Utah's long journey to relevance

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As their rivals flung themselves from one shiny toy to another, the Utah Jazz sacrificed years building their team, their way. It was a painful process that was supposed to pay off this season. They let Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson walk for nothing, signed only cheap free agents, and swallowed $25 million in dead money from Golden State to snag two additional low first-round picks.

Everything clicked after last season's trade deadline, when the Jazz flipped Enes Kanter, promoted Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum, and finished 19-10 behind a monster-movie defense. Utah nailed almost every step of its rebuild, and they were ready to make a leap in 2016.

Instead, they sit six games below .500, scrapping with Sacramento and Portland for the final playoff spot in the West. The Kings gave away part of their future to splurge on mismatched goodies, but they have DeMarcus Cousins. The Blazers haven't spent one lousy year in the lottery, and Damian Lillard has them neck-and-neck with the meticulous Jazz.

"We don't have that one dominant player," Utah coach Quin Snyder told ESPN.com. "That one guy we can throw the ball to and say, 'He's gonna score.'"

Of course, Utah also hasn't had the team that piqued everyone's curiosity last season. Exum tore his ACL, and he won't play this season. Alec Burks, in the first year of a $42 extension, is out indefinitely. Gobert and Derrick Favors, hell hounds patrolling the rim, have played just 14 games together.

"We became a certain type of team with Rudy and Dante last season," Snyder said. "And as much as we want to be that team again, and play that style, those guys have been gone."

Others have risen in their place. After a slow start, Gordon Hayward appears more comfortable as Utah's alpha dog. Rodney Hood feels out the passageways of a pick-and-roll like an old head, and has seized the crunch-time offense from Hayward in several games. Perhaps most promising is Trey Lyles, one of the most divisive prospects from last year's draft who looks like the playmaking power forward that could space the floor and unlock new sorts of lineups.

"You can see some similarities in the way Trey and Draymond Green play," Hayward told ESPN.com.

Snyder has privately suggested Lyles might model Green's drive-and-kick game, Lyles said, and Snyder is trying to control his optimism about Lyles' recent play. "I like to say Trey has a good nervous system," Snyder said. "And he's clearly different than our other bigs in a way that gives us versatility."

Versatility is a prerequisite to winning big. To gut through four playoff opponents, you need to play big, small, and every style in between. Lyles might one day be Utah's Boris Diaw, just as some small-ball team loaded with 3-point shooters might turn Gobert into a matchup-specific bench player like Andrew Bogut. But that versatility costs money. The Spurs got Diaw on the cheap, and both San Antonio and Golden State squeezed in key bench players only after nabbing stars on below-market deals. The Jazz might be on the verge of an expensive problem.

Utah has at least seven players 25 or younger it might consider part of its core. That core hasn't produced a single winning season, but each member of it is appealing enough that Utah won't be able to afford all of them once their next contracts kick in. Hayward can already hit free agency after next season, just as the cap skyrockets to a record $108 million, and he'll demand a max contract. Gobert can start extension talks after this season, and if he finishes strong, he will enter negotiations confident a max offer awaits on the other end. Favors and Hood are further from free agency, but the Jazz have to project mammoth raises for both -- and possibly a third max deal for Favors, meaning three players that have won basically nothing could suck up 85 percent of Utah's cap. They have a chasm at point guard that Exum might not be ready to fill. Utah's payroll could crack $120 million before factoring in any outside free agents, ritzy territory for a small-market franchise with little history of paying the luxury tax.

"All teams will have to deal with this issue," Utah GM Dennis Lindsey told ESPN.com. "Maybe we'll have to deal with it a little more, with so many young players, and having had some good fortune in the draft. It's going to be tricky for everyone."

Hayward understands that financial realities could break up a team on the rise. "I'm constantly thinking about that," he said. "Contracts are so short now. A lot of our guys are on their rookie deals, and they'll come up for extensions. It all might determine whether or not I stay in Utah."

