They all remember where they were when one man's choice burned a road map to a half-decade of 55-win seasons: Donovan Mitchell, in his hotel room in Salt Lake City with his sister and mother; Derrick Favors, home in Atlanta preparing for the birth of his son; and Joe Ingles (plus a bunch of Utah coaches) at what turned out to be the most poorly timed team barbecue in league history.
They had inklings Gordon Hayward might leave. The finality still hurt.
"It was a sick feeling," says Ingles, Hayward's closest friend on the team. "It was unreal. It was his team. He's got a house here. He's got a dog. Where's he gonna go?"
Ingles got over it. It still smarts for Rudy Gobert, now Utah's undisputed franchise star -- an all-world defender the Jazz are banking on as a magnet for free agents. "I could feel it," Gobert says. "I was texting him a few days before [Hayward's July 4th decision], and he wasn't texting me back. That's what I didn't like. Just tell me. After five years, trust us, say what you are going to do. But I respect his choice."
Hayward has left Dennis Lindsey, Utah's GM, with the greatest challenge of his career: find a new path to 55 wins that doesn't involve a tanking detour.
The Jazz can't wallow in Hayward what-ifs: What if Utah had known a massive salary-cap spike was coming, and lavished Hayward with a four- or five-year max offer in July 2014 (or an extension the prior fall) -- instead of playing hardball, and then matching Charlotte's offer, which left Hayward a free agent after just three years?
Did they wait too long to give Hayward the keys? Did they make a mistake letting Paul Millsap walk for nothing, removing a security blanket to ease Hayward's transition into an alpha role? Should they have anticipated the worst and tried to flip Hayward to Boston in 2015-16, eighteen months ahead of his free agency, in exchange for a golden Nets pick? (That is a tough ask for a team about to bust through after a slow build.)
The Jazz are moving on. They have no plans to tank. "Our hope is our players grow into larger roles, and we continue a path which best serves the Jazz," Lindsey says. "And that path is to draft and develop."
They tanked once, of course -- in 2013-14, when Millsap and Al Jefferson left, and Utah bottomed out before picking Dante Exum. Injuries have vaporized half of Exum's career, and he has looked out of sorts on offense when healthy. The Jazz hoped Exum would blossom this season after a productive summer. "We are very confident Dante will become an effective NBA player," Lindsey says.
No team wagers on internal development alone. The Jazz own all their picks, and they've preserved cap room for the summer of 2019 and beyond. They will take swings. They could try someday to package chips for a veteran in Gobert's age range.
They hunt draft-day trades. Dealing up for Trey Burke was a dud, but doing the same for Mitchell may have netted a second blue-chipper for the post-Hayward era.
Mitchell walked in with the chin-up bravado of a veteran. He mainlined advice from Utah's revamped medical staff, including tweaking a diet that was already healthy by rookie standards. "I never used to eat salad," Mitchell says. Now he downs the grilled chicken caesar from The Cheesecake Factory almost every day. "I know it's not the best salad," Mitchell chuckles, laughing, "but I'm learning."
Show him something he missed on film -- a pass to the corner, an opening for a floater -- and Mitchell goes out of his way to execute it the next game, almost to a comical degree, coaches say. He dished seven dimes against Chicago last week, two days after a 6-of-19 clanker against Philly. His favorite? This basic swing, he says:
Film-based self-flagellation after that ugly Philly performance revealed an overeager scorer blind to those easy extra passes.
It's fair to nitpick Mitchell's audacious shot selection, and wonder what position he plays -- whether he has the vision to run point, and if not, the size to defend wings. His talent is undeniable. He can already hit off-the-dribble 3s. He has guts. He can pass. He has the north-south speed and explosiveness nobody else in Utah's staid group of basketball sophisticates can bring.
And that's good, because Utah's 9-11 start -- featuring the league's 21st-ranked offense -- has been a reminder that even the most intricate system gets you only so far without singular athletic talent.
Without Hayward, the Jazz rely even more on Quin Snyder's whirring, Euro-infused system of screens, cuts, and drives. He calls it "advantage basketball."
Some players are so good, they constitute a living, breathing advantage. James Harden can walk the ball up, take one ho-hum screen, and destroy your defense.
Utah's players need a head start -- an advantage. Snyder's system runs so that whenever a player catches the ball, he has one.
