When Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2017, it was supposed to be a death knell for the Utah Jazz. Small market franchises, even ones as stable and well-run as Utah, are not supposed to be recover from losing a player they drafted and developed to the point of stardom.
Less than two years after that fateful day, the Jazz have not only recovered, they will enter next season as one of the leading contenders to come out of a wide-open Western Conference. With Mike Conley in at point guard, along with free agent shooter Bojan Bogdanovic and everyone’s favorite backup big man Ed Davis picked up in free agency, the Jazz have shored up significant weaknesses and made themselves more versatile.
It’s easy to forget in the wake of all that has happened since that day, but losing Hayward was viewed as a gut punch that rocked general manager Dennis Lindsey’s carefully planned foundation to the core. With Hayward leading the charge, Lindsey had built a 50-win team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season, back when Deron Williams was still running pick-and-rolls for Jerry Sloan.
Those intervening years were difficult ones for the franchise as they transitioned from the end of the Sloan era and hired Lindsey to replace longtime executive Kevin O’Connor in 2012. Utah was rarely bad enough to gain a top draft pick, nor were they good enough to be taken seriously.
The 2017 team was the product of a long rebuilding arc. That they were run off the floor by the eventual champion Warriors was less important than reaching the point of stable contention again. With Hayward gone, Utah wasn’t exactly starting over, but its path back to that point seemed murky at best.
What no one realized at the time was that Utah already had Hayward’s replacement lined up in Donovan Mitchell. Drafted No. 13 overall just weeks prior, Mitchell emerged on the NBA scene as a ready-made lead scorer with the personality and focus to become a legitimate franchise player.
Pairing Mitchell with center Rudy Gobert — another late-first-round find — gave Utah a solid foundation to rebuild from the ashes. Add in Aussie revelation Joe Ingles on the wing with a handful of solid veterans, and the Jazz barely skipped a beat by returning to the conference semifinals, where they fell to the Houston Rockets.
Utah won 50 games again the following season, but once again were run off the court in the playoffs by the Rockets. That last part was the issue facing Lindsey this summer. The Warriors’ dynasty may have run its course, but the Rockets are still very much in play as long as they can get over themselves. Utah needed to evolve if it wanted to compete with the very best in the West.
The Jazz went into the offseason needing not only more shooting and playmaking, but also positional flexibility. On paper, they’ve succeeded on all counts. Long considered one of the league’s top floor generals and underrated defenders, Conley brings a complete package of skills to Utah’s backcourt that should compliment Mitchell’s evolving game.
Bogdanovic and Davis help alleviate the frontcourt concerns. A shooter’s scorer, Bogdanonivic quietly averaged 18 points a game for the Pacers last season while making better than 42 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. Davis, the Boss Man, brings rebounding, toughness, and a well-deserved rep as one of the NBA’s best teammates.
Their additions do come at a cost. The price for Conley, who is entering the final year of his contract, was steep. It included veteran swingman Jae Crowder, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, and last year’s top draft pick Grayson Allen, along with their top pick in this year’s draft and a future protected first-rounder. Utah also waived point guard Raul Neto and traded Derrick Favors to New Orleans for draft picks to clear cap space. Incumbent point guard Ricky Rubio’s departure was a foregone conclusion.
Still, Conley and Bogdanovic are clear upgrades over Rubio and Crowder. Bogdanovic’s presence could also shift Ingles to the bench, where he’d be an ideal sixth man. Davis essentially steps into Favors’ spot as a backup center for Gobert. There are still depth issues to address, and left unsaid is that Utah really needs Dante Exum to stay healthy and begin reaching his potential.
All in all, it’s a long way from that dark day in July of 2017. There are no guarantees in this sport, as we’ve been reminded time and again the last few years, but the Jazz are going for it in a Western Conference that looks as wide open as its been in the last half decade. What a great recovery.