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.
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.