SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz didn’t make it to the second round of the NBA playoffs this year for the first time in three years, but that doesn’t mean the Jazz haven’t been well-represented in the second round. In the just-concluded conference semifinals, seven former Jazzmen were still playing, several in significant roles.
Now four of those players will be moving on to the conference finals and at least one is guaranteed of playing in the finals.
It’s quite a turnaround for those four — Milwaukee’s George Hill, Golden State’s Jonas Jerebko and Portland’s Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood. Just look where each was a few months ago.
Jerebko, after a decent season as a role player with 19 starts for the Jazz, was the only player from last year’s team who was let go when Utah decided to basically stand pat and bring back a dozen other players. Who should pick Jerebko up, but the world champion Golden State Warriors.
After playing a lot early on (who can forget his last-second game-winning basket against the Jazz in their home opener last October?), Jerebko saw his minutes diminish, especially during the early part of the playoffs. However, depending on Kevin Durant’s return from injury, he could play a key role for the Warriors moving forward.
Hill, who played just one year in Utah (2016-17), was picked up by Cleveland last year for their swan-song title run with LeBron James, but after James left for Los Angeles Hill was left on a crummy Cavs squad that would go on to post the second-worst record in the NBA this year.
However, he got a reprieve when the Bucks traded for him in December and the 33-year-old has given Milwaukee a veteran presence off the bench ever since, averaging 12 points in 24 minutes per game.
Then there’s Hood and Kanter, who played together in Utah in 2014-15.
Like Hill, Hood was stuck with the Cavs, and also had a damaged reputation for refusing to go in during a playoff game last season. It looked like Hood, who was traded partly because the Jazz wouldn’t be able to afford him when he got a new contract, wasn’t going to be wanted by anybody as a free agent after he completed this season.
Then he got traded to the Blazers in February and his career has been revived. Without Hood, the Blazers may not even be alive, as he helped win games 3 and 6 with key shots when he scored 19 and 25 points, respectively. Unfortunately he went down with an injury late in the clinching Game 7 win and his status going forward is unclear.
Then there’s Kanter, who’s never been able to live down those comments he made on his way out of Utah in 2015.
The big Turk was playing for the woeful New York Knicks, the worst team in the NBA this season, when Portland picked him up in mid-February, a week after they acquired Hood. He was a good backup, but became especially valuable after Jusuf Nurkic went out for the season with a knee injury, thrusting Kanter into the starting lineup. In the playoffs he's averaged a solid 13.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
The other ex-Jazzmen who played into the second round were Boston’s Gordon Hayward (2011-17 for Utah) and Denver’s Paul Millsap (2006-13) and Trey Lyles (2015-17).
Hayward, who may never be forgiven for jilting the Jazz in July of 2017, had a lackluster playoff performance for the Celtics, averaging just 9.1 points on 41% shooting, a far cry from his 24.1 ppg performance for the Jazz in the 2017 playoffs.
Lyles, who will forever be known as the player the Jazz traded (along with an insignificant draft pick) to get Donovan Mitchell, hardly played a lick for the Nuggets in the playoffs and his future with the young team is murky.1 comment on this story
Millsap, who the Jazz allowed to become a free agent when they couldn’t afford to keep him in 2013, had a couple of good outings in games 5 and 6 but didn’t play as well in Sunday’s Game 7 when he scored 10 points before fouling out. At age 34, his best days are behind him.
While a lineup of Kanter at center, Hayward and Millsap at forward and George Hill and Rodney Hood at guard would be a competitive NBA lineup, it’s not one that the Jazz would switch straight across for Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert.
But with Utah long eliminated from the playoffs, at least Jazz fans have some players to cheer for as they pursue championship rings.