Utah has acted boldly before in the face of tough choices, and the bold move at next month's trade deadline would be flipping Hayward or Favors as their values crest. Hood and Burks could absorb most of Hayward's playmaking duty. Dealing Hayward now would act as a hedge against his free agency and perhaps land Utah a top-five pick -- one last shot at finding that elusive superstar. The Jazz have to at least think about calling Boston and Brad Stevens, Hayward's college coach, about a deal sending Hayward to the Celtics for the Nets pick, and maybe another first-rounder if Danny Ainge wields his arsenal with the hyperaggression that had Boston dangling four first-round picks for Justise Winslow.

Cold title-or-bust types would favor that deal. You generally need a top-10 player to chase the ring, and that Nets pick, left unprotected, probably has a better chance than Hayward of turning into a top-10 player. Utah's fans might have a hard time digesting another step back in the name of patience, but what exactly would the Jazz be stepping back from? A sub.-500 team with only one stretch of prolonged winning on its resume?

Favors and Gobert have worked hard to mesh on offense, but at heart, they are both rim-runners who belong inside the foul line. If the Jazz feel that Lyles is ready for more, they could sniff around dealing Favors for a real starting point guard. If they're wary of feeding Lyles too much, too soon as a stretch power forward, considering he just turned 20, they could gauge Cleveland's interest in a deal centered around a Favors-Kevin Love swap. Love is flawed, but he might be a better fit in their offense, and there aren't many potentially available All-Stars locked into long-term deals -- a key concern for a free agency backwater like Utah. James Harden was an anomaly. David Griffin, Cleveland's GM, has denied any interest in dealing Love, but Utah could still call.

This sounds good in theory, but barring a "Godfather offer," Utah should pump the brakes on any deal sending out Hood, Hayward, Favors or Gobert. Boston probably isn't trading the Brooklyn pick until after the lottery, and if it lands anywhere outside No. 1, Utah would have to value the certainty of Hayward's jack-of-all-trades game over the unknown of a non-Ben Simmons prospect.

Hayward is really good. He and Hood do the same stuff on offense, but in the 2016 NBA, I want as many wings as I can get who run the pick-and-roll, shoot 3s and defend multiple positions. Utah is already spicing up its slow-poke offense with pick-and-rolls triggered when the Jazz cross half-court, a way to take advantage of the extra space Lyles provides just by standing in the corner:

"We're trying to get away from playing as much through the elbows," Snyder said. "It's a way to make us a little less predictable."

It's not an accident Utah has been jacking more 3s without Gobert, and now without Favors. A simple curl pattern opens up a lot of options with Lyles fading to the corner:

"We know the math," Snyder said. "The needle will tilt toward taking more 3s."

But is there hope for that cramped Favors-Gobert pairing? Favors improves his passing, post game and jumper every season, and the Jazz are hopeful both Favors and Gobert will extend their range. They don't match the blueprint for a modern NBA front line, but if they mix in enough passing, shooting, screening and offensive rebounding, they should score enough to work their menacing magic on defense.

"Just like Golden State made a threat of small ball, we have to make a threat of playing two bigs," Gobert told ESPN.com. (He also said he prefers the nickname "Gobzilla" over both "Stifle Tower" and "French Rejection," a grievous error).

Utah's behemoths also have to prove they can chase small-ball lineups around the perimeter on defense:

"I can guard Draymond," Gobert said. "And then he has to guard me. We are quick enough to play against lineups like that."

The sports science is encouraging. Favors and Gobert are among the two best athletic specimens officials ever seen at the P3 clinic in Santa Barbara, where the Jazz and other teams send players for testing. Favors set its all-time record for total force generated pushing sideways off one leg, a key basketball movement, and he can reach his peak vertical jumping height 45 percent faster than he did as a rookie, said Marcus Elliott, the founder of P3. "And believe me, we've had some beasts in here," Elliott said.

Gobert walked in as one of the most elastic bigs P3 officials had ever observed. When big men jump down off a box and hit the floor, they tend to land with a thud, lose all their momentum and summon a weak second jump on the way back up. Not Gobert. He's so fluid that he eases into the floor, gains speed, and jumps higher the second time, Elliott said.

The Jazz are confident Favors and Gobert at least have a shot scampering against small-ball groups. "You win playing the right style for your players," Hayward said. "The Warriors are the Warriors because of who they are, not because they play small."

