Utah Jazz veteran trio reflects on season of growth, return of 'winning culture'

Utah Jazz veteran trio reflects on season of growth, return of 'winning culture'

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost immediately after they all became members of the Utah Jazz by July 5, 2016, George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw collectively became known simply as “the veterans.”

Grouping the trio together that way came with good reason. Johnson arrived in Salt Lake City as a surprise free agent signing after 15 years in the league, seven of which saw him be named an All-Star. Diaw, after being traded by the San Antonio Spurs, joined the Jazz 13 years of experience and a championship ring in his possession. Hill, who came from the Indiana Pacers in a three-team trade, had the least experience, but still had played two more years than any other Jazzman beside the aforementioned pair and had been to the playoffs seven times.

It was the hope of Utah management that the three would help a talented but young core get back to the postseason for the first time since 2012 both by their play on the court and also in the way they had learned to carry themselves as professionals.

Mission accomplished on both fronts. Johnson and Diaw were manning the power forward position at season’s end, while Hill brought the best point guard play the Jazz have had since Deron Williams was traded in 2011 despite various injuries that limited Hill to just 57 games over the course of the regular season and playoffs.

Perhaps just as important, they served as guides as this version of the Jazz entered territory it had never been in.

“When players speak to each other, it’s just a different type of communication and takes place on a level where a lot of times it can be more effective or it at can at least be different,” said Utah head coach Quin Snyder, who himself went to the playoffs for the first time as a head man in 2017. “Those guys all gave us that.”

Additionally, Snyder pointed to behind-the-scenes moments such as Johnson shooting after practice with Rodney Hood, who idolized him as a youngster, and Boris Diaw playing one-on-one with the point guards, as times that the old guys helped the team.

“When you hit difficult periods of the season where those guys had been through that, they had a calming effect,” Snyder said. “Sometimes they played off me, sometimes I played off them, and I think by and large the contribution to the team happened on a number of levels.”

In terms of their production on the floor, each stepped up at different points. Hill came out of the gate strong and was named Western Conference Player of the Week after a seven-game stretch to start the year during which he averaged 20.4 points, five assists, 2.9 rebounds and just 1.1 turnovers per game.

He missed 24 of the next 30 games, however, and 36 overall, including the last three in the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors.

“I loved it,” Hill said of the season as a whole. “I was fortunate enough to be in this position with these guys and get Utah back to what Utah basketball is all about and try to get back to the playoffs. It didn’t end the way I would have liked it due to injuries and things like that, but I guess sometimes it’s a part of the game, but (I’m) happy with what we accomplished. I think as a group and an organization we took a step forward.”

As for Johnson, he wound up playing 78 games during the regular season and averaged 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists in just under 24 minutes of play per game.

Late in the season, he began playing exclusively at power forward as Snyder tried to surround center Rudy Gobert with players who could space the floor, and in the first round of the playoffs against the LA Clippers, Johnson reminded NBA fans of what made him one of the league’s most effective scorers during his prime.

In that series, he averaged 15.7 points in 32 minutes per game and made a last-second shot in Game 1 to give the Jazz their first playoff win since 2010.

“I got a chance to hang out and play with a bunch of young guys and still have that love and fire and desire for the game,” he said.

In speaking of the team as a whole, Johnson called the playoffs “a great experience” in helping the group learn through challenging experiences such as going seven games with the Clippers.

“It was fun, man,” he said. “It was fun to be a part of it, even after the losses, because you could see the changes of attitudes, how people respond and how more focused you are. I was proud of these guys.”

One of the best passers in the NBA overall and especially for a big man, Diaw played in 82 games total, starting 42 of them, and averaged about 19 minutes per game. Gobert’s fellow countryman, Diaw built a strong connection with Utah’s star center both on the floor and in the locker room.

“Even though nobody’s ever happy to lose…pretty happy about this season and the way we’ve been playing, the manner, the consistency over the regular season and even the playoffs,” Diaw said.

As much as the trio helped this version of the Jazz reach the next step in their development, there is some major questions about its future. Most notably, Hill is a free agent who will command significantly more money than the $8 million per year he made from his current contract that will expire in July, but there may be some trepidation on Utah’s part to commit to the 30-year-old long term after the injury problems he had this season.

Diaw is under contract for $7.5 million, but it’s nonguaranteed until July 15, which will give the Jazz some flexibility to trade him before then or not exercise the team option on the deal.

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In the short term, Johnson has one year remaining on the deal he signed last summer and said he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

No matter the veterans’ future, however, they played a huge part during the 2016-2017 season in helping the Jazz become one of the best teams in the Western Conference once again.

“Coming into last summer, you’re like, ‘OK, yeah, we tried to get that winning culture again,’ but you don’t really know if it would happen,” Diaw said. “I think that this season confirmed that this franchise is heading in that direction.”

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Published at Fri, 12 May 2017 18:55:00 +0000