Most preseason prognosticators had the Utah Jazz as a lock to make the NBA playoffs in 2017. Some had them getting home-court advantage in the first round. But the loss of their best player, Gordon Hayward, makes the path to the postseason a bit rockier.
Per the team’s website, Hayward injured his hand during Friday’s practice:
After sustaining an apparent injury to his left hand during today’s practice at Zions Bank Basketball Center, Hayward underwent further examination this afternoon at University of Utah Health Care’s Orthopaedic Center. Following the examination, Jazz physicians Dr. Travis Maak and Dr. Douglas Hutchinson determined that Hayward suffered a fracture of the fourth finger on his left hand.
The Jazz haven’t released a timeline for Hayward’s recovery, but speculation around the Twitterverse has him missing at least 4-6 weeks.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune’s Tony Jones, even that quick a recovery could cost Hayward nearly a sixth of the season:
Nov. 18 is six weeks from today. If Hayward is back on Nov. 19, he will have missed 13 games.
— Tony Jones (@tribjazz) October 7, 2016
The ramifications of this injury are far-reaching. In each of the last three seasons, Hayward has led the Jazz in total minutes, points and steals. He led the team in total assists in two of the last three years.
Making up for the loss of his production, even if it’s only for a few weeks, is going to take a concerted, team effort. Making up for his impact, though, will be harder.
Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert all suffered without Hayward in the lineup last season, seeing their true shooting percentages (TS%) take fairly significant dips when Hayward sat:
Hayward always commanded the attention of the opposition’s top wing defender. And he was often the team’s best playmaker. Without him, easy looks were harder to come by for Hood, Favors and Gobert.
So someone (or more likely, multiple someones) is going to have to fill the void left by Hayward. Here are some likely candidates.
This summer’s acquisition of George Hill looks even better now. Before this news, he was set to be a key defensive cog, a floor-spacer and a generally steady hand.
Now, he’ll be asked to do more, something CBS Sports’ Zach Harper pointed out he’s done before:
Different situation completely but wonder how much you can look to how George Hill played when Paul George was out in Indy and apply to Jazz
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) October 7, 2016
Hill went from 10.3/3.7/3.5 with a 56.3% True Shooting to 16.1/4.2/5.1 with a 57.9% True Shooting in the year PG missed 76 games.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) October 7, 2016
Utah’s generally been among the worst teams in the NBA in terms of point-guard play over the last three years. It couldn’t have picked a better time to add one.
Eight NBA players averaged at least 16 points and eight rebounds over the last two seasons: Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins and yep, you guessed it, Derrick Favors.
With Hayward’s 15 shots per game out of the lineup, Favors is sure to get a few more scoring opportunities. Jazz fans can only hope they come in the pick-and-roll and not in the post.
It’s not that Favors is bad in the post. In fact, he’s above league average (his 0.86 points per post-up put him in the 57th percentile among qualified players last season). It’s just that he’s much better as a roll man.
Favors scored 1.11 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, which put him in the 72nd percentile. It’s not easy to get him those looks when Gobert’s in the game, though. It doesn’t exactly make sense to roll one big man into another who’s already under the rim.
A slight tweak could fix that issue. Assuming Gobert’s hands have improved from last season (maybe premature given some of his drops this preseason), he could slide a few feet out of the paint and stalk the baseline the way Jabari Parker does for the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, if both bigs collapse on the rolling Favors, Gobert can crash in behind him for the drop-off or tip-in.
Regardless of how it happens, Favors is going to have to be more involved in the absence of Hayward.
The biggest chunk of responsibility to make up for Hayward’s absence could fall to Hood. He was Utah’s second-best perimeter scorer last season and was actually more efficient than Hayward in a number of play types.
Hood scored more points per possession in isolations, as a pick-and-roll ball handler, in post-ups and when spotting up. In isolations alone, Hood was in the 94th percentile, scoring 1.08 points per possession.
Now, of course, Hood benefited from Hayward drawing the opposition’s best defender. That’s something he’ll have to face in Hayward’s absence. But his general upward trajectory suggests he can handle it. And being thrown into the refiner’s fire should help the Jazz in the long run.
Hill, Favors and Hood will shoulder a lot of the load, but thriving (instead of just surviving) while Hayward’s out will be an “all hands on deck” proposition.
Dante Exum showed flashes of great playmaking potential against the Phoenix Suns in the preseason. Alec Burks can be an explosive scorer when healthy. Trey Lyles looks ready to be the team’s playmaking 4. And Joe Johnson is no stranger to putting up points.
This is a storm the Jazz can weather. That’s the benefit of all the depth they added this offseason. But the operative word there is “can.” Make no mistake, the loss of Hayward is huge, and these things have a trickle-down effect.
But it’s not time to write the prognosticators off yet.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.