This issue of our weekly survey of the Jazz world is heavy on Utah’s best two players. But first we’ll discuss the timely topic of trade likelihood. Let’s go!
Now that we’re in February, it’s officially OK to start wondering about the Jazz’s trade deadline plans.
Here’s one thing that’s pretty clear: whatever the Jazz need to do to improve this team going forward, they won’t be doing it via free agency signings. Unless they’re spurned by their own free agents, the Jazz are essentially done operating as a team under the cap.
Even if the Jazz extend no one, waive all the non-guaranteed guys, and renounce rights to all free agents but Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Joe Ingles, they’ll wake up on July 1 over the estimated $102 million salary cap.
So free agency is officially no longer an avenue for for major roster improvement. From here on out, Utah will improve its personnel through trades, the draft and value signings. That raises the stakes not just on this trade season but on every decision going forward.
With that in mind, let’s look at Utah’s current roster ahead of the February 23 trade deadline.
Basically untouchable: Hayward, Gobert
There aren’t that many guys in the league who are truly untouchable. But once you get up into a certain sphere1, you find players that teams just can’t trade for any realistic return because they’re too important to the team’s identity.
Hayward is there. There are 10, maybe 15 guys the Jazz could realistically trade him for and look their fans in the eyes the next day, and those 15 guys aren’t really available.
And Gobert’s profile might make him one of the least replaceable players in the entire NBA, to say nothing of his personality, fire and the way he has redefined who the Jazz are.
These two aren’t going anywhere.
Suddenly touchable?: Derrick Favors, Dante Exum
Call this the elephant-in-the-room section.
A year ago, even a few months ago, I would have put these two in near-untouchable category. The Jazz’s brain trust — coach Quin Snyder and GM Dennis Lindsey — have spent years talking about Favors as central to where the Jazz want to go and gushing about Exum’s potential. But something is clearly up with these two, whether it’s lingering knee problems, tension in the coach-player relationships, personal problems we don’t know about, or just a lack of confidence and rhythm2.
As we’ve discussed before in this space, Favors’ role has changed almost beyond recognition. Not only does he not close games, but there’s a growing reticence to use him as a power forward outside the first five to six minutes of each half. Maybe Snyder is just biding his time while Favors gets his body and his conditioning right after months shuttling in and out of the lineup. Or maybe the Jazz brass has rethought Favors’ place in the core. If it’s the latter, then his role no longer justifies keeping him off the table in negotiations3.
Meanwhile, Snyder is quick to use the hook on Exum — sometimes out of an apparent lack of patience and sometimes for good reasons. He has played poorly, there’s no denying it; however, there does seem to be a slightly different threshold for tolerating his mistakes versus those of his peers. There will likely be teams sniffing around to see if Exum’s current situation means that the asking price has dropped. In the past, Snyder himself shot down those discussions by telling Lindsey, “I believe in his insides.” If that belief is still there, we haven’t heard about it in very, very long time.
The bottom line: these two can’t be considered off limits if these are their roles.
If Favors is no longer a game-closing, scheme-defining, bucket-getting, defensive-lynchpin of a complement to the Jazz’s best players, then it’s bad asset management not to see what pieces he could return. Same is true if Exum is going to continue looking at the Jazz’s rotation from the outside.
Impress us with an offer: Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles, Ingles
In other words, the Jazz would prefer not to trade any of these guys. But you have to give value to get value, and if the opportunity comes up to get into the conversation for a very good player, this is where the conversation will start.
All four are modestly prices for the roles that they play, especially as the going rate for minimum, scaled and exception pick-ups rises. In addition, Hood’s and Lyles’ deals promise long-term team control via restricted free agency. That makes them pretty attractive assets, the type of players that get added on when asset-rich teams go shopping for a superstar via trade.
