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Jazz add defense, versatility with Gay and Whiteside signings

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Justin Zanik has been working to make a team that finished with the NBA’s best record even better for the upcoming year

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Two moves for the Utah Jazz were announced Tuesday. The first, the signing of forward Rudy Gay, greeted fans just after they woke up and checked their phones for the first time. The second, Hassan Whiteside’s decision to come to Salt Lake, came as many in the country were about to get back into bed.

Both of these moves make the Jazz incrementally better. Neither are splashes, but they’re moves to be somewhat excited for. Utah is a better team with better depth and better defense now that these guys are on the team.

Starting with Gay, he’ll be 35 years old when the first regular season games tip off so he’s well beyond his physical peak. And yet, he’s been a plus defender even after his athleticism has waned. B-Ball Index’s LEBRON has him as a minor positive on defense, but most several other catch-all’s paint Gay’s defensive impact as just about elite. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR ranks Gay 11th in D-RAPTOR for last year with D-RAPM ranking him 16th. And per Cleaning the Glass, Gay was in the 97th percentile last year in on/off defensive rating swing with a +9.0.

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Key to Gay’s defensive capability is his versatility. At his age he’s going to be less able to hang with quicker small forwards for long stretches, but Gay could very well be a small-ball five option for the Jazz. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s got enough length and is listed at a rather bulky 250 pounds. In the last two seasons Gay has played about eight percent of his minutes at center and was effective when in that role. Per Cleaning the Glass he had a +7.0 net rating in 2020-21 and a +7.7 in 2019-20 while playing center. Whether Quin Snyder takes advantage of this is something that remains to be seen.

Offensively, Gay is long removed from the days where he was a 20-per-night guy, but he’s at least capable of hitting a 3-point shot and some years he’s done so at an elite rate. Last year he hit 38.1 percent of his threes and over the last five seasons he’s hit 36.5 percent.

Moving on to Whiteside, he’s had an up-and-down career. Last year was certainly more of a down one as he played just 36 games due to persistent injuries. In those game he did appear in, Whiteside played just 15.2 minutes on average and posted his worst averages since he he re-entered the league in 2014-15 after an overseas stint.

That forgettable year overshadows what was a highly productive span of years from 2014-2020. In that six year stretch, Whiteside was a quality defensive and rebounding center (he was the only player to average at least 14 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 blocks across those six seasons). He was never a super-efficient offensive player and despite gaudy block numbers at times was not a top-tier defender, but Whiteside is great at doing the things the Jazz will need him to do: grab rebounds, and maintain some semblance of rim protection with Rudy Gobert off the floor.

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Whiteside is going to get somewhere around 18 minute per night (assuming good health from Gobert) and even in those limited minutes he’ll be a double-double threat and possibly one of the best backup bigs in the NBA. His ability to dominate less capable bench bigs is going to make things a lot easier for the Jazz.