Rodney Hood doesn't laze into a pick-and-roll with Favors. He waits for Favors to ding Ingles' defender with a back screen. If it hits, someone -- either Hood's guy or Favors' -- will sag back to patrol Ingles. That duty falls on Hood's man, Malcolm Brogdon, who paws at Ingles as Hood curls around Favors with 10-plus feet of daylight just as the ball arrives.
It's not a pick-and-roll so much as a catch-and-roll. Utah runs a lot of those.
They don't give the ball to Mitchell at a standstill. They run him off a Favors screen after a Ricky Rubio-Favors pick-and-roll -- a prelude designed to give Mitchell breathing space.
The first rule of advantage basketball is that you never surrender your advantage. Get a five-foot head start, and you should expand it 10 feet before shooting or exchanging the baton. "You have to keep the advantage," Gobert says. "Punish them."
Hesitation erases an advantage. When Hood or Mitchell comes off a screen and pauses to pound the ball, you see Snyder's exasperation. The coaches have shown Mitchell that one aggressive dribble immediately after a catch covers as much territory as two or three ponderous ones, he says. Ingles will tell you: Decisiveness turns slow players into fast ones.
This stuff isn't unique to Utah, but the Jazz teach it in more granular detail. Hood is a master at faking a cut toward the rim before jetting out for a handoff:
Utah's coaches drill that. It nets Hood open 3s, or draws panicked rotations that unlock clear shots for teammates:
Ingles might be the league's premier non-Ginobili ball-faker. He is an illusionist, almost turning the rock into a sixth teammate:
Believe it or not, Snyder teaches that.
The Jazz have a ton of other idiosyncratic tricks. When a guard finds himself with a plodding big switched onto him, the Jazz instruct him to pass, take several steps back toward half court, and sprint into a return pass. They look like daredevil kids building momentum to jump over something.
Add it up, and Utah leads the league in on-ball screens by a mile, per data from Second Spectrum. They rank fourth in handoffs, and eighth in off-ball picks. When the system works, they generate shots this group of talent has no business generating.
It just didn't work when all three of Rubio, Favors and Gobert were on the floor. Things have loosened over the past six games with Favors at center in small-ball lineups -- a slate of bad defenses has helped -- raising questions about what happens when Gobert returns from injury.
Rubio is an odd fit for a slow, egalitarian system. He spends a lot of time chilling in the corners now. Nobody guards him, mucking up driving lanes for everyone else. "It has been a big adjustment," Rubio says. When he has the ball, every defense ducks under picks so that no teammates pop open.
Rubio is used to big-man partners who make plays from anywhere -- Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns, the Gasol brothers. Gobert is a lob-catcher who needs the ball at the rim. Rubio has surprised him with passes around the foul line.
"We will figure it out," Gobert says. "Some games were easier than others."
Without playmaking bigs, the Jazz have leaned on Rubio to do more heavy lifting in the half court -- a burden that has overwhelmed him at times. "Our team needs Ricky more than any team he has played on," Lindsey says.
Utah has scored just 99.4 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor, equivalent to a bottom-five offense, per NBA.com. They have thrived when Mitchell plays without Rubio. Rubio's splits have been better over those past six games, and Utah needs to sustain the uptick. They face a cartoonishly hard December schedule -- the toughest month any team will play this season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Rubio aside, smart teams switch a lot of Utah's fancy screening, confident the Jazz don't have zippy one-on-one types to exploit mismatches. Even Hood's handle can go awry in those spots. Few opponents fear Gobert or Favors in the post, even against little guys.
Favors is good, but his development -- and his development of skills that don't overlap with Gobert's -- has stalled out. His jumper is so-so, his post game mechanical and overcomplicated. The Jazz historically obliterated teams with that super-big pairing -- until this season, when the shooters who propped it up went elsewhere. Favors has looked more comfortable at center. He gets more shots in the restricted area when he plays without Gobert, per NBA.com.
Gobert's ascendancy has long made Favors feel extraneous. Favors came into last season hoping to sign an extension. Talks never got serious, he says. "They wanted to re-sign Gordon, maybe extend George Hill," Favors says. "And I got hurt. I understand the business part of it. If they had come to me, I'd have been open to it."