Snyder isn't sure you can win a title playing two traditional big men, but that's kind of the point: He wants to find out. "I don't know," he said. "But I will say the Warriors play the way they do because that's what they are best at. We have to maximize what we do well. And we are young enough that our players, including Derrick and Rudy, will evolve."

Hayward and Favors are only 25 and 24, respectively, and they're already on the fringes of the All-Star and All-NBA teams. Look at how DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and so many others add to their game every year, and tell me why it's so unlikely that either Hayward or Favors develops into a top-15 player.

If an opponent runs the Gobert-Favors combination off the floor or strangles Utah's spacing, the Jazz could try Lyles at center in small-ball lineups that switch across every position. Lyles has to bulk up to jostle with centers, but he is already switching onto wings. He will cost Utah if he proves he is up to that kind of burden, but the cost is years away, and Utah might be able to leverage the extra year they can offer Hayward, Favors and Gobert into some relief on their annual salaries.

Utah doesn't need to solve these money problems today. Even if they wanted to, all the injuries have cost them a year of information that would have helped them make hard choices. They aren't sure if Gobert can prop up the defense without Favors, or vice versa, or whether the two can coexist on offense with Exum, mostly a non-shooter today, at point guard.

They could get out of money concerns in a pinch by dealing a player into someone's cap space, and with extra picks in the bag, they would have a chance of replacing outgoing production with someone on a cheaper rookie deal. Those picks are insurance against such a trade, and the Jazz know set-in-stone rookie deals will look even better as the cap leaps. Don't expect Utah to deal them for a short-term upgrade. "Picks are that much more valuable," Lindsey says.

Hell, if they can coax a quality player into their boatload of cap space this summer, they should do it, and figure out the rest later.

What Utah did at the end of last season felt real. The parts work together, especially with Lyles emerging. It sounds loony, and wildly premature, but these Jazz have the vague scent of a team that could transform many years down the line into something like the 2004 Pistons: a mishmash that rises to contention without an alleged superstar, precisely because it has so many damn good players.

Turns out, the Jazz have thought a lot about that Detroit team. "Yeah, it's entered my mind," Hayward said. "I'm from Indiana, so I definitely remember that team. It was a bunch of guys who knew their role and played really well together."

Darvin Ham, an assistant with the Hawks, was a bit player on that Detroit team, and Snyder peppered him with questions about those Pistons when both coaches worked in Atlanta. "I used to talk to him all the time about that team," Snyder said. "They had a unique chemistry. You think about how the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That's our job as coaches -- to create that dynamic."

The Jazz don't need to deal one of their four best players to achieve that vision, at least not yet. What they do need is a much better point guard, even when Exum returns next season. He'll be 21, coming off an ACL tear, and anyone who says they know what he is, or what he could be, is lying. The Jazz will need someone to hold the fort until Exum is ready, and that player has to be better than Trey Burke and Raul Neto.

They're poking around the point guard market now, according to several league sources, and they'll look again over the summer. With Hood and Hayward able to handle the ball, the ideal upgrade isn't an expensive dribbling maestro like Mike Conley. A spot-up guy willing to grind on defense would be perfect, but the best matches, such as Patrick Beverley and George Hill, aren't available. Jrue Holiday would work, but suitors are petrified of his leg issues, and the Pelicans, low on quality young players, are reluctant to deal him, league sources said. Utah showed little interest in Mario Chalmers, a rare missed opportunity.

One place the Jazz might look: Atlanta, where it's starting to feel like the Jeff Teague-Dennis Schroder partnership is approaching its breaking point. Utah won't deal rotation guys for someone on an expiring deal, and Teague has two years left on his contract. A Burke and Burks package for Teague and filler might work for both teams. Utah snares a clear upgrade in the right age range, and it sacrifices a backup and a No. 3 wing behind Hood and Hayward. Atlanta netting Burke softens the blow of losing Teague, and Burks would provide protection in case some rival makes a monster offer for Kent Bazemore in free agency.

