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3 lessons from the Jazz’s success after losing Gordon Hayward

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The Utah Jazz lost a star, but found a team contending for a spot in the NBA playoffs.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

What made Gordon Hayward’s decision to leave the Utah Jazz so crushing is it had taken the Jazz so long to make something of themselves with him. The wing was around for the tail end of Deron Williams’ reign and developed when Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap patrolled. But Utah had made the playoffs just once with Hayward before last season.

After beating the Clippers in the first round, the Jazz looked like an ascendant franchise ... if only they could keep Hayward in free agency.

They could not.

Yet the Jazz have survived that loss, and appear poised to return to the NBA playoffs. Hayward signed with the Celtics and watched his season end in the very first minutes of opening night. The Celtics visit Utah Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), and while we know Hayward won’t suit up, it’s unclear if he will be in Salt Lake City at all. Still, while the catharsis of booing Hayward out of the gym must wait, this is an appropriate moment for the Jazz to take stock and take pride in what they have done in Hayward’s wake.

For those of us watching in wonderment as the Jazz threaten to make noise in the Western Conference playoffs, there are three key lessons from what Utah has accomplished.

1. One brilliant draft pick can change everything

When Hayward announced his decision on July 4, no one thought Utah had already filled the gaping hole on the wing the star had left behind. But the Jazz had done so! By making a swap to land Donovan Mitchell at No. 13 in the 2017 NBA Draft, Utah had preemptively addressed Hayward’s disappearance.

The Jazz traded Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick to Denver for No. 13. Lyles had failed to develop much in Utah, and he’s been better on a per-minute basis with the Nuggets. He’s a solid eighth-man right now. Denver took Tyler Lydon out of Syracuse at No. 24; he has played two NBA minutes this season.

Mitchell, meanwhile, would be the Rookie of the Year if not for Ben Simmons. Mitchell looks like a future all-star, and maybe more. There are shades of Damian Lillard and Dwyane Wade. This isn’t to say Mitchell will become a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Wade or an MVP candidate like Lillard. But this is in the realm of possibilities based on his rookie performance.

Had Denver not made the deal with Utah, or had the Jazz picked someone else at No. 13 (like Luke Kennard, Justin Jackson, or Terrance Ferguson), we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Quite possibly we would be ruing what could have been for Utah had Hayward only stayed instead of marveling at the Jazz’s survival.

But one brilliant draft pick can change everything. The Jazz saved themselves by making the trade to land Mitchell and taking him.

2. Defense is underappreciated

What made Utah especially potent a year ago was its defense, ranked No. 3 in the league. Hayward is a good defender, but he was hardly the Jazz’s anchor on that end. That would be Rudy Gobert, who made first-team All-Defense last season and has three straight seasons in the top three in the league in blocks per game. Utah had strong defense out of its point guard position — George Hill last season — as well as a solid second big in Derrick Favors to provide resistance at the cost of a spread floor.

Hill was replaced by Ricky Rubio, another strong defender, and Gobert has been as good as ever on defense when healthy. He may win Defensive Player of the Year, if voters overlook his two injury absence stretches. He has been the most impactful defender in the league over the course of the season.

Unsurprisingly, given all that, the Jazz are No. 2 in the league in defense.

We expected the loss of Hayward to drag down Utah’s offense, but not its defense. The primary statistical reason the Jazz have not fallen off is that their defense remains elite. We should have expected this! The offense has in fact degraded somewhat — from No. 12 last season to No. 16 this year. That drop is relatively minor in the grand scheme of separating mediocre teams from good ones when the defense is this good.

This isn’t to say we focus too much on the great offensive players when free agency arrives — they are more rare and individually impactful in most cases. In other words, it is easier and cheaper to find good defense. (Elite defense, like what Gobert and Draymond Green provide, is a different story. That’s expensive and rare, especially when combined with useful offensive skills.) We just need to remember to account for changes in defensive outlook when figuring how large personnel changes loom.

3. Culture matters

It’s true the Jazz built something special with Hayward, and that it threatened to disappear when he did. But under general manager Dennis Lindsay and coach Quin Snyder, Utah has built something bigger than Hayward or his shadow.

This is what people talk about when they talk about team culture. There’s an ethic, a vibe, a state of being with the Jazz. Part of it comes from the players, most of whom are lunch pail types like Favors and Joe Ingles. Part of it comes from the front office and coaching staff. Part of it comes from the stars — Hayward was never a diva, and Gobert never demands more attention or touches. Part of it comes from the offensive system Snyder employs, which prioritizes sharing and movement. Part of it comes from Salt Lake City itself, with passionate fans and one of the lowest-pressure media environments in the league. Part of it comes from the non-glamour chip these guys, past and present, have on their shoulders. (Trevor Booker, whose been on like 20 teams since leaving Utah, was a big contributor to that. He definitely passed it down to Gobert, who showed it off in a big way in his response and reaction to Hayward’s decision.)

This is a group of humans who like each other, who fight for each other, who work in the same direction every minute. This is what the San Antonio Spurs enjoyed for two decades. This is how the Golden State Warriors survive the egos of two All-World superstars, two more all-stars, and a bunch of accomplished role players.

This isn’t to say that the Jazz can reign as long as San Antonio or reach Golden State’s heights. Talent matters a lot. But the culture is right. There is an environment in place where team-wide success is not only possible, but expected. Utah isn’t the only team with a great culture — Miami, Boston, and Toronto have it, Portland sometimes appears to have it, Indiana might be developing it. This isn’t particularly rare. But for a team like this, a team without a top-10 player, it’s critical.

Other teams who aspire to be ascendant as the Jazz are would do well to focus on developing that type of ego-free, growth-minded culture in their locker rooms.