The Golden State Warriors wrapped up a nice tidy sweep of the Utah Jazz tonight, winning 121-95 in Salt Lake to ensure themselves a decent chunk of rest before they take on one of two Texas teams locked in an internecine Western Conference semifinal matchup. The Warriors look as terrifying as they ever have, and another Finals date with LeBron James feels increasingly like an inevitability. Meanwhile, the Jazz didn’t win a game against Golden State, but the sweep says more about the world-crushing dominance of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry than it does about the Jazz, who can leave the season with their heads held high.
All four games hewed to a similar pattern: The Warriors would leap out to a comfortable lead, watch the Jazz claw back into the game, then return them to the abyss with a barrage of threes and fast-break layups. Utah led for just 11 minutes throughout the entire series, almost all of which came in Game 3's ill-fated third quarter, yet it’s not as if they really did anything wrong. Utah played the same way they have all year, overpassing, easing into deliberate offensive sets, and trying to take away three-pointers. The Warriors rotate as well as any team in the NBA, and Utah still got the shots they wanted, for the most part. Aside from a Game 1 stinker, Gordon Hayward was very effective in this series, wriggling through picks to run the offense and getting to his spots. That he struggled to hit shots in the key all series is a testament to Draymond Green and the Warriors’ swarming defensive ability. Utah “held” Golden State to 35 percent from three, and while that is slightly lower than their regular season average, you need to do much more to beat them.
Nobody really expected this series to be much, and the Jazz can’t be ashamed to end up another bug on the Warriors’ windshield. Their season was already a success when they advanced past the Clippers in their first postseason since the last gasp of the dead-end Paul Millsap/Al Jefferson era. Utah is a young team that struggled with injures all season, and they still showed up in L.A. looking calmer and more prepared than a star-laden Clippers team that’s parked their asses in the first round of the playoffs for years. While the Warriors seem set to win championships for another half-decade, the Jazz are in a somewhat more unsettled position. They could easily cement themselves as a perennial tough Western Conference out (it’d be dishonest to call any team besides the Warriors a “contender”) for years, but this is a crucial offseason.
The primary reason the Jazz’s offense works is because they have an diverse cast of pick-and-roll ball handlers who can all shoot and pass on the run. Chief among them are George Hill and Gordon Hayward, who will both be free agents next season. Hayward was Utah’s most important player this year, and he will undoubtedly command a max salary on the open market this summer. Utah seems like a perfect place for him to chill, since he’d get a chance to stick with a franchise that’s slowly built their entire style around his (and Rudy Gobert’s) unique talents in a low-key city where he can play all the Overwatch his heart desires.
Hayward is the sort of two-way wing star that almost every NBA team would want a piece of, and he won’t be short on suitors. Miami reportedly plans to make a big run at him, and you don’t need to squint to see the “So, Uh, Brad Stevens And Gordon Hayward, Huh, Huh Huh?” headlines. Utah can, of course, offer him a bigger pile of money than anyone else, and that tends to trump most other factors in free agency. Utah has the cap space and their on-court bonafides are airtight. However, the last time Hayward sniffed free agency, the Jazz shrugged at him and waited for Charlotte to sign him to a max offer sheet before matching and giving him a max deal. The Jazz seem likely to retain him, but Hayward will definitely hear offers and take meetings. He’s foundational to the franchise, and Utah will be just fine for as long as Hayward is in town, which, honestly, seems like a safe bet. He’s worth the super-duper-ultra max.
As for the rest of Utah’s young players, almost all of them are locked into team-friendly deals. Gobert’s going to start making over $20 million a year next season, but Rodney Hood’s value far exceeds his salary, a healthy Alec Burks is absolutely worth $10 million a year, and Dante Exum only looked better as the Warriors series went on. Their vets are all up next summer, except for Hill and Joe Ingles, who are free agents right now. Ingles will command a bit more than the $2 million he earned this season, and the Jazz should try and bring him back, but Hill is a much murkier prospect.
Exum, Raul Neto, and Shelvin Mack aren’t quite ready to replicate Hill’s steady presence, but keeping Hill seems unlikely. He nearly signed an extension with the team this winter, but he’s reportedly convinced he can get a four-year deal worth over $130 million on the market this summer. Hill is a wildly underrated point guard, who is huge, adept at running an offense on his own, and can stay in front of most every point guard in the league. The Jazz want to keep him, especially since he fits in so well for Hayward and Gobert, but the economic realities of their situation are such that they might not be able to offer him as much money as other suitors. Hill is 31 and his next contract could be the final significant payday of his career. Utah could try and make a play for Kyle Lowry, but signing big-time free agents has never really been a strategy Utah could lean on. After all, they do play in Salt Lake. They’ll need a point guard next year to reach the same heights they did this season, whether it’s Hill or another free agent.
Even if Hill leaves, the Jazz are a team worth believing in. The Clippers might well be headed for the toilet, Memphis looks weaker than they have in years, and Oklahoma City needs a few more players to get back into the West’s top four. If Hayward re-signs, the Jazz will at least have a superstar wing player, the most imposing defensive center in basketball, and a coach who knows how to arrange the constituent parts of a team around them. They play perhaps the least exciting brand of basketball in the NBA, but few teams played seamless basketball like the Jazz did this season. They’ll be back.