NBA Season Preview 2017-18: The Utah Jazz look to forge a new identity


When teams lose stars, things inevitably change. The Utah Jazz will be no different.

In losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics, the Jazz lost their leading point-scorer and the person who finished second on the team in assists. They lost the player who they’d lean on at the end of games, who during his time in Utah, proved himself to be one of the NBA’s best wings. With him, and the also departed George Hill, the Jazz had the NBA’s 12th-best offensive rating last year, despite not being exactly stacked with offensive talent,

What Utah brought in — Ricky Rubio, rookie Donovan Mitchell, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko — cannot replace what Hayward brought. What it can do, in conjunction with Rudy Gobert and the other remaining pieces, is to help the Jazz double down on one aspect of their identity.

In all likelihood, the 2017-18 Jazz will be defined by their defense. Gobert is a generational talent at center. He’s nimble, blocks shots and controls the paint in a way few centers can. When most players drive the lane and see him, they consider what they’re doing. With him inside, you have the foundation of a top-5 or top-10 defense already in place.

Around him, the Jazz still have the pieces to have a defense close to as good as the one that finished third in defensive rating last season. Hayward is a smart, good defender, but he’s not irreplaceable. Ditto for Hill. On the wing, Joe Ingles will eat up a lot of Hayward’s minutes and match what Hayward did. At point guard, Rubio has long been one of the league’s craftiest, smartest point guards.

Around those two, the Jazz don’t really have any negative defenders at any spot. Dante Exum, as Rubio’s backup, can be solid and maybe can defend shooting guards as well. Derrick Favors isn’t great by any means, but he’s solid enough. Jerebko, his new backup, is solid too. On the wings, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson will play a lot, and while not outright good defenders, are good enough. Behind them, Sefolosha is good at one thing — defense — even if he’s not quite the same player he was a few years back and lacks a jump shot to keep opposing defenses honest. And Mitchell, with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, should be able to come in and defend multiple positions. He’s a rookie, so he will struggle at times, but he projects to be good on defense right away. On paper, there is no position where the Jazz are lacking on defense.

The offense is another question. Rubio can be dazzling as a passer, but his shot could cramp spacing. He also figures to dominate the ball more than Hill did last year because of his style of play. Hood is a question mark, as is Exum, and both should get chances to help replace Hayward’s production. Johnson can only do so much at age. Favors can try to carry the offense, but that too could tighten things up inside. At best, if at least one of Hood and Exum improves and everything else gels, Utah seems like a team that could finish with an offense in the league’s lower third.

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In truth, that might be fine. It may not make them particularly fun to watch on League Pass or even exciting for their fans on a night-to-night basis. But focusing on defense, and trying to win games in grinding fashion, is likely to be the Jazz’s new identity. Anything else would be malpractice considering the team’s personnel.

Trying to win games 88-85 or 84-82 won’t be easy. But it’s the best way forward. This is how the Jazz move on.