That's a dicey deal. Atlanta wants to make another run at Cleveland, and it has had major trust issues internally with Schroder. For Utah, ditching Burks without any assurance Hayward re-signs is a gamble. Teague may not bring enough shooting or defense to fit Utah's point guard model. The most likely scenario might be Utah using its cap space to rent an unused backup, such as D.J. Augustin or Mo Williams, that could punch up the offense and at least push Neto and Burke.

That's not sexy, but the Jazz rarely do sexy, and they don't have to now, unless a can't-miss opportunity falls into their laps. We are always in a rush to break up a good team that lacks a superstar. Let's allow the Jazz to marinate. Let's see what this team is.

Add a real two-way point guard, and the Jazz could get good, and soon. Hayward, Favors and Gobert are probably all better than anyone on Boston, the current go-to "stuck in the middle" team stocked with solid players. Utah has stagnated, but it could still be on the verge of a mega-leap.

"We have talent, and we have work ethic," Hayward said. "We have guys that really want to be good. That's something you can't teach."

10 Things I Like and Don't Like

1. The Willie Cauley-Stein lob show

Well, would you look at the Kings! The scowling circus troupe had won five straight to seize the No. 8 spot before losing Monday to Charlotte in double overtime, and they are outscoring teams by a massive 12 points per 100 possessions in the 256 minutes DeMarcus Cousins and Cauley-Stein have logged together. The spacing is as ugly as you imagine, but when Cousins is on a rampage, quaint concepts like spacing don't matter.

Cauley-Stein has been as advertised on defense, and he's more entertaining than expected on the other end, mostly because the Kings are addicted to throwing lobs that test the limits of his leaping ability and the stickiness of his hands. Even alley-oops that die with Cauley-Stein flying out of bounds or dropping the ball in midair are must-see TV.

2. The Nuggets, moving and grooving

Emmanuel Mudiay has injected some pep into Denver's offense, especially now that the Nuggets can pair him with an emboldened Gary Harris, an advanced passing center in Nikola Jokic and the resurgent Danilo Gallinari. The ball is zipping around:

The Nuggets have scored 111.5 points per 100 possessions with the quartet on the floor, a number that would trail only the Warriors in leaguewide rankings. Keep an eye on Jokic, who isn't 21 yet. He's shooting 55 percent, including 10-of-28 from deep, and he's dishing assists at an elite rate for a big man.

3. Brandon Knight's failed lob artistry

It's painful watching Knight fling hopeless lobs to Tyson Chandler on the pick-and-roll, trying and failing to replicate the chemistry Chandler had with Monta Ellis amid the Mavericks' impeccable spacing.

Knight just doesn't understand the rhythms of a sound two-man game -- the same issue that frustrated Milwaukee's coaching staff. He lofts long-distance lobs when he really needs to take one or two more dribbles in, freeze the defense, and find Chandler with a shorter pass. He still has the score-first habit of jetting around a pick and then crossing back in front of it, right into Chandler's path to the rim.

Knight is only 24, and he'll do better once Phoenix gets its real roster back. But the stasis in this part of his game is discouraging.

4. Golden State, denying entry

On his podcast last week, David Locke, the indefatigable Jazz radio announcer, asked me what aspect of the Warriors hadn't received enough attention. I mentioned their collective IQ, and their mastery of little things that go unnoticed. One example: They are probably the best team at sloughing off of so-so shooters to deny entry passes, as Steph Curry does here, drifting away from Tyler Johnson to short-circuit an entry pass to Chris Bosh:

This is the kind of low-hanging fruit too many teams pass up as they go through the rote motions of what they normally do, instead of adjusting on the fly. Maybe experiencing the intense quarter-by-quarter chess match of deep postseason play attunes players to this kind of thing. This is the team that had Bogut "guard" Tony Allen, after all. Whatever the reason, the Dubs rarely miss a chance to gain an edge.

5. Andre Drummond, too focused on the fluff

Kelvin Sampson, the former Rockets' assistant, introduced me a few years ago to his Fluff Test in evaluating a rim protector's defense. It goes like this: If a shot-blocker's man is on the weak side, away from the ball, how good is that shot-blocker at sussing out the decoy action involving his man -- the "fluff" -- to focus on the ball and the real threat?

