Basketball development is itself an act of imbalance. To improve requires that a player or team lean into a void, often in ways that aren't immediately comfortable or all that stable. A ball-handling wing will try his hand at initiating an offense full-time. A quick-footed big might switch on to guards on a more regular basis. An effective mid-range shooter might experiment with a corner three. The only way to really know how far a collection of talent can go is to stretch it, deliberately, until it strains or even snaps.
Every young team endures this same process of becoming, and those that stay together long enough eventually encounter the same, fundamental dilemma: At what point should a growing team scale back its developmental opportunities for the sake of adding more experienced contributors? Moving too early shorts the potential of core contributors. Moving too late wastes invaluable time—or even a player's most productive years.
It's at this particular juncture that we now find the Utah Jazz. Over the last three seasons, Utah has scaled from 25 wins to 38 to 40 on the strength of its talent identification and internal development. The most significant non-draft addition to the roster over that term was reserve forward Trevor Booker. This was a pipeline team by design, dedicated fully to cultivating quality players already on the roster and under contract without squandering any resource whatsoever. Then came the inevitable sea change.
"I think it was a natural progression," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. "We weren't going to continue to draft a 19-, 20-year-old every year."
First came the trading of the No. 12 overall pick in the draft—just the kind of asset that would be redundant on a team this young—for veteran guard George Hill. Behind Hill came Joe Johnson, who signed a two-year, $22 million deal with Utah as a free agent. In continuation of the theme, the Jazz absorbed former Spur and semi-professional barista Boris Diaw into their available cap room via trade.
"There were a couple of things that kind of universally rang true," Lindsey said. "Experience, physicality, shooting, improved passing, a little more depth at the guard position, a little more depth at the wing position, a little more depth—and not just depth, but experienced depth—at the big man position as well. I think as much as anything, it was just a natural step."
The particular needs those veterans addressed were well worn; Utah had weathered variations of the same shortcomings for a few seasons running. What shifted was the active priority for the Jazz to add experienced, complementary talent to augment what was already in place. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood had all made significant strides. Yet the next step was to be taken with help—a starting-caliber point guard, a bucket-getting wing, and a facilitating big.
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Those three vets fit a pattern of interchangeability too neat to ignore. Hill bears more than a passing basketball resemblance to an actualized Dante Exum, who is set to return this season after tearing his ACL nearly a year ago. Both bring possibility from their athleticism and length; Hill and Exum swing between defensive assignments with uncommon ease for a guard, affording Jazz coach Quin Snyder greater control of matchups across the board. If Exum can settle his game the way Hill has, Utah should be in excellent shape.
As for Johnson: "Joe," Lindsey noted, "is a little bit of a continuance with Rodney and Gordon." Neither of those younger players is screaming for veteran guidance; Hayward has grown comfortably into his game and Hood is about as buttoned-up as a 23-year-old prospect can be. Still they both have plenty to learn from Johnson, who is a master of leveraging his body and strength to maximum advantage. It helps that Johnson can be slotted for a similar creative role on the wing—or even step in as a small-ball big when needed.
Even Diaw seems like a logical analogue for second-year forward Trey Lyles. Snyder noted to Jody Genessy of the Deseret News that testing Lyles was a summer league priority for the Jazz. Consider Diaw as something of a template: clever as a middleman, stretchy to the point of justifying a defense's respect on the perimeter, and flexible enough to defend multiple positions.
There's not only skill, experience, and versatility between those new additions but transposable value. Hill is a more immediately capable variation of Exum; Johnson brings a fitting riff to what Hayward and Hood provide; Diaw fills the same role as Lyles (or previously, Booker) in a slightly different way. These are veterans who can help within the framework of play the Jazz have worked so hard to establish without forcing compromise. This moment of acceleration may come for every young team, but Utah has taken to the occasion with a masterwork of fit.
Hill is the perfect example. Utah didn't just need any decent point guard, but a point guard who could contribute without exacting demands on the ball or the offense. His years in San Antonio and Indiana trained Hill to do just that; he is an ideal, no-fuss complement for any team that likes to run its wings in pick-and-roll as a means to diversify its offense. Of specific interest to the Jazz: Hill's low-risk operations.
"We ranked 25th in turnover percentage last year," Lindsey said. "He's never been a point guard that collects a lot of assists, but we don't need him to with our wing playmakers. We just need him to organize us, allow us to be low-turnover, and continue to bang open shots like he does."
Utah's offense is a long churn of ball and player movement with plenty of opportunity for error. No team in the league last season averaged more passes per game. Measures are being taken internally to examine how the offense breaks down through each stage of the shot clock, but the march to greater efficiency begins with not turning the ball over on 14% of the team's possessions. This is but one area where the Jazz can do better—and where calming influences like Hill can make a notable difference.
"They are all in their 30s," Lindsey said. "But they all take care of themselves and I think they're all at the stage of their career where, one, they are used to, and maybe more importantly two, they want to be a part of a group. Because of that, because of our young guys and some of our primary players, I think we got three guys that are willing to play a role—whatever that may be on a given night."
Logistically, the Jazz were incentivized to move forward now. Hayward will play the 2016–17 season under his last guaranteed season under contract, as the last year of his deal is a player option he will likely decline. Not only does fielding a competitive team give Utah the best possible chance to re-sign him, but using room under the cap now allows the Jazz to improve their roster before Hayward's salary potentially balloons under a new deal. Gobert, too, will be a restricted free agent at season's end and is about to command well more than the $2.1 million he'll make this season. Smart front offices are constantly minding those developments without getting ahead of themselves. Taking one step at a time is not mutually exclusive from watching where you're going.
Regardless, better health alone may have made Utah a playoff team this season. Exum, who had started at point guard, was ruled out for the entire year. Super sub Alec Burks sat nearly two-thirds of the season while Favors and Gobert missed more than a quarter of it. The Jazz see their recent moves as an investment in that premise beyond the means to survive a potential absence.
"We're hopeful that instead of chasing injuries, we'll be able to be a little more proactive with our depth," Lindsey said. "Could we strategically rest Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors and plug in Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw? Or vice versa? That was some of the planning."
This is where Utah's patience has paid off. There have been opportunities over the past year, in particular, to flip young players and draft picks to fill temporary positional needs. Point guard was most glaring; neither Raul Neto nor the since-traded Trey Burke made for a particularly helpful starting substitute. Rather than deal for a pricier placeholder at the cost of real assets, the Jazz tided themselves over with a low-stakes deal for Shelvin Mack. Waiting yielded Hill (a better guard than those rumored to be available), a smart, cost-efficient option.
Even though Utah is still well under the salary cap, that last point is not an inconsequential consideration. Cap space broadens the range of possible trades the Jazz could explore this season, should they choose, and could make a hefty luxury tax difference after potentially re-signing Hayward and Gobert next summer. Playing out the trade market allowed Utah to make plays for the kinds of veterans they needed on below-market salaries in the current financial climate.
"We had to be mindful of—and it's one of the reasons we went the trade route on two of our three transactions instead of just a free agency play with all three—the forecast of our salary cap outlook going forward as well," Lindsey said.
It's always a long game with the Jazz, an organization whose quiet patience has brought them to the cusp of something real. Utah hasn't even made the playoffs since 2012 and yet already there are murmurs in NBA circles over how high in the West they might climb. It's taken years of diligence, an outstanding draft record, and the score of a few form-fitting veterans to reach this point. Yet this is where their natural progression leads—and what promise it holds.