Big questions loom — Hayward? Hill? Ingles? — but Jazz confident going into offseason

Big questions loom — Hayward? Hill? Ingles? — but Jazz confident going into offseason

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a slew of injuries, the Utah Jazz had their best season in years and managed to reach their own high expectations.

Get 50 wins?

Even better: 51.

Make the postseason?

Even better: Second round.

Individual accomplishments?

Those too: Gordon Hayward ended up an All-Star and Rudy Gobert led the NBA in blocks and defensive win shares.

While that’s fun and all, there’s an even more exciting part if you ask Gobert.

“There’s a lot of room to get better,” Gobert said. “I’m going into next year thinking, ‘Why not win 60 games?’”

The Jazz became only the fifth team in NBA history to improve their win total from the 20s (going 25-57 in 2013-14) to the 30s (38-44, 2014-15) to the 40s (40-42, 2015-16) to the 50s (51-31, 2016-17) in consecutive seasons this past year, and reaching the 60s in the ensuing year would be another historic leap.

While other players and front-office personnel didn’t talk about elite win totals, the feeling around the organization at exit interviews this past week was one of excitement, optimism and fraternity.

“I really feel confident about the future,” Gobert said.

As bright as the future appears to be, the Jazz’s blue sky could quickly be filled with an ugly, dark storm cloud if things don’t go their way in free agency this summer.

Hayward, who continues to get better seven seasons into his NBA career, will likely opt out of the final year of his contract and become a highly coveted unrestricted free agent.

George Hill, who was terrific as the team’s point guard when he wasn’t battling thumb and big toe injuries, is also a free agent who’s bound to have a variety of suitors.

And Joe Ingles, who developed into the Jazz’s best 3-and-D guy over the season, will be of interest to teams as a restricted free agent.

The Jazz also have decisions to make on Boris Diaw (team option) and with free-agents-to-be Shelvin Mack and Jeff Withey.

“We have an important offseason in front of us and we intend to be aggressive in building on the success of this year,” Jazz president Steve Starks said. “(There are) a lot of things we want to continue to do.”

Not everybody will be back, of course, but the prevailing sentiment among those who just wrapped up the most successful season in quite some time: Let’s keep this together.

“I really enjoyed playing with the guys here. I think we created a heck of a bond: me, Gordon and Rudy,” Hill said. “We’ve created that type of bond where it’s fun to play with. We’ve got a great coaching staff and the coach believes in us and pushes us every day. …

“Let’s stay together, build on what we’ve done this year,” Hill added. “Hopefully we can do that.”

Ingles, who’s come to love Utah (and vice-versa) during his three seasons here, agrees.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning,” the Aussie guard/forward said. “You want to win. You want to be a part of a winning team. The next step is keeping that team around and getting healthy and seeing what we can do.”

Gobert is hopeful that Hayward will keep things rolling in Utah, so they can finish what’s been started.

“For me, I don’t want to see him leave because he’s a big part of what we’ve been building,” said Gobert, who’s played with Hayward for four seasons. “We’ve been through a lot. He’s a big part of what we do and I’m excited for him, for what the team became and what the team can become.”

As it stands, Gobert is slotted in as the Jazz’s top earner next season. The Stifle Tower will make $21.2 million as his four-year, $100-plus million deal kicks in.

The Jazz have only eight other players who are certain to be under contract with them next season, barring a trade: Derrick Favors ($11.8 million), Alec Burks ($10.6 million), Joe Johnson ($10.5 million), Dante Exum ($5 million), Trey Lyles ($2.4 million), Rodney Hood ($2.4 million), Raul Neto ($1.5 million) and Joel Bolomboy ($1.3 million).

The returning Jazz players’ salaries are just over $67 million combined. Hayward’s salary is projected to begin in the $30 million range, leaving the Jazz about $25 million below the tax level ($121 million) and just under the $101 million salary cap. (There is an outside chance that Hayward will become eligible for a designated veteran salary boost, which would give him a huge financial incentive to stick with Utah. However, he’ll have to be named to one of the three All-NBA teams in order to qualify for that $6 million raise, and that scenario seems like a longshot.)

If Hayward is retained, it might get tricky for the Jazz to also re-sign Hill and Ingles, depending on the type of contracts that are sent their way from other teams.

Ideally, Utah would like to have all three players back, giving the team continuity with its leading scorer, security with its point guard position, and added depth on the wing.

In addition, the Jazz will have two first-round draft picks — theirs (No. 24) and Golden State’s (No. 30) from a three-way trade made in 2013. Utah also has a pair of second-round selections (Nos. 42 and 55).

While the Jazz are in a good position with assets and cap space, some tough decisions will have to be made.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder is taking a positive mindset into this transformative offseason, which also includes a $125 million arena renovation and a massive makeover of the practice facility.

“I think it’s exciting, to be honest with you, with all of the changes, improvements, innovation,” said Snyder when asked if this was going to be a challenging summer.

Like everyone else in Utah, Snyder is hopeful the summer includes a new deal — certainly to be a max contract — for the team’s only current All-Star player. The Jazz coach likes the position the team is in to keep Hayward, too, considering all they’ve been through together and because Utah can pay him more than anyone else (an extra guaranteed year).

