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?”
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