That action away from the ball isn't always bogus "fluff," but distinguishing the real from the phony is part of a shot-blocker's job, and a key factor in whether he arrives at the basket in time to alter a shot.

Right now, Drummond is failing the Fluff Test too often. He's watching the ball, or just checked out, and late rotating when drivers knife toward the basket. He also has a bad habit of jumping way too late for an airborne shot that he has a chance to deflect before the ball reaches its apex.

Opponents are shooting 52.4 percent on close shots when Drummond is around, per SportVU data, and given his raw athleticism, that number should be much lower. The first step to improving? Giving consistent, all-out effort on every possession.

6. The Knicks checkered, 1950s throwbacks

Oh baby, are these ever gorgeous. Pick two colors that mesh, and it's hard to go wrong with checkered lining.

7. Omer Asik, lost in space

The Pellies have been experimenting with having The Sweaty One hang out behind the 3-point arc while one of their guards runs the pick-and-roll with Anthony Davis. You will be shocked to learn defenses don't guard Asik when he's out there:

They have Asik's man roadblock Davis' path to the rim, and stationing him so far away removes Asik as a potential offensive rebounder. It does have two mostly theoretical benefits: It's a little harder for Asik's man to double Davis in the post, and if Asik's defender sags way down into the paint, the Pelicans can pivot into an immediate Asik pick-and-roll; with Asik's defender near the rim, a New Orleans guard can walk into an open midranger if Asik's screen gets him any separation.

This would be important if anyone fretted about any New Orleans guard taking an off-the-bounce triple.

8. The Kings, getting low on the pick-and-roll

That's right! Sacto gets the ultra-rare two-likes-in-one-column treatment. If we mock the Kings when they are do dumb stuff, we should trumpet their achievements just as loudly.

A Cousins-Rajon Rondo pick-and-roll should be a slog. Opposing guards can slip under Boogie's screen, freeing Rondo to brick away, and help defenders clog the paint if both Rudy Gay and one of the Cauley-Stein/Kosta Koufos duo are both on the floor.

But George Karl is a smart dude, and he's found an easy way to make chicken salad out of chicken ... well, you know: having Boogie screen at the foul line, or even lower:

Go under, and Rondo is looking at a free throw instead of a 20-footer. Same goes for Cousins if he settles for a pick-and-pop jumper. And if he rolls, or just hovers in space, he needs only one power dribble to bulldoze his way to the basket.

A gentle reminder: The Kings being 20-24 and fighting for a playoff spot does not validate the mess of moves they made over the summer. They dealt away precious draft assets for the right to sign an almost-30 wing shooting 31.5 percent from deep; a career backup who might be their third-best center; and a revived point guard who can bolt in free agency this summer. Worse yet, they could have signed two of them just by waiving players with the stretch provision. Even Tom Ziller, patron saint of Sacto fans, had to log off the Internet in disgust when details of that swap with Philly emerged.

The Kings are winning mostly because Good Cousins is ridiculous, and they have benefited from an unexpected drop-off in the West. They are playing well and playing hard, and they deserve credit for that. That doesn't mean what they did this summer worked, or that it was smart.

9. Pau Gasol's not-so-subtle instructions

Cherish any replay that shows a close-up of Gasol's face as he holds the ball and signals, wink wink, for someone to cut. He has the facial dexterity of peak Jim Carrey. He opens his eyes wide, mouths something very obvious and tilts his head in the direction of the hoop: "Cut there, please!"

It is about as subtle as Kramer's work in the police lineup.

10. Toronto's staggering success

The Drakes have won eight straight, and they've found a bulletproof rotation to weather DeMarre Carroll's prolonged absence: Dwane Casey is keeping either Lowry or DeRozan on the floor with his core four subs -- Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo -- to keep the offense afloat, and it's working beautifully. The DeRozan version of that group is a slight net-plus with a stingy defense, and the Lowry iteration is straight punking fools.

If this keeps up, Casey might have a hard time finding James Johnson minutes when Carroll returns. Johnson is starting in Carroll's place, but sliding him into a regular reserve role would disrupt this happy rhythm. Johnson is a useful player who should get time in most matchups, so it will be interesting to watch how Casey handles this juggling act.