Gordon Hayward's decision to leave the Utah Jazz after seven seasons put the franchise in a bind, no doubt. To that point, ESPN writer Zach Lowe bluntly opined that "one man's choice burned a road map to a half-decade of 55-win seasons."
In a very insightful and detailed article, Lowe took a deep dive into the Jazz's approach of overcoming what he calls "the doomsday challenge of recovering after your best player leaves in free agency."
Here are some highlights from a worth-your-time article replete with thoughtful analysis and anecdotes:
• Players told Lowe where they were when they heard the news about Hayward’s free agency decision.
Donovan Mitchell was in a Salt Lake City hotel room. Derrick Favors was in Atlanta. Joe Ingles was in San Diego with other members of the team after having met with Hayward the previous day. Lowe called the Jazz’s Southern California gathering “the most poorly timed team barbecue in league history.”
“It was a sick feeling,” Ingles said. “It was unreal. It was his team. He’s got a house here (in Utah). He’s got a dog. Where’s he gonna go?”
Boston, it turns out.
“I could feel it,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said. "I was texting him a few days before, and he wasn't texting me back. That's what I didn't like. Just tell me. After five years, trust us, say what you are going to do.”
Gobert added that he respects Hayward’s choice.
• Despite Hayward’s departure and injuries to Gobert and Dante Exum, the Jazz have no plans on tanking.
“Our hope is our players grow into larger roles, and we continue a path which best serves the Jazz," Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey said. "And that path is to draft and develop."
• Heeding advice of the Jazz’s medical staff, Mitchell has tweaked his already-healthy diet and now eats grilled chicken Caesar salad from The Cheesecake Factory nearly every day.
“I know it’s not the best salad,” the rookie said, “but I’m learning.”
• Mitchell goes out of his way — “almost to a comical degree,” Lowe explains — to implement corrections he receives from coaches in film study sessions in the next game he plays.
• Lowe’s assessment of Mitchell:
“It's fair to nitpick Mitchell's audacious shot selection, and wonder what position he plays — whether he has the vision to run point, and if not, the size to defend wings. His talent is undeniable. He can already hit off-the-dribble 3s. He has guts. He can pass. He has the north-south speed and explosiveness nobody else in Utah's staid group of basketball sophisticates can bring.
“And that's good, because Utah's 9-11 start — featuring the league's 21st-ranked offense — has been a reminder that even the most intricate system gets you only so far without singular athletic talent.
“Toss positional designations out the window with Mitchell. He has the vision and bounce to run a good NBA offense one day — once he balances his game. He is already whipping cross-court lasers with either hand. He is a walking advantage. He won't be Harden, but he could develop into a borderline All-Star-level orchestrator in a few years.”
• Lowe shows video evidence of how the Jazz execute various plays — from Mitchell getting the ball on the move, Rodney Hood’s pick-and-roll pairing with Favors to how players can use hesitation and deception to their advantage.
• In the absence of star offensive talent, Utah uses screens to try to create advantages. Some data reveal that the Jazz attempt that often. They lead the league in on-ball screens, rank fourth in handoffs and are eighth in off-ball picks.
“When the system works,” Lowe explained, “they generate shots this group of talent has no business generating.”
• Lowe also touches on a variety of interesting topics, including how Utah might be asking itself some painful "what if?" questions about past personnel choices; how Ricky Rubio is “an odd fit for a slow, egalitarian system” but has more responsibility than ever; what the Jazz might do with Favors; how they might have made a mistake in letting Paul Millsap go during the rebuild; what makes Hood effective; and the team’s challenge in free agency.
“The Jazz are using this season to see what they have before doing much serious roster surgery beyond potentially sniffing out the market for Favors,” Lowe wrote. “The players think they will make the playoffs, and they are using Hayward's departure as fuel.”
Along those lines, Mitchell said this of Hayward: “Him leaving gave us that chip on our shoulder.”
Not surprisingly, Gobert believes the Jazz will work the kinks out.
"Oh, I'm still confident," The Stifle Tower told Lowe. "We are way better than our record."