The Utah Jazz won 51 contests last season, which was good enough for the fifth seed in the competitive Western Conference. The Jazz also managed to reach the Western Conference Semifinals by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. They were finally eliminated by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in four games.
The playoff appearance marked the franchise’s first since the lockout shortened 2012 campaign and it appeared the Jazz were ready to take another step in their ascent up the league’s hierarchy. After all, last season’s unit featured only three players over the age of 30 – George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw – and a plethora of young and talented players barely scratching the surface of their potential.
The future of Jazz basketball appeared to be bright, but a lot of the team’s trajectory would depend on their success in this summer’s free agency – namely re-signing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward, solidifying their floor general of the future and securing more depth off the bench.
It’s fair to make the argument the Jazz accomplished two-thirds of their objective. Hayward, the team’s most important piece, bolted for greener pastures with the Boston Celtics. This was an absolutely huge blow for the franchise, but the team did acquire a capable point guard in veteran Ricky Rubio and signed two gritty veterans in Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko.
The Jazz sent a lottery protected 2018 first round pick (via Oklahoma City) to Minnesota in order to acquire Rubio. The duo of Jerebko and Sefolosha are on the books for a little over $9 million this season and both of their deals are non-guaranteed for the 2018-19 season.
Repeating 50 wins next season will be a huge undertaking for Utah. It won’t be an impossible task because the roster is still filled with talent, but Hayward was their go to offensive option. Replacing his production is critical and it will have to come from inside the house.
The most likely candidate and player best suited to take on a larger offensive role next season is three-year veteran Rodney Hood. But can he make the leap?
Hood, 24, averaged 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 41 percent shooting from the floor last season. However, he appeared in only 59 games and this marked the second time in three seasons where Hood appeared in 60 games or less.
As motivation, Hood is eligible for an early contract extension. This is where the Jazz will need to be careful. A few years ago, Utah allowed Hayward to explore the open market to gauge his value and he eventually signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets. The Jazz wisely decided to match Charlotte’s four-year $63 million deal, but you can pose a legitimate question on whether this free agency dance ultimately led to Hayward’s departure.
But back to Hood. The talented wing is the mostly likely replacement for Hayward’s departed productivity, especially if the forward can duplicate the promise he showed during the 2016 season where he averaged 14.5 points and averaged 32 minutes per game in 79 appearances.
Utah lost roughly 39 points per game with the departures of Hayward and veteran guard George Hill. Rubio has shown the ability to be a nightly double-digit scorer throughout his career, but his calling card, as a point guard, is ball distribution. Rubio is a much better playmaker than the departed Hill, but nowhere near the scorer or shooter.
Heading into this season, the Jazz have just under $110 million in guaranteed salaries on the books. Next summer could be a big one for the Jazz with just $68 million in guaranteed salaries. Veteran Joe Johnson ($10.5 million) and forward Derrick Favors ($12 million) are headed to unrestricted free agency, while Hood and Dante Exum could be restricted – depending on how Utah plays their upcoming early contract extension situation.
The NBA is a next man up league and the departure of Hayward stings, for now, but if Hood is ready to make a significant leap next season and produce at a high level, then the blow softens just a bit.
The question is whether Hood is up for the challenge or if Utah will even put the fourth-year in the position of a leading role.
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