The Utah Jazz have been building toward something for a couple of years now. It isn’t a certain number of wins or even necessarily a return to the playoffs. What they’ve been building toward is expectations. Expectations in the NBA don’t just come from being a good team. They also come with being a team you expect to play the right way.
As the Jazz have been building toward this, development of their young core has been key. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood growing up through the pains of learning the NBA has been instrumental. But the Jazz always knew they needed a veteran presence or three to round out the entire attack. Even if young guys like Dante Exum and Trey Lyles found their way, the Jazz would need a steady hand to execute a brilliant building plan from Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder.
The Jazz brought in Boris Diaw in a trade and signed Joe Johnson to a short two-year deal. But the biggest move of the offseason might have also been the most lopsided move of the offseason. They traded the 12th pick in the 2016 draft in a three-team deal in exchange for George Hill. It was at that point that executives around the league knew the Jazz were going to be a team you had to tango with in the postseason in 2017. The league’s stingiest style of play and one of the best defenses around finally upgraded at point guard.
With Exum missing the entire 2015-16 season because of a torn ACL, the Jazz were desperate at the point. They eventually ended up with a three-option stable of point guards that included Shelvin Mack, Trey Burke, and Raul Neto. Essentially, the Jazz had three third-string point guards rotating through heaving point guard minutes. Snyder often went to the “triple-wing” lineup in which he’d play some trio combination of Hayward, Hood, Alec Burks, and Joe Ingles.
Hill solved that problem and then some. His addition to the Jazz meant only health could get in their way of being a top team in this league. To some degree, that’s still an issue. Hill has missed 27 games with a couple of injuries — most often an excruciating toe problem. Derrick Favors has been playing on one leg since last season. Rodney Hood has missed almost 20 games. The Jazz still find themselves 43-25, a full three games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 4 seed.
When Hill is in the lineup, the Jazz are spectacular. Utah’s record is 29-12 this season when Hill plays, which is a 58-win pace over the course of 82 games. They’re a full 10 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off. Hill turns 31 years old in May, but already being in his 30s isn’t going to keep him from being a big-ticket player this summer when owners open up their checkbooks.
Hill’s upcoming suitors
Assuming there’s no funny business in the Bay Area, the top free agents this summer will be Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, and Paul Millsap. Griffin and/or Paul moving would be unexpected and a big shift in the conference. It would essentially eliminate the Clippers from hoping to be a top team in the West. Lowry will likely re-sign with Toronto, unless they flinch at giving him all that money. After Millsap, the biggest question becomes whether or not Hayward will re-sign with the Jazz or attempt a reunion with Brad Stevens.
Hill re-signing in Utah would likely signal Hayward staying, as well. The Jazz point guard recently declined an extension that would’ve given him a pay raise for this season and then extended him for three seasons after that. The maximum deal the Jazz could offer in a re-sign and extend was about $88 million over four years. League sources expect Hill to command a four-year deal for around $100 million this summer, if not more.
After those big five free agents are settled, Hill will battle guys like Serge Ibaka and Jrue Holiday as the top unrestricted free agents in 2017. While Hayward is deciding what he wants to do, other teams will certainly try to poach Hill from Utah. League sources believe in addition to the Jazz hoping to re-sign Hill, that the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves will make a push to bring Hill to their respective teams.
The Spurs need a little help with their salary cap situation, but they would have Tony Parker and possibly Pau Gasol in expiring deals for next season to trade. They would also likely have to say goodbye to Dewayne Dedmon (player option) and Jonathan Simmons (restricted), who will be free agents this summer. But a reunion with Hill back to the Spurs is something that could form a dangerous trio between Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Hill. By the time Hill’s contract is up, Dejounte Murray would be more than ready to take over. And with Hill’s versatility, the Spurs could play a lot dual-point lineups.
As for the Wolves, signing Hill would likely mean a trade of Ricky Rubio. Rubio’s cap friendly $29 million deal over the next two years should be easy to move on draft night or in the first week of free agency. But Tom Thibodeau also wouldn’t need to move Rubio in order to offer Hill a big contract. There would just be a logjam at the point position with them believing in Kris Dunn long-term. Tyus Jones is also on the roster and has had positive contributions in limited minutes. The Wolves also covet a defense-capable stretch 4, which would probably be a target in a potential Rubio trade.
The Jazz desperately need to keep Hill
If the Jazz aren’t able to re-sign Hill before Hayward makes his decision, that could end up being a disaster for them. Hill and Hayward aren’t a package deal in Utah, but one signing looks good for retaining the other. Should they both stay and command large deals, the Jazz would likely decide to move Derrick Favors and Alec Burks’ deals this summer. Burks is owed just over $22 million in the next two years. Favors makes just $12 million next season, and his injuries the last two years are a bit of a concern.
Joe Ingles will be a restricted free agent for them. His play this season should command eight figures per year, and the Jazz love the impact Ingles has on both ends of the floor. Some of their best lineups feature Ingles. Being able to retain Hill, Hayward, and Ingles this coming summer would be a huge win for Utah.
The Jazz’s best lineup comes with Hill, Hayward, Hood, Gobert, and a versatile 4. Put Diaw with that quartet and the Jazz outscore opponents by 29.9 points per 100 possessions. Switch out Diaw for Joe Johnson and they’re a +31.5. Even put in the underperforming Trey Lyles and they’re a +20.5. Plug (the injured) Favors into the power forward spot and the Jazz are a -3.1 points per 100 possessions. Although if Favors can get healthy, you’d expect that lineup to surge as well.
For Hill, he’s having a career year despite the toe issue. He’s giving the Jazz his career best in points per game (17.1), field goal percentage (47.9), three-point percentage (41.0), and true shooting (60.5 percent). Exum has been getting better as the season progresses. However, Utah would rather not have to hand over the keys to the team to him next season, although it is encouraging to see the lineup of Exum, Hood, Hayward, Diaw, and Gobert is a +30.9 this season.
Hill’s addition to the Jazz has given them that leap to being a dangerous team in the playoffs. And that’s all without really having ideal floor time to maximize their chemistry together. To lose him this summer would remove exactly what the Jazz have been building toward: the expectation of them being a team nobody wants to play when it matters.
All stats via NBA.com.