A Eulogy for the Utah Jazz
Or: the Jazz, the Celtics, and the Pain of Small-Market Teams
Over the last year, the Golden State Warriors have hung like a specter over the NBA. Seemingly invincible, and with enough talent to challenge an All-Star squad (that really isn’t hyperbole), Oakland’s basketball team seemed like an impossible barrier to clear. After the NBA Finals — where the Warriors rolled past a formerly-dominant Cleveland Cavaliers team—feelings of inevitability around the league are just as strong.
Take the Utah Jazz, for example. This team won 51 games despite a plethora of injuries. They won a hard-fought series against a team with exceptional experience and talent in the first round of the playoffs, and then got swept by the Warriors in the second round. No matter how good the Jazz are, many believe, it doesn’t matter. Golden State will stop anyone in the Western Conference.
But for Utah, immediate excellence was still worth pursuing. With Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, and several other talented players, this team still wanted to win as many games now as it could. Knowing that Hayward was a target to leave via free agency, the Jazz did everything they could to prepare. Utah signed Joe Ingles, traded for Ricky Rubio, and then nervously sat back and waited on its star forward to decide. This may not be a decision quite on the level of the ones made by Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but it was an important one nonetheless.
And now that Hayward is a member of the Boston Celtics, the angst and pain among the Salt Lake City basketball community is much, much stronger than before. Utah had built this team over several tortuous years, and was ready to compete for many more. After losing out to a big-market team, the future looks much darker. The brutal, difficult truth is that sometimes a franchise can do everything right and still lose out.
To fully understand just how catastrophic Hayward’s departure really is, there are several angles to consider. The first is how to build a team in the NBA. Traditionally, there are several paths toward acquiring talent. Teams can draft, trade, or sign players via free agency. Free agency is much more valuable for some than others, though. Franchises in big markets like New York, Boston, or Los Angeles have more fans and more national presence, and are thus more appealing to free agents. This means that smaller-market teams like the Denver Nuggets or Utah Jazz must necessarily lean more heavily on drafting and trades. Smaller teams can still find good, available free agents, but attracting the biggest names in the business is often impossible.
The second angle of this story is that the Jazz did utilize the draft nearly perfectly. Utah has one of the best young cores in the league. Aside from drafting a superstar, this team has done everything perfectly. Yes, drafting someone like Kevin Durant or James Harden would be preferable to the current roster, but that’s nearly impossible to do. In terms of reasonable expectations, it’s difficult to do much better than the Jazz have.
The third angle is the team’s recent past. Utah barely missed the playoffs in the 2015–16 season in a crowded Western Conference. As the 2016–17 season came into focus, the Jazz flipped a lottery pick into a veteran point guard (George Hill), and acquired Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw as valuable depth pieces. Coupled with a good coach, and talent like Gobert and Hayward, the Jazz looked poised for a leap. I remember many calling this team a “hipster team,” as analysts looked for Utah to quickly become one of the best teams in the league. There was considerable hype around this team last summer, and Utah largely lived up to it.
The fourth piece of this story is the tortured-yet-triumphant 2016–17 season. The Jazz were great. 51 wins is a fantastic mark for nearly any team, and the fact that Utah did this in the West is even more impressive. However, this team could have been even better. Hill missed game after game, and a slew of other various injuries meant that the team’s starting five barely saw any time together. Injuries happen to everyone, of course, but the Jazz seemed particularly unlucky. Substitute in a much more “average” injury rate, and this team could have pushed for the third seed.
The fifth angle is Gordon Hayward. This season, Hayward established himself as a star player. Though he finished the year a little below the level of the league’s best players, he still made an impressive leap into the top-15/20. By win shares (via Basketball-Reference), he was the 15th best player in the NBA. Any one statistic can be misleading, but this is a good baseline. Objectively, he easily ranks in the top 20. And at a premium position, his value may be even higher.
The final piece of this story is that Utah knew Hayward could leave after the 2016–17 season, and did everything possible to convince him to stay. It’s difficult to not think of last summer and Durant’s decision, since both players crippled their former teams by leaving. Durant is considerably better than his Utah counterpart, but each player is impossible to replace on the team he left. And no matter what the Jazz did, it would ultimately not be enough to keep Hayward.
Obviously, Boston didn’t sign Hayward just because the team plays in a big market. Players make decisions based on many factors, and the Celtics’ talented core played a huge role. In addition, Boston plays in the East, where it is clearly the second-best team (it was Toronto, for the record, until July 4).
But the optics — that a star player left a small market for a big one—contain a valuable lesson. Sometimes, a team can do everything right, and still lose. Utah did nearly everything it could to build a great team that could compete for years. If Hayward stayed, the Jazz could have been a top-five team in the conference for another half decade. Perhaps they could have been even more — star players are being traded more and more often, so maybe the Jazz could have nabbed another key asset with some maneuvering. In all seriousness, it’s impossible to expect a team to draft better, make smarter moves, or build a better young core than this Utah team did.
I have no problem with Hayward leaving on a personal level. I wish he hadn’t, since I’m impressed by this Jazz team. But I don’t suggest that anyone should blame him for choosing what he believes is a better situation. Boston is still a clear underdog to Cleveland in the 2017–18 season, but now Hayward only has to beat one elite team to get to the finals instead of two or three. It’s difficult to fault someone for choosing that.
It’s just unfortunate to see a team do everything right and lose. The NBA likes to see itself as a league where small markets can flourish. If more teams can be the San Antonio Spurs, a team with a national presence that plays in a small-ish market, then competitive balance looks more attainable. But perhaps this is the more likely outcome. Perhaps teams like the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t ever hope to hold on to their stars long enough to form true dynasties.
The Jazz will be good this year. They have several fantastic young players, aa good coach, and a fanbase that is ready for more success. It’s not hard to see this team make the playoffs, though it might be difficult to squeeze into the top eight of the revamped West now. For the next few years though, I know fans will be asking how much better this team really could have been.