Jazz Break into Big Three Territory

September 9th, 2015 | by Clint Johnson

Danny Bollinger / Getty Images

Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney recently released their annual Top NBA Players for the upcoming season, and one of the greatest surprises is embedded so deeply that few but Utah Jazz fans are likely to see it.

According to SI, one of the most reputable brands in sports journalism, the Jazz will be one of only six teams to have assembled a Big Three for the 2016 season. Three stars on one roster has become the default formula for title contention. LeBron James could jettison Miami (and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) for Cleveland less because that was home than because Kyrie Irving was there and it was only a matter of time until Kevin Love (or some other star) signed on as well.

This upcoming season SI expects only six teams to boast three top-40 NBA players1. They are the five top contenders for the title — the defending champion Warriors, title runner up Cavaliers, reinvigorated Spurs, ever-enticing Clippers, and fragile yet perennially contending Thunder — and the lowly Utah Jazz, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2010.

It seems incredible in a literal sense2, but it’s true. According to Golliver and Mahoney, the Jazz have their own Big Three, as displayed by SI‘s 2016 player rankings listed on the chart below.

Big Three Chart

 

The Jazz haven’t boasted a triumvirate with such high regard nationally since the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer days — possibly even back to the Malone/Stockton era. While such lofty expectations from a powerhouse in the national sports media could intoxicate fans of a young and upcoming team 3, it also serves as a lens through which to see both encouraging signs and significant questions to be answered.

One encouraging sign is the Jazz’s big three is the youngest in the league by a sizable margin.

At the end of the upcoming season, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert will only average 24 years of age. That’s nearly two years younger than the next-youngest trio on the list, the Warriors’ ring-wearing combination of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson.

If the Jazz can keep their frontcourt stars together, there is a real chance other Big Threes may fall by the wayside in a few years, opening wide a window of title contention. The Spurs can’t hold off decline forever, not with Tim Duncan going on 39 and LaMarcus Aldridge moving toward 31. LeBron James (30) and Chris Paul (29) will keep the Cavaliers and Clippers chasing titles for several more seasons, but it’s hard to believe the downward slope of inevitable decline isn’t approaching.

While the Thunder’s dynamic trio is just now entering their prime, free agency may well wreck this Big Three. With both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook reaching unresistred free agency in the summers of 2016 and 2017 respectively, it may be more difficult to see them together than apart when the 2018 season starts — a season where the Jazz’s trio will just be entering their primes.

At this point, only the Warriors’ Big Three appears likely to remain on the horizon as a dominant force for the length of the Jazz’s upcoming competitive window.

Just as encouragingly, the Jazz’s big three is getting better faster than any other group.

While Golliver and Mahoney’s rankings are ultimately subjective, they’re also well-educated and impressively substantiated by broad empirical backing. That makes any player jumping up or falling down the rankings from one season to the next worthy of attention, and no team has players rising up the ranks as precipitously as the Jazz.

The combination of Hayward, Favors, and Gobert gained 129 cumulative spots in SI‘s rankings from last season! Even Hayward, the least impressive climber, jumped 26 slots. Most other Big Threes are essentially treading water, combining for a rise or fall of only about ten positions between all three players. The only other team with a big three that comes close the spike shown by the Jazz trio is, again, the Warriors, who saw Curry, Green, and Thompson rise a combined 116 slots after their title-winning season.

It’s hard to imagine the Warriors’ treble skying much higher than they already have. Curry only has three slots to the peak of the mountain, and valuable as he is, Green is much more likely to fall from estimation as the 16th best player in the NBA than rise even higher. Klay Thompson could shift either up or down somewhat, but overall, it’s difficult to see Golden State’s big three shining any brighter in these rankings than they do now.

The same is not the case with the Jazz. Is it hard to imagine any of Hayward, Favors, or Gobert ending this season as a more impactful all-around player than, say, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Mike Conley, or Al Horford? Not really. While the Jazz now have a Big Three for the kids’ table by NBA standards, these kids are growing up. Fast.

Still, the future is far from without questions. The most glaring of these is likely the superstar quandary: can an NBA team legitimately contend for a title without a bonafide seat-filling, opponent-terrifying, game-dictating superstar? Because as presently constituted, the Jazz lack that alpha dog, at least in SI’s estimation.

The rankings show every other Big Three in the NBA as captained by a top ten player. Two teams have a pair of super-elites. Every team with a legitimate claim to being a contender — Thunder, Clippers, Cavaliers, Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Grizzlies4 — all have a top ten player and at least two players ranked higher than any Jazz man.

Where it seems reasonable to project one of the Jazz’s best to eclipse an aging Wade or Nowitzki, or the excellent but short-of-elite Conley or Horford, it’s harder to see any of them rising to the heights of impact achieved by Blake Griffin or Russell Westbrook in the back half of the top ten, or even players like DeMarcus Cousins or John Wall in the teens.