“I think without getting too specific to the whole situation, it will play itself out,” Snyder calmly said. “Regardless of where Gordon decides to be, I think Gordon knows how much he’s appreciated here and how the fit’s been. It’s been great for him. We certainly want him to continue here. There’s lots of good things happening here. There’s lots of momentum.”

Snyder pointed out that the first round of the playoffs epitomized the Jazz’s entire season. They experienced injuries, disappointment and various other challenges but still managed to gut out an impressive victory after a good fight.

But if the seven-game series win over the Los Angeles Clippers showed them how far they’ve come, the four-game sweep by the Golden State Warriors revealed where they need to go.

Losing Hayward would be a big step backward in that process.

Utah needs more All-Star-level talent, not less.

That infusion of talent is in the team’s plans.

“There’s just a unified vision for where we want to go,” Snyder said.

While some point to Boston as being a potential landing spot for Hayward because of the former Butler player’s relationship with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Snyder and the small forward have grown close as well. Snyder and other Jazz coaches, including former Ute Johnnie Bryant, have played an integral role in Hayward’s growth over the years.

Hayward’s evolution into a legit go-to guy this season didn’t catch Snyder by surprise.

“I won’t say that Gordon’s improvement and role is surprising or accelerated,” Snyder said. “It’s just been consistent. … For him to continue to do that (improve after the first couple of NBA seasons) speaks to his commitment and his talent, frankly. You can’t get better if you’re not talented.

“In his case,” he added, “I could see myself saying the same thing next year. I think he’s that good.”

Hayward’s standout play during the playoffs offered more reasons for the Jazz to want to keep him in the fold. He held his own against Kevin Durant and the loaded Warriors and mostly excelled against the Clippers.

“I think we saw in the playoffs a Gordon Hayward that was even on a higher level than the guy in the regular season,” Snyder said. “We’re talking about a guy who was an All-Star. To raise your level that visibly … I think the moments and the competition brought the best out of him.”

As for Hayward, well, he isn’t giving many clues as to what the future holds in store — in part because he said he doesn’t know and didn’t think about it during the season. Teams will be able to formally negotiate with him and his agent on July 1 (or June 30 at 10 p.m. MT). Players can sign free-agent contracts on the morning of July 6 after a six-day moratorium.

“I’m definitely going to take some time off, get away from the game a little bit, enjoy time with family, try to get my body back to 100 percent and recover, and deal with the next chapter of what’s going to happen,” Hayward said the day after the Jazz were eliminated by the Warriors. “It’s hard to think about right now.”

Hayward pointed out again that he’s fond of the Beehive State.

“It’s been so much fun for me here in Utah and kind of growing up here starting a family — growth from a basketball standpoint, growth from a man’s standpoint,” he said. “I have nothing but love for everybody here in Utah.”

Hayward said he’ll bounce around from his Utah home and his vacation home in San Diego, but he won’t be able to work out at the practice facility like he did daily last summer because of construction.

“I definitely plan on working just as hard if not harder because once you get a taste of the playoffs and a little success like that, it makes you want to work even harder and go further,” Hayward said. “I’m looking forward to this summer. I’m looking forward to getting better as a player and coming back next year ready to go.”

This will be considered a very successful offseason for Utah if he comes back next year ready to go in his No. 20 Jazz uniform again.

Diaw isn’t sure what his future is with the Jazz, who hold an option for the $7 million he’d earn next season, but he’d like to return. He’d also recommend Utah to any potential free agents who might consider joining the team.

“It’s a great nightlife,” Diaw said, poking fun at comments made by a couple of Warriors players about the lack of entertainment options in Salt Lake City. “I love living here. I think Utah is a beautiful state.”

As for basketball, Diaw credited the Jazz for having great potential, a professional franchise and management, and “a very hungry team” that wants to win and to improve the culture.

“That showed this year,” Diaw said. “This season confirmed that this franchise is heading in that direction (of a restored winning culture). lt’s definitely a team with high expectations for the future.”

Johnson, who’s played in Boston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Miami and Utah during a 16-year career, surprised many by signing with the Jazz last season. He has one year left on his contract and hopes to help the franchise attract players if possible.

“Whatever is needed from me as far as telling guys about my experience. I’ve played in some great cities. Utah’s a great city as well,” Johnson said. “I thought it was a great mix of veteran guys and young guys. I thought it was a great recipe for a successful season.”

Johnson also wants to see the team reunited next fall.

Comment on this story

“When we reach a point we reached this year, the second round of the playoffs, I think the sky’s the limit for us,” the seven-time All-Star said. “Just one year of us being together. We’ve had a pretty good season. Fifty-one wins, that’s pretty good.

“We all sit around and talk,” he added. “I hope whatever happens has to happen for those guys to cone back. I’m rooting for them.”

If the Jazz are nervous about losing Hayward — or Hill or Ingles, for that matter — and taking a step back in their rebuilding process, they’re not showing it.

“It’s a great opportunity in front of us,” Starks said. “It’s an opportunity to continue to tell our story, so I think we go into it (the offseason) with confidence as much as anything.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Published at Sun, 14 May 2017 03:45:00 +0000