Think back to one of the biggest, most anticipated events or periods of your life. That first big trip abroad; a wedding day; a child’s birth, graduation or commencement. Even if it’s something more specific, you know the feeling of anticipation and buildup that comes with it.
Now think about this: Did it go exactly how you planned? Honestly, did it even come anywhere close?
For all but the luckiest among us, the answer is surely no. None of our momentous events shake out precisely how we envision them in our daydreams. There are inevitable roadblocks, delays or challenges; many are fortunate enough to find both pleasure and growth opportunities from these impediments. Even when the best laid plans fall to shambles, though, the periods in our lives that come with the largest expectations often teach us a lot about ourselves.
Metaphor, meet the Utah Jazz. Utah Jazz, meet metaphor.
After nearly five years of buildup, the summer of 2016 promised to give way to the most exciting season in several for a starving Jazz fan base. But when star Gordon Hayward caught his finger on a jersey in practice and fractured it in early October, luckily missing just six regular season games, no one could know how much this brief stretch would simply represent the tip of an adversarial iceberg. And as the franchise now sits at the most pivotal crossroads in a half decade or more, centered around Hayward’s looming decision to stay or seek out a new challenge, a look back seems appropriate.
“Without being too melodramatic, this to me is a unique season, and it’s a unique group,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “I’ve been a part of teams that won more, I’ve been a part of teams that have won less, but I’ve never had a group that’s had a season like this.”
Hayward’s preseason injury was like a rolling snowball from the Wasatch Mountain Range, gathering speed and accumulating. He and new starting point guard George Hill got exactly one game together upon Hayward’s return before Hill hit the shelf, the first of five different significant absences littered throughout the season that added up to 35 games when all was said and done. Starting shooting guard Rodney Hood would miss his first game shortly after en route to 23 absences on the season, and starting power forward Derrick Favors would miss 33 of his own in two big chunks. Swingman Alec Burks spent yet another season on the fringes of the lineup with various injuries, his career now justifiably in question given several significant surgeries now under his belt.
All in all, there’s a great case no team in the league was impacted more by injuries on the year. The Jazz lost the most Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in the league due to injuries for the regular season – over nine “wins,” to be exact. The trend continued in the postseason, with center Rudy Gobert’s injury merely 11 seconds into the playoffs almost serving as gallows humor after the way their season had gone. Even once the Jazz avoided their first chance at failure with an inspiring seven-game victory over the Clippers that saw Gobert return ahead of schedule, Hill went back down for three of their four losses to the Warriors in round two.
“When you go through a struggle, in some ways, like that, you just appreciate the minor victories,” Snyder said.
Victories like Hayward’s All-Star nod, the first for the franchise in over half a decade; like Gobert’s ascent to a place in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and real consideration for All-Star as well; like the team’s capture of 50 wins, even despite losing nearly 10 victories due to injury by some metrics. The Utah fan base long ago came to terms with the idea of NBA success that doesn’t revolve solely around a title-or-bust mentality, and these are real benchmarks toward it.
“With everything that we’ve fought through, the adversity of guys being injured – key guys being injured, missing multiple games, missing long stretches of the season – for guys to step up and play the way that they did, for us to still have the season that we did, I think it says a lot about our character,” Hayward said. “I think it says a lot about who we are as people. We’re fighters.”
Suddenly, though, the big question for this scrappy group becomes clear: Has the final round’s bell rung too early in this fight?
For a franchise that’s experienced such linear growth over the last few years – the first in NBA history to take a win total from the 20s to the 30s, the 30s to the 40s, and the 40s to the 50s in four straight years – the uncertainty of summer 2017 now looms frighteningly large. It sounds crazy, but in a probabilistic sense, Gobert and veteran Joe Johnson seem like the only guarantees among prior rotation players to be present on the roster next year.
Hayward and Hill will both test the market as unrestricted free agents, and Utah’s marksman, Joe Inlges (a top-five three-point shooter by percentage in the league this year), will hit the restricted pool with a skill set of high value in today’s game. All three have expressed desire to stay; Hayward and Ingles share an agent, which could play a role.
Boris Diaw and Raul Neto both have non-guaranteed contracts for next year, and Shelvin Mack and Jeff Withey are both unrestricted. Favors has a year remaining on his deal, but has been mentioned in trade possibilities frequently – there are real questions as to whether his frontcourt pairing with Gobert is the long term answer, and his iffy health all year long didn’t help lend much clarity.
Burks’ salary once looked like a bargain, but it now might become the sort of deal the Jazz have to attach an asset with to shed salary – something they might be forced to do to retain each of Hayward, Hill and Ingles. The Jazz are high on Hood, but after a year where he plateaued and even regressed in several areas, plus struggled with a number of minor physical issues, nothing is guaranteed. Even youngsters Dante Exum and Trey Lyles don’t feel 100 percent safe, though any moves here would be pretty surprising.
For the vital guys who control their ability to leave, a Jazz front office that’s gone above and beyond for years will hope their efforts weren’t unnoticed. GM Dennis Lindsey and his staff have coordinated one of the cleanest rebuilds in the league in recent years, featuring a foundation of home-grown talent and supplemented by several perfect veteran acquisitions last summer. Other places might offer more money (not in Hayward’s case, of course), and some might even be able to offer a better chance at a ring, but few franchises in recent memory can offer such stability and coherence.
Most of all, the Jazz will hope their key names stop and reflect – both on their successes and their challenges. The progress this group made was real, and they probably didn’t even need a few of their more notable benchmarks to feel it.
“Had we lost Game 7 to the Clippers, I don’t know that I’d feel that much different,” Snyder said. “Had we won 49 games [instead of 51], I don’t know that I’d feel that much different.”
How to keep moving forward and upward, then? Through more of the same. Snyder, Lindsey and a full staff have cultivated an environment based around continuous improvement, one they’re banking on guys appreciating.
If there’s a lapse, they’ll be hoping guys can recall the struggles – and responses to them – above all.
“There has been a tremendous adversity,” Snyder said. “[But] it’s opportunity if handled the right way. I think that’s been a mantra. The idea is to keep growing, and stay committed. Our guys have done that, and that’s something we want to carry through.”
Whether everything they’ve done to this point will carry them through the parts they can’t control remains to be seen. Whether the adoration of the only truly major sports fan base in the state makes a difference is just as tough to predict; chants for Hayward as he left the court for the final time Monday night felt like equal parts thanks and pleading. This stuff can transcend sports at times, especially in smaller markets like these, and guys like Hayward have felt it acutely.
Nothing went as planned for the Jazz this year, and they’re better for it. Will it stop them from laying a grand groundwork for next year, even with so much uncertainty? Don’t be silly. Listen to Gobert, and get on the train.
“Going into next year, I’m thinking, why not win 60 games?”
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.
NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge
Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.
Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.
Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.
“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”
Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.
July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists
Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.
“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”
On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.
“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”
Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.
“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”
In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.
“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”
When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.
In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.