Burks is a pretty likely candidate for trade, because dropping his $10.8M from next season’s books is one of the potential ways Utah could dodge luxury tax issues. Joe Johnson, who we’ll talk about shortly, has a similar salary but receiving teams might prefer Burks’ youth and the fact that he’s locked in on that reasonable deal through the ’18-19 season.
Modest value: Shelvin Mack, Boris Diaw, Jeff Withey, Raul Neto, Joel Bolomboy
“Modest value” is just my shorthand for the fact that none of these guys will likely headline a major trade on his own. If one of these guys gets moved, it’s likely a deal around the edges or a piece of something bigger.
Diaw’s situation is weird, and he almost deserves a category of his own. His July 17 guarantee date makes this a virtual expiring contract. That alone could make him an asset to teams with specific financial motivations.
And yes, it sounds like Mack truly is on the Cavs’ list of options. The Jazz can’t expect too much there, though; Cleveland has also been trying out free agent point guards, guys they could sign for a fraction of Mack’s salary4 and without giving up an asset. Would they prefer Mack over, say, Mario Chalmers or Luke Ridnour? Perhaps, but unless their preference is pretty strong, Utah’s not going to extract a nice asset out of them. The motivation on Utah’s end would be clearing a little extra room to try to adjust Hill’s salary for an extension.
Not likely: Hill, Johnson
The Hill acquisition is a major part of Utah’s success, and he has been their third best player this season. Giving him up after they finally scored a solid starting point guard would require a crazy good offer — the kind of offer teams don’t make for expiring contracts with 30 games left. Hill’s not quite “untouchable,” but it’s hard to imagine a realistic deal that would tempt Utah.
Johnson likely stays, too. Utah likes him in that role, but also it’s a math thing: at his salary slot, only certain players even work in a trade, and most of them aren’t the kind of guys a team would trade away to get a 35-year-old on a short term contract.
“If (Hayward and Gobert) do that [focus and compete in every part of the game], they anchor us, and hopefully we can manage to get through injuries. Hopefully it’s nothing serious with Rodney and we can get Fav back soon.”
– Quin Snyder, on the latest round of health concerns and how the Jazz are surviving them
Healthy Jazz, we hardly knew ye…
With Hood tweaking his knee on Wednesday and Favors out for rest/recovery/whatever, Utah is again down 40% of it’s starting lineup. The Trib’s Tony Jones says that this hyperextension is less severe than the one that cost Hood five straight games earlier in the season, but he’ll at least miss Saturday’s game.
The Jazz’s preferred starting lineup has still only played in nine games together. Utah is 8-1 in those games.
Let’s just get this out of the way: the Jazz only have one player going to New Orleans for the February 19 game, but they have two All-Star quality players.
This is our first column since Hayward’s selection and Gobert’s snub were made official, so let’s use this space to talk about how impressive the pair has been in carrying the club all season. Here are two plays where they connect.
This play starts with a dribble hand-off (DHO) between Hayward and Johnson, so the defenders are most worried about denying Hayward a trip into the lane. He plays the angle perfectly, keeping Jabari Parker locked on his hip so that Parker’s guarding from behind by the time Hayward changes direction and zooms over the second pick, from Gobert.
Now the defensive big HAS to help. There’s just no choice. And as Rudy slips to the rim, both corner defenders are uncommitted about helping. They’re both in the vicinity, though, so it’s really the pass that makes this play — both the delivery and the reception. Hayward puts this zinger of an assist right in the middle of five Bucks, and Gobert is able to catch a low bounce pass, keep his balance through contact, and lay it in.
But the generosity between these two works both ways.
Gobert’s most common assist type is the DHO to shooters. The DHO works similar to the pick-and-roll in terms of the defensive choices it presents. This one starts in a horns alignment5 at angle right, so Parker starts out at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know which way Hayward will go. It’s also harder to go under on a horns pick because if you do, the offense can flip the pick and turn it into staggered screens going the other direction and your toast. So Parker goes over — probably correctly.
