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Key Changes that are helping the Utah Jazz make sweet music

Changing keys in a song, or handing the keys of a franchise over to the “young guys”, or making key changes to a roster to shore up weaknesses. Yes, I’m happy with that wordplay. Shut up, Amar.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

During the course of the offseason, Jazz fans watched the front office in Utah makes a few key changes that were expected to have huge positive impact on the team. Two of those moves already look like great ones, and the third has left a bad taste in the collective mouths of Jazz fans (#UDQM). We were excited for our team to finally be healthy, to finally have depth, and to finally strike a balance between youth and veteran leadership.

From a fan’s perspective it felt like the longest offseason in recent memory, and the upcoming season felt like one that would set the course for the next 5+ years for the franchise. Expectations were high and the stakes were raised.

There were rumors and murmurs throughout the league, and talking heads started paying attention to the Jazz. Our starters and our bench both got noticed as two of the best five-man lineups in the NBA. The moves made by Dennis Lindsey and company were praised by general managers as some of the most underrated and undervalued moves in the league - sneaky-good moves with nothing but upside.

We’re just 4 games into the season, and already we’ve dealt with frustration and elation as fans. First off, the bad news. We saw injuries to our two best players, and yet another injury to our potential 6th Man of the Year candidate, Alec Burks (who apparently just underwent yet another procedure on his ankle). 3 of our top 7 rotation players were out for the season opener. The team’s offense really struggles without these three guys, and we need all of them back and at full strength to be the dangerous opponent we were projected to be this season.

The front office and coaching staff have been silent about the timetable for Burks’ return. Favors is on a minutes restriction and doesn’t look back to form just yet. Hayward won’t return until mid to late November, which means his likely first game back should be around November 23rd, when the Jazz play at home vs the Nuggets. [Edit: it was apparently reported by ESPN that Hayward is pushing to come back by the end of next week. If he’s close to 100% when he gets back, that would be great news for the team.]

Enough bad news for now. Let’s talk about George Hill. The man has been an absolute revelation at point guard so far. He’s a leader, he has the right attitude, and he seems to know when to take over the scoring duties while still keeping his teammates involved. All things considered, he appears to be a perfect fit for this team; the point guard we have so desperately needed since Deron Williams left a dark curse upon the Utah Jazz PG position, a la Voldemort and the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. Hopefully Dante Exum soaks it all in and learns everything he can from Hill.

Joe Johnson turned back the clock against the Blazers, and almost willed us to a Jazz win. He hasn’t quite found his form since the opener (he looked solid vs the Spurs - not great, but solid), but he still looks like a savvy veteran with something left in the tank. His best offense still seems to come from the low post, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of those possessions since the Blazers game. He did have some clutch moments down the stretch against the Spurs to help secure the victory.

Boris Diaw has been a pretty huge disappointment so far, and there’s not much more to say about that. Rodney Hood has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also disappeared for long stretches. Dante Exum has looked quick and aggressive, and has attacked the rim like we’ve never seen. Favors has looked great for small spurts, but he needs to get healthy. Shelvin Mack was dead weight until the Spurs game.

But enough about the offseason acquisitions and our roller coaster of emotions so far this season. I want to talk about the future I see for this organization.

First off, I want to talk about Rudy Gobert. He just signed a 4-year extension with the Utah Jazz, with $90 million of it guaranteed and another $3 million per year in incentives. This is great news for the organization, and it’s great news for the roster moving forward. There is no player option in this contract, so the team has full control over his player rights for the next 5 seasons. And it means that the Jazz lock up the best rim protector in the league for the next half-decade.

To put the importance of 5 years into perspective, in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Golden State Warriors went 23-43, Steph Curry played in 26 games, Klay Thompson scored 12.5 points in 24 minutes per contest, and Draymond Green was drafted later that summer in the 2nd round. Since then, they’ve won a championship, Curry became the first unanimous NBA MVP, Klay has become arguably the 2nd-best shooting guard in the NBA, and Draymond Green is one of the league’s most versatile and formidable defenders. A lot can change in 5 years. Building around talented core players is important. (Curry and Thompson are the only Warriors players from that 2011-12 team that are still on the roster.)

Gobert is our rim protector for the foreseeable future. But just how good is he? Let’s look at the numbers. Last season, Gobert allowed a league-best 41% at the rim, according to Nylon Calculus. The next-best qualifying player (min. 1,000 minutes) was Serge Ibaka, who allowed 43.4% at the rim, and after that is Andrew Bogut (45.1%).

It gets better. Gobert did this while contesting nearly a third (32.8%) of the shots attempted at the rim (for comparison, Ibaka only contested 24.5%). Of players in the NBA who contested at least 20% of shots at the rim, only Gobert, Ibaka, Festus Ezeli, Jeff Withey, John Hensen, and Kevin Seraphin held opponents to under 45% at the rim. Gobert and Ibaka are the only players on that list who played more than 1,000 minutes last season.

Our very own Stifle Tower has led the league in rim protection for the last two seasons, and doing so while contesting a proportionally large percentage of opponents attempts at the rim. His combination of agility, length, and defensive instincts make him an invaluable player for this team.

The French Rejection is not without his flaws, though. He is a good rebounder, but considering his size and length, he should be elite, particularly on the defensive end (career TRB% of 20.5, DRB% of 27.5). He doesn’t box out well and gets pushed around by heavier, more physical players. He should be rebounding on par with guys like Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond, but both of those players have significant rebounding leads over him.

Rudy’s passing and floor vision are OK, but he has had more turnovers than assists in each of his 4 seasons so far. And until we have a ball handler that can throw perfectly placed lobs, his hands need a lot of work. His work ethic and desire to be the best give me confidence that he’s working his butt off to improve in each of those areas. Case in point, he’s shooting 75% from the free throw line this season - something I didn’t ever think he would be capable of doing.

Gordon Hayward is another player who gives me hope for the future of this team. He is the heart and soul of the team, and in my opinion is the 2nd most important player to the team’s success (behind Rudy Gobert). He’s gotten a lot of flak for his inconsistency in the past, but I think that’s based on perception more than reality. Yes, he has a bad game every now and then. Every player does. But last season when the team was decimated with injuries, he was the one constant that we could rely on night after night.

In 80 games last season, Hayward shot 43/35/82 with per game averages of 19.7 points, 5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, and 2.5 turnovers in 36 minutes. In his 12 games without Favors, he shot 48/30/77 with 22.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 2.9 turnovers per game. In his 13 games without Gobert, Hayward shot 42/41/84 with 19.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, and 2.5 turnovers. In 8 games with both Favors and Gobert sidelined, Hayward shot 40/39/86 with 19.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 2.3 turnovers.

His shooting averages across all 33 games without one or both of Favors and Gobert are 44/36/82, which are right in line with his season average, and actually a hair better - while taking more shots and using more possessions. He was the sole focus of opposing defenses and he actually performed better than his statistical averages. Initially I thought there would have been a significant dip in those games, which I why I began looking into the matter in the first place. But Hayward is more consistent and more vital to the team’s success than even I had assumed.

He may not be as flashy as we want him to be. He could be more assertive and aggressive. He has the ability, but sometimes seems to lack the desire, to take over a game on his own. But he’s steady. He’s productive. He’s a Swiss Army Knife player in a league short on those types of players. And he’s considered to be a top 5 player at his position who puts up borderline All Star numbers. Let’s just be glad he’s ours, no matter how underrated and undervalued he may be by opposing fanbases.

What more could Jazz fans ask for? We’ve always loved scrappy underdog players who have more heart than anyone else on the court. Just ask John Stockton.