The Utah Jazz front office had to make some tough decisions. It’s always tough in the off-season. But last off-season was particularly difficult because it was when the team decided to take off the training wheels. The move to go from a “developing” team to a “win-now” team is significant. You can’t do both effectively enough at the same time, so there is a real switch that needed to be made. And Dennis Linsey and company did precisely that with the moves they made in the off-season.
Utah traded away a lotto pick right before the NBA Draft in order to gain veteran point guard George Hill in a three-way with the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks (which moved Jeff Teague, and added Taurean Prince respectively). That trade was completed on July 7th.
That very same day the Jazz traded for Boris Diaw, sending away the draft rights to Olivier Hanlan and a TPE to the San Antonio Spurs (which helped them sign Pau Gasol).
The very next day, July 8th, saw the Jazz sign veteran Free Agent sharpshooter Joe Johnson out of the blue.
In one fell swoop (*kinda) the Jazz went from young team with lots of young players and assets to a team that had reloaded with hardened vets. The training wheels came off. The winning wheels came on. (Dude, it’s 5:02 am. I can’t analogies now.)
The Utah Jazz went from a team that missed the playoffs on the last day of regulation in 2015-2016 to being a team that just added three wise men, and were locks for the post-season in 2016-2017. And that’s precisely where we are today.
With the rotating cavalcade of injuries these three players, Hill, Diaw, and Johnson, were all the more important.
- George Hill: the starter at point guard, who log 1544 minutes in 49 games (and 49 starts), 31.5 MPG
- Joe Johnson: a versatile weapon, he logged 1843 minutes in 78 games (14 starts), 23.6 MPG
- Boris Diaw: the rotund joyman ran for 1283 minutes in 73 games (33 starts), 17.6 MPG
This team would have 51 wins without them. Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert get the most press. But this still is a team game, after all. And the team game is something these three wise men know so much about.
[Trivia Break: Hill, Johnson, and Diaw contributed 517 of the team’s 1651 assists this year, and only 241 of their 1119 turn overs. That’s 31.3% of the times while only turning it over 21.5% of all the turn overs. Furthermore, they had a cumulative 2.15 to 1.00 Assist to Turn over ratio!]
Each of these players add something vital to this team.
Hill is a legit starting point guard (see ya John Lucas III, Diante Garrett, ancient Jamaal Tinsley, and so many others), who has played in 75 playoff games and logged an impressive 2562 minutes in the post-season. His teams have advanced six times in seven years - twice going to the Eastern Conference Finals. He has played in the playoffs with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. And he has started 64/75 games there.
But he’s more than just his experience. He’s an active, occasionally assertive, starter in a conference where the playoffs boast of Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley, and Damian Lillard as lead guards. His name may not ring out as well as their’s do, but he does have a 6’9.5” wingspan and the defensive training to make these more highly regarded guards have off-nights.
He runs point on offense and on defense, directing players and hurting the other team. He has never shot more threes per game than he had in 2016-2017 (4.8 per game), and he did so while shooting his second best ever career 3PT% (.403). Yes, he’s in a contract year, but there’s more to it than that. He’s a good fit for this system.
And he’s a great fit for this roster, getting easy looks all day because of the massive top of the key screens he receives from Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Boris Diaw. He also penetrates and dishes adeptly - he finished with his third highest APG value of his career (4.1 apg). And he had a career high in PPG as well (16.9).
This offense allows him to pick and choose when to be assertive. And that suits his temperament. With Indiana sometimes he’d be asked to light up like he had a switch, and he wasn’t a microwave oven. With Utah he’s allowed to slow burn to be hot when he’s hot, and be able to burn the other team - not get in the way of guys like Paul George or Lance Stephenson who may not know how to share the ball quite like Gordon Hayward can.
Only 30 years old, this wise man has many years left to play. If he plays like he has this past season, there’s no way not to call this the gift that keeps on giving.
The Jazz are a defense first team. And at times this team can’t seem to figure out what it’s doing on offense. Joe Johnson knows what to do on offense. He has over 20k career points. And he’s got a few thousand more just in the playoffs. He’s clutch, and while he has lost a lot of tread on his tires, he still has the traction to use some of his tricks.
Iso-Joe is 35 years old and has been in the NBA since, crap, dude was drafted in a pre-9/11 world. He has been a playoff fixture, playing in 101 games in the post season (starting 95). And he’s played 3884 minutes between the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, and Miami Heat. He is known for his clutch shots, but what’s probably more clutch has been his ability to continue to evolve his game. He used to be a PG/SG, and has moved through all the combos up until this point where he’s a SF/PF.
He can still dribble, find the open man, break down a defense, post up, spot up, drive, get to the line, and play a little defense. And on this Jazz team with nearly 200 man-games lost to injury, the Jazz have needed all of it.
Clutch three point shooting? Off the bounce jumpers? The seven time All-Star has probably been the best ever UFA signing by the franchise. And he’s shooting a career second best .411 from downtown this year. As a power guard / stretch four that’s awesome. (And really, very few guards are 240 points heavy; and very few forwards can dribble like he can.)
Speaking of having way too many skills we have Boris Diaw. Diaw, referenced as “The smartest basketball player I’ve ever coached,” by former COY winner Mike D’Antoni this past off-season on NBA TV, is basically some strange animal built for basketball. He’s like a positional monotreme. The parts don’t seem to follow any rules, and there’s no overall unifying theme to what he can do - but he can do almost anything.
And he’s been so instrumental in helping out all of the younger players he’s on the court with. Professor Diaw has been schooling guys like Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum as much this season as he has been schooling his defenders.
Boris has just so much to teach, though. He’s been to the playoffs with the Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Bobcats, and San Antonio Spurs - where he greatly contributed to a championship in 2014. Diaw’s ability to fill in with any given task, and make it his own, has been phenomenal.
Which makes sense, coming into the NBA the French version of Magic Johnson had the size, athletic ability, and all-around game to be one of the best ever. From anywhere. In the NBA he found a great niche as a face-up big who could use his talents and court vision best, but he later on found a rut, and a lack of motivation as well until he was re-united with countryman Tony Parker. Being teamed up with Gobert has made both of them better as well.
But it’s still clear who is senior to who in that relationship.
Diaw has been a steadying influence this season with all the ups and downs. And along with Johnson and Hill have really transformed this team of “maybe oneday”s to “why not today?”s.
The Fourth Wise-Man: Joe Inlges
It’s hard not to also talk about Joe Ingles, though. Yes, he wasn’t an off-season acquisition by Dennis Lindsey in the summer of 2016. And as a result, he’s not one of the sojourning Three Wise men. But Ingles has, at times, looked like the best damn player on the court.
He’s the youngest, barely by a few months, but his years of playing internationally (something he has in common with Diaw) mean that he’s much more than just his NBA years. Joe’s never been to the NBA Playoffs. But I don’t expect him to have any jitters when he does lace them up tonight.
Like Hill, Johnson, and Diaw, Ingles is a multi-tool player. He’s versatile, and plays on both ends of the court. He can rumble into the lane and score like Boris. He can dig out steals and make the right pass like George. And he can flat out hit open shots like he was in an empty gym by himself like his namesake can.
While Diaw is like a professor on the court, and Johnson is a professional, Ingles is like a TA. He may not have the same status, but he’s there to help you out, and make everyone do their job better (be it teaching or learning).
So the three wise men + one have been great this year. After all, 51 wins doesn’t happen by accident. And it rarely happens when you miss 190+ man-games to injury in a season. But it happened this year.
And we are blessed to have these Three (+One) Wise-Men.