But Thon Maker is justifiably worried about one of the NBA’s best roll finishers, so he hangs back. The combination of horns, Parker going over, Maker dropping back, and an on-time pitch from Gobert all combine to set up a wide open Hayward three.
These clips show just how much of a threat these two guys are individually, and then how lethal the choices get when you put them in the same action together.
Speaking of how good those two have been, game ball discussions have basically become, for the most part, a two-way debate. That was the case in both Jazz wins this week.
Jazz 96, Lakers 88: Rudy Gobert
Pick your narrative: A) Guy earns first All-Star selection, then uses nationally televised game to immediately validate the pick with a dominant offensive quarter; or B) Guy get left off the All-Star team, then uses nationally televised game to immediately chastise coaches for omission with a dominant defensive quarter. Either way, the 16-0 run in the third was the story of the game, so then it comes down to perspective. Hayward had seven of those 16 points, but Gobert blocked three shots and grabbed four rebounds in about a five-minute span. In terms of the game overall, Hayward had 24 points on 14 shots, Gobert had six total blocks, 13 boards, and 4-of-15 rim defense. Ultimately, Gobert gets the nod, only because I couldn’t decide and the Twitter vote was undoubtedly heavier in the Stifle Tower’s favor.
Jazz 104, Bucks 88: Gordon Hayward
Again, it’s so hard to pick when their success if so intertwined and their statlines are fantastic. Hayward: 27-4-5, on 13 shots. Gobert: 26 & 15, also on 13 shots. Both shot 8-for-10 from the line. Gordon had a 12-point first, Rudy had a 15-point second, and both were solid after halftime. I went with Hayward for two primary reasons. First, he had to do what he did against Giannis Antetokounmpo, suddenly a top-106 player and a guy Hayward helped limit to his lowest point total in a full game this season7. Second, this was one of those games where Hayward really set the table for everyone, including Gobert in his big second quarter. But these two games were as tough to pick as any I could remember.
Twitter and real-life friend @BYUJazz12 reminded me of the “road wins minus home losses” stat, a quick way of gauging macro quality that equalizes for schedule to some degree. The Jazz have won 13 away games and lost nine at home, and +4 is the mark of a good team. The worrisome part, though, is when you evaluate relative to teams around them. That +4 is actually the lowest of all of the team in the race for seeds three through seven: Rockets +13, Clippers +7, Thunder +5, Grizzlies +5.
The other measure people have been talking about is record against .500+ teams. At .350, Utah is also last among that peer group.
Injuries and continuity can explain some of why neither stat smiles upon the Jazz at this stage, but it’s an impotant thing to watch as we assess how real the Jazz are as a Western Conference power.
Saturday vs. Hornets: This is a squad that’s reeling. After peaking at five games above .5008, the Hornets have fallen on rough times. Wednesday’s loss at Golden State was their sixth in a row, and they’ve already had two skids of five or more games just since the New Year. Like Utah, they’ll be idle until Saturday night, which means this game should feature two rested, hungry teams looking to right their respective ships.
Monday at Hawks: Of Atlanta’s last 10 home games, the Hawks lost three and needed overtime in three others. In other words, they’re beatable in the 404. Now the flip side: they have an elite defense, they force turnovers (a Jazz Achilles’ heel) and they don’t foul. FiveThirtyEight calls this one a toss-up, but especially if Utah’s missing rotation guys again, this will be a tough one.
Wednesday at Pelicans: The Pels are the only Western Conference team Utah has left to face, which means now they’ll cram three dates into the next two months. New Orleans is 13-14 at home, which isn’t too much worse than Utah’s road record (13-10). So this certainly isn’t a game Utah can take for granted — but so far, Utah has mostly taken care of business against losing teams, with the best record against sub-.500 teams of any Western team outside the top three9.
Congratulations to Hayward on his journey, his outstanding improvement and his well-deserved selection as an NBA All-Star!
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) February 1, 2017