was a consensus three guys at that spot and a consensus was also that CJ McCollum probably wasn’t a point guard, even though he was the most talented of the three. That was a rare misstep for the Jazz in not following their process all the way, and trying to use the draft to fill a need, which is almost always a mistake.
I think Trey Lyles can be fine as the sixth man. Andre Iguodala comes off the bench. On a good team, when they’re winning, guys feel very differently than coming off the bench for a bad team. I’m not even worried about Rodney; he’s won that job. He’s going to have to really back to lose it.
Will Burks be on the roster after February’s deadline?
Good question. Yes, because I think his value is too low for them to trade him now. He really needs to come back and have a strong season before they get the value they need for him. I don’t think they want to do the Enes Kanter thing again.
Will the Jazz have an All-Star this season?
Another great question. Hmm…as far as the best player for the Jazz to start this season, it might be George Hill. I’m going to say no and not because I don’t think the Jazz have great players. There are a lot of elite, superstar players in the West that will make it hard for the Jazz to crack. They’re going be successful, so that will put some pressure to have an All-Star, but because it is spread out a lot more on the Jazz in a more unified team effort, it’s going to be harder to identify who that guy might be. If anyone will get it, it will be Gordon or Rudy. Sometimes center might be more of an option, but Gordon will still be the face of the team.
Will the Jazz win 50 games this year?
I’m putting them at 48.
Will they win a playoff series?
Yes. I think they be in the semifinals. I think they will be the fourth seed.
Within three years, do you see the Jazz as championship contenders?
Yes, with the caveat that being a Western Conference Finals team is a championship contender. I don’t see them beating the Warriors if they keep their team together.