Brad Rock: Hayward injury not a deal-breaker for Jazz aspirations

Brad Rock: Hayward injury not a deal-breaker for Jazz aspirations

SALT LAKE CITY — Winter’s first cold gust struck the Jazz last week when Gordon Hayward broke the ring finger of his left hand during practice.

Allen Iverson was right.

Practice stinks.

Shortly after, the Jazz announced their best player would be sidelined several weeks. Indications are he could be out until mid or late November, missing at least 13 games. So the Jazz will start the most-anticipated season in several years without the straw that stirs the drink. Should fans downgrade expectations? Yes.

But should they give up their playoff hopes?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”

It would be silly to despair right now. When it comes to missing key players, the Jazz have survived with a less capable supporting cast than this. Last season Alec Burks missed 50 games due to injury. Derrick Favors was absent 20 games, Rudy Gobert 21, Dante Exum 82. Yet they won 40 games — the most since 2012-13 — and came within one of the playoffs.

Even if Hayward misses more than 13 games, the team should still win more than last year. That’s because general manager Dennis Lindsey flashed the cash last summer. He didn’t stock up on luxury items, but did add Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson, all of whom still have strong upsides.

Providing everyone else stays healthy — and not counting the always questionable Burks — the Jazz are still on track to make the playoffs. Who would a coach rather have available when a key injury occurs, Hill or Trey Burke? Exum or Raul Neto? Johnson or Trevor Booker? Diaw or Jeff Withey?

The preseason has revealed Exum’s capacity to make an important contribution. Favors’ confidence is finally matching his appearance. Trey Lyles has already distanced himself from rookie talk. The oft-injured Burks has never failed to intrigue – or produce when healthy. But any availability by him is a plus. Rodney Hood has made the transition to the pros look easy.

Johnson slipped into Hayward’s vacant spot for Monday’s exhibition game against the Clippers. It wasn’t his best night (1-4 shooting), but he wasn’t a guy the Clippers could ignore, either.

Since it’s early in the year, Johnson won’t be feeling the miles the way he would later in the season. If your star player must be out, it’s better to have it on the front end of the season than when the playoffs loom.

It’s not like the West has eight great teams ahead of the Jazz in the first place. Oklahoma City won’t win as many games without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Age and/or injuries have taken a toll on Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Tim Duncan has sailed into the San Antonio sunset, and Dwight Howard has vacated Houston. Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki is 38.

The Jazz finished last season one game out of the eighth spot. Some experts have projected them to finish as high as second in the Western Conference. That’s overly optimistic, with or without Hayward. But breaking into the playoffs should be no problem.

It has been four seasons since the Jazz made the postseason, six since they won a playoff game. Back then, finishing eighth had fans in a funk. Now it’s a milestone.

All the Jazz players are a year older (isn’t everyone?) but mostly in a good way. None of the core has passed his prime. Gobert could end up Defensive Player of the Year. Favors is no longer the timid giant. Exum is clearly stronger and wiser. If he recovers smoothly, Hayward should have his best overall season, thanks to the addition of new scoring help.

An injury to the Jazz’s star player is never preferable, but it’s sustainable. Fans have a right to cry, but only momentarily. There’s plenty of time and considerable depth to see through the plan to make the team relevant.

By the time the holidays hit, Hayward should be back. At that time, the Jazz won’t be down for the count, they’ll be down for some serious hoops.

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Published at Wed, 12 Oct 2016 00:30:00 +0000