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Jazz rising high with stellar offseason

George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw are heading to the Utah Jazz. What was the price for those major acquisitions? The 12th pick in this year’s draft for Hill, a cheap (by today’s standards) two-year, $22 million deal for Johnson, and nothing more than cap space and the rights to 2015 second-round pick Olivier Hanlan for Diaw.

Essentially, the Jazz addressed their pressing rotation needs and hardly gave up too much in return given the importance of the skill sets they’ve acquired. They lost defensive energizer Trevor Booker on a two-year, $18.5 million deal to the Brooklyn Nets and traded one of their many point guards, Trey Burke, to the Washington Wizards for a 2021 second-round pick.

Otherwise, they’re deeper, more talented and looking forward to a healthier season.

They’ve upgraded at point with Hill, they have a veteran scorer with Johnson to support Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood off the bench, found much-needed frontcourt spacing with Diaw, and they have more options and versatility because of it all.

The Jazz are easily enjoying one of the best offseasons of any team outside of Golden State so far, addressing needs for a good price to ensure they improve next season. And that kind of improvement could well equal a top five — or potentially even top four — seed in the Western Conference.

Firstly, the trade for George Hill.

Hill receives a great deal of unwarranted hate from basketball fans, more so than most players of his ability. Whether it comes back to the 2011 draft trade in which the San Antonio Spurs traded him for the 15th pick Kahwi Leonard (a Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year), or they just don’t know his game, he’s unfairly underrated.

But Hill is going to help the Jazz immediately, with his length and defense serving as an upgrade over Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto bolstering an already long, imposing starting five. And while Hill may not be the most dynamic passing point in the league, averaging only 3.7 assists per 36 minutes in 2015-16, he shot a career-high 40.8 percent from three with 1.7 makes per game and can drive well enough to deepen the backcourt’s scoring.

The Jazz enter next season needing to see exactly what their 20-year-old Australian point guard Dante Exum has to offer as well, but he can’t be counted on right away coming off an ACL injury. Hill, who may have cost them a lottery pick as a 2017 free agent, gives them depth and a boost at both ends of the floor, and he’s the kind of proven commodity that can help Utah make the playoff jump. His defense and length adds even more ability in a Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert lineup to smother opponents and switch everything like crazy with all the team’s defensive ability.

Then there’s Joe Johnson, who’s coming off a resurgent late-season stint with the Miami Heat to prove that he isn’t just the dramatically overpaid “star” the Brooklyn Nets couldn’t get rid of. With a new team and a sense of purpose to contend, Johnson’s performance soared and so too did his efficiency, resulting in an average of 13.4 points a night in 24 regular-season games on 51.8 percent shooting with a 41.7 percent three-point shot.

Utah ranked just 28th in points per game last season, suffering partly due to ranking dead last in pace (93.3 possessions per game) and having a bench unit that ranked 25th in points per game. Outside of Hood and Hayward, they lacked the kind of wing scoring and major three-point threat that teams need in today’s NBA. Along with Alec Burks playing only 31 games due to injury (a backup whose fit on this team seems uncertain now), that was even more obvious.

Thanks to Johnson’s range, shot creation and post-up game, they have more offense now.

Miami Heat's Joe Johnson shoots before an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

AP Photo/Aaron Gash

As for Boris Diaw, the Jazz’s big-man rotation just added a dynamic they didn’t really have outside of rookie Trey Lyles’ jumper: floor spacing and playmaking.

Inside, the bruising duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are one of the most talented frontcourts in the league that no one really talks about. Favors is powerful in the post and has gradually expanded his range to help average a career-high 16.4 points per game last season, while Gobert was the league’s most smothering defender in the paint, forcing opponents to shoot a lower percentage at the rim than anyone else (41 percent, per NBA.com).

What they lack, however, is great spacing. Lyles showcased his range by shooting 40.3 percent from 16-22 feet and 38.3 percent from three-point range (1.3 makes per 36 minutes), but he didn’t have much help in that regard in his 17.3 nightly minutes.

Now the Jazz have Diaw, a player who possesses a combination of strength and grace as one of the NBA’s not-so-lean players that anyone who watches play can love. The Spurs valued everything about him, from his power and footwork in the post to his smooth jump shot, and similarly to Lyles but far more proven, Diaw is effective from mid-range and can comfortably step beyond the arc.

Along with Diaw’s excellent passing to facilitate from the top of the key to cutters or dish from the post (he averaged 4.6 assists per 36 minutes last season), the Jazz will have a level of playmaking that they weren’t used to at all in 2015-16.

It’s easy to talk about the Jazz rising into the playoffs simply because of these improvements. Yet, if Favors didn’t miss 20 games, Gobert didn’t miss 21, Burks didn’t miss 51 and Exum didn’t miss the entire season, the Jazz could have easily made the playoffs ahead of the Houston Rockets with good health and a defense that still allowed the second-fewest points of any team.

When adding good health, improved depth, shooting, playmaking and spacing, the Jazz could easily soar into the top five teams in the West this season.

The Oklahoma City Thunder just took a stunning fall after losing Kevin Durant.

The Portland Trail Blazers will still be relatively similar to last season after the $70 million signing of Evan Turner.

The Dallas Mavericks once again missed out on all their top free agent targets, instead kindly adjusting the Warriors’ salary cap by taking on Andrew Bogut and a maxed Harrison Barnes.

The Rockets added more offensive firepower with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to complement James Harden, but their defense has likely taken a hit in the process depending on how their effort and rotations work out.

The Memphis Grizzlies are possibly the most improved in the West outside of Golden State after re-signing Mike Conley and adding Chandler Parsons, but none have a more elevated outlook for next season than Utah.

The Jazz were patiently waiting with one of the NBA’s most exciting young rosters, and with a stellar offseason, they have a chance to take a major step forward.

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