It's surprising Utah hasn't traded Favors, and it's unclear if they could get even a low first-round pick (or an equivalent young player) for him now, with his contract expiring. It would take a perfect storm: a team desperate to win, and facing a luxury tax crunch next season. Would the Pistons flip Stanley Johnson and Boban Marjanovic to rent Favors as Andre Drummond's backup? Unlikely.
The Pelicans could dangle their first-round pick if Utah swallows Omer Asik, but with injuries decimating Western Conference rivals, New Orleans may not feel urgency to deal. Utah isn't taking on any Lakers money without extracting a price L.A. shouldn't pay. Ian Mahinmi's deal, running through 2020, is toxic -- even if Washington attaches an unprotected first-rounder.
Milwaukee will search out front-line help as the deadline approaches. They could offer Mirza Teletovic and a future first-rounder, though they might blanch after flipping one for Eric Bledsoe. Boston has no urgent need for bulk.
Denver makes sense now that Millsap is out three months. They are slated to be way over next year's tax. They could package Kenneth Faried (whose contract runs through next season) and a first-rounder for Favors, give Favors most of Mason Plumlee's minutes, and see how he pairs with Nikola Jokic. But with injuries sweeping the West, the Nuggets might want to ride out Millsap's injury without sacrificing a future asset.
Trading Favors would leave Utah with a void at power forward. Maybe it doesn't matter for now. Utah's offense has soared with Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, and even Ingles manning that spot. Joe Johnson will soak up some of those minutes. But none are foundational, long-term options.
It makes you remember Millsap. Critics ding the Jazz about Exum, and for going all-in on Burke. The decision to let Millsap walk has been forgotten. He was just 28 at the time, and signed a ludicrously cheap deal with the Hawks. Utah at that point had no idea then what Gobert might become, and faced huge paydays for Favors and Enes Kanter. Millsap was old for the Hayward-centric timeline. He would have hurt their lottery odds.
But he is damned good. He stayed healthy in Atlanta while seemingly every rotation player around Hayward and Gobert crumbled. He could have bridged the gap between eras.
The new era is here regardless. A core of Rubio, Mitchell, Hood, Ingles, and Gobert is solid. Toss positional designations out the window with Mitchell. He has the vision and bounce to run a good NBA offense one day -- once he balances his game. He is already whipping cross-court lasers with either hand. He is a walking advantage. He won't be Harden, but he could develop into a borderline All-Star-level orchestrator in a few years.
Hood is surging now that Utah has gone smaller. There are holes in his game; he takes too many midrangers, rarely gets to the rim or the foul line, and doesn't sling enough assists considering how often he has the ball. It is easy to suggest Utah cash out for draft picks as Hood heads into restricted free agency.
But he's a 6-8 wing who can handle, shoot 3s, and play decent defense. Those are rare, and market dynamics should help Utah retain him on a team-friendly deal. Few teams have cap room, and a bunch of those have incumbent (and expensive) shooting guards. (Hood can toggle between both wing spots, but teams get nervous conceiving of him as a full-time small forward.) The Hawks, Bulls, and Sixers don't seem smitten with him.
That core is also just solid enough to trap Utah in mediocrity through Gobert's prime -- even if Exum or Mitchell pops. The Jazz have to get creative, and that includes hunting bigger free-agent game than they are used to. They are already trumpeting the power of Gobert as recruiter -- a star who doesn't need the ball, and cleans up messes on defense. Johnson cited Gobert in choosing Utah two summers ago, team sources say.
"The reception we are getting in free agency has significantly changed in the last two years," Lindsey says. "Most players realize Rudy is a top-15 player who can anchor a defense."
It's impossible to see a top-15 player signing in Utah. It is literally unprecedented. Free-agency coups were unprecedented in Boston, too, but Utah faces more severe market-based disadvantages.
They have to nail every move on the margins. Hit enough, and the proceeds will either Voltron into another deep, talented roster, or grease a mega-trade down the line. Net average return, and enjoy the ride on the treadmill of mediocrity.
The Jazz are using this season to see what they have before doing much serious roster surgery beyond potentially sniffing out the market for Favors. The players think they will make the playoffs, and they are using Hayward's departure as fuel.
"Him leaving," Mitchell says, "gave us that chip on our shoulder."
Gobert refuses to concede any step back.
"Oh, I'm still confident," he says. "We are way better than our record."