There are plenty of questions about the Jazz this upcoming season, including depth, positional vulnerabilities, and questions related to injuries and consistency, but the greatest question is just how great can Utah’s best players become. They already have three stars in the making as indicated by the national esteem articulated in Sports Illustrated’s rankings. What’s left to determine is how bright those stars can shine, individually and in tandem.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

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11 Comments

  1. Jordan says:

    Love the article except for the last bit. I don’t find it unreasonable for any of the Jazz 3 to be considered a top 10 player, Hayward is arguably better than 31 now (I’d put him more around 24 myself). Favors is underrated as well and gobert looks primed to establish himself as the most dominant defensive force in the league. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all for the Jazz to make a playoff run and see all three players inside the top 20 next year.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      While I can potentially see any of the three being top 20 players, I think it is extremely unlikely that all three will be. No team this season boasts three top-20 players; in 2014, only LeBron, Wade, and Bosh rated that highly, and that’s a trio that took a team to four consecutive NBA Finals.

      If one Jazz player cracks the top 20 next season, the Jazz will be in great shape given their ages and current trajectory. Excitement and optimism are warranted, but so too is realism.

  2. Niels says:

    In not sure you could really include the Jazz in those 6 teams with big threes. All three of those Jazz players are listed in the 30’s while the other big three teams don’t have any player past 29. While it’s a good sign to have those three players in the top 40 I’m not sure that makes them a big three. Hopefully this time next year we can make that claim without any doubt.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I’m not sure it does either, Niels. Are the top 30 players stars or is it top 40? Which players are SI undervaluing and overvaluing? The Jazz are in a uniquely tantalizing yet opaque position where you can read largely what you want into them. But what isn’t debatable is that according to this very prominent ranking in the national and international media, only six NBA teams have three top-40 players. The Jazz are one. I think that’s significant.

  3. IDJazzman says:

    No question the Jazz have a big 3, however as you pointed out, they are lumping top 10 NBA players with top 30 players. Maybe SI should say that San Antonio has a Giant 3 or Oklahoma has a Giant 2 with a big one, no pun intended. I would even have to say that the Warriors have a Giant plus a Big 4.
    The Jazz are arriving, to me that means when they pass the 50 win mark, maybe this year?? Have my doubts. Maybe the Jazz’s superstar is Quin Snyder. There is a giant intangible that he has brought to this team. He has brought a cohesiveness that I have never seen before and when a young team with the camaraderie, enthusiasm, energy and faith that Snyder is instilling in these guys, anything can happen. They could really surprise some people this year.
    This article evoked some interesting thoughts.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      There is no bigger fan of Quin Snyder than myself, and that’s been true since before he was hired. Just see here: http://saltcityhoops.com/water-cooler-conversations-quin-snyder/. That said, I think it’s too early to start a statue to Snyder, just as I believe that about Hayward, Favors, and especially Gobert. There’s reason to believe any of these men can be great at their profession–truly elite. But there is too little evidence to have high confidence in that, as I think Snyder himself would readily admit. He’s been very public about this next season being about solidifying the positives from last season, making them true habits rather than simply a stage of youthful engagement and enthusiasm.

      In short, everyone just has to see how it plays out, but there are numerous reasons for optimism and excitement.

  4. Spencer says:

    Excellent article. Really fun to think about. I personally see the Jazz as likely a big four and possibly a big five. Exum, I believe, will reach top 40 status in three years. I love the idea of having a team with players ranked something like this: 8,18,20,29,50,55.

    I really see that as a possibility.
    Gobert has potential to be #8, Hayward, Exum, or Favors might be able to stretch into the teens. with the others eclipsing 30. Hood and Burks could easily get into the fifties. Who knows with Lyles, but he is versatile, skilled and has potential.

    That to me is the type of team I would love to watch-like San-Antonio of 2014.

    Stay together and stay healthy. Then we have a chance to be special for a long time.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      It’s always fun to project the future, and in a sense, that is exactly what SI did: tried to predict the best players this upcoming season. But the list is also largely an assessment of last season. What intrigues me is that the Jazz have three players who are really good right now. Now, for the first game this season, and the second, and so forth. While the Jazz aren’t anywhere near their ceiling, I think this is one sign among many that it’s time to start focusing beyond merely the future. This team needs to win now in order to keep three potential stars long term. And increasingly, people are going on record saying they can do that.

  5. Ryan Good says:

    Gordon has to be in the 20’s! I bet side by side him and Jimmy Butler’s numbers are pretty much identical. So if Gordon played for say the pistons or clippers he would get a higher rating? I just hope the boys are reading as this bull and letting the chip on their shoulders get bigger and bigger and use it to shut the nay sayers mouths and let the rest of the league know what all us Jazz fans already do. That they better start watching us real close cause we are coming and we are bringing the swat team with us. GO JAZZ!

    • Paul Johnson says:

      “Le Swat Team”

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think there’s some truth to Jazz players being underrated because of their context. Personally, I think if he were on the Clippers Favors would be a top-20 player, much like Draymond Green. Great all around guys really shine on good teams.

      That said, last season Butler had a ORtg 11 points higher than Hayward, plus a higher TS%, WS/48, BPM, and VORP. While I’m not sure the gap is as great as in these rankings, I think it’s pretty clear that last season Jimmy Butler was a better player than Hayward, much like the comparisons to Paul George the year before.

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