We’re getting close to the halfway point of the NBA season. By now, the ‘noise’ of small data sets has settled down and we can now view distinctive ‘tiers’ within the NBA, i.e. groups of similar teams that are following similar paths. Teams can still move from tier to tier over the remainder of the season, and the trade deadline looms large, as well. But barring significant trades or improbable hot streaks (think last year’s Blazers, who rode an 18-4 stretch in January and February to overshadow their 26-34 the rest of the season), teams will be the same after 40 games as they are after 82. There are multiple versions you can make of these tiers, depending on the parameters you set and the what you’re wanting to define (i.e. whether you’re grading solely on a current season’s performance or how a team is set to compete for the next several years), and teams can be placed in a wide variety of them. Recognizing these tiers is imperative for judging a team’s actions and decisions over the rest of the season. With trade rumors starting to swirl with the deadline approaching, that perspective is absolutely necessary. For the Jazz, it might be more necessary than any other team in the NBA.
The elite tier of the NBA is easy: the Warriors and Cavaliers. These two teams are inarguably a step above everyone else in the NBA. The next tier is graded against the elites. The Raptors, Spurs, and Rockets are all inferior to the Cavs and Warriors, but they each pose the greatest threat to a third straight Cavs-Warriors Finals. The next tier is where we find the Jazz, as well as the Celtics, Hornets, Clippers, Thunder, and Grizzlies. These teams are all flawed and probably won’t go too far in the playoffs, but they’ll be tough outs for whoever they face. The next tier is best referred to as the ‘Eastern Conference playoff contenders that probably wouldn’t be contending for a playoff spot if they were in the Western Conference’. Here we find the Bucks, Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Pistons, and Wizards. The Knicks could arguably be placed in this tier, too, but I view them more in the next tier with teams that made offseason moves designed to make the playoffs but are currently falling flat on their face. The Knicks are joined here by the Blazers, Mavericks, and Magic. The Bulls are also in danger of falling into this category. The next tier is of teams that don’t have a ton of hope of contending for the playoffs but are at least fairly well positioned to do so in the near future, either with young talent or draft picks. This tier is home to the Timberwolves, Nuggets, 76ers, Lakers, and Suns. The final tier is full of floundering teams that don’t have a ton of current assets to be able to compete in the near future. Teams like the Nets, Kings, and Heat reside here (the lack of an eighth ‘good’ team in the Western Conference complicates these tiers, as usually, the Kings wouldn’t be in the 8th spot with 15-20 record. They might be ‘contending’ for the playoffs, but that still doesn’t mean they’re a quality team).
The other alignment of tiers to be mindful of in regards to the Jazz is the two tiers of the Western Conference. At its most basic, the Western Conference can be split into seven good teams and eight bad teams. The Jazz are firmly entrenched among the quality of the Western Conference this season, and unless someone makes a huge jump, they’re probably not going to threaten the ‘elite tier’, though they could eventually reach the ‘elite threat tier’. In short, the Jazz find themselves in no man’s land, at least on a larger time scale than this season. This roster will never be considered a favorite to win the title, but they can most likely be relied on to compete for home-court advantage on a yearly basis. As an organization, the first question is whether that’s enough.
Before I’m accused of sounding all doom-and-gloom on the Jazz, let’s talk about how the Jazz are actually playing right now. They’re currently 22-14 and the fifth seed in the West. They’re 6-4 in their last ten, and were on a four-game winning streak before losing to Boston in the second leg of a back-to-back. This is closer to how I thought the Jazz would perform prior to the season. The defense allows the fewest points in the NBA and by a decent margin, too. While the offense doesn’t put up the same kind of numbers, it’s still largely effective within the style the Jazz play. In other words, the Jazz have a plus/minus of +4.0 points per game. The offense is by no means elite, but in the slow-tempo, defensive style the Jazz play, it’s effective enough to let their defense carry them. Injuries to George Hill, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, and others also share some of the blame for the offensive woes. It’s hard to consistently score when Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack are your only two options at point guard, as Jazz fans are well aware by now. Even if injuries do continue to plague the team, which seems far more likely than not at this point, the Jazz look to be in great position to snatch home-court advantage in the first round. I doubt they have enough to catch the Rockets or Spurs to grab the 3rd or 2nd seed, as I thought they might before the season started, but the 4th spot is well within reach. For a franchise that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2012, that’s a terrific season.
The question is how much farther can this core take this team? And how much time is there for them to do it? Speaking of contracts isn’t the most fun thing to do, but to understand what the Jazz will and won’t do over the next few months, we need to. Even with the higher salary cap, there’s not enough money to go all the way around. The Jazz already gave Rudy Gobert a massive contract extension. Hayward’s number is going to come up this summer. If the Jazz don’t give him the max, someone else will. Hill has been an excellent solution at point guard when healthy, and the Jazz probably don’t want to let him walk in free agency. Favors is due another extension following next season. Joe Johnson would be, too, should the Jazz wish to keep him. Alec Burks is up for one the following year, as would Rodney Hood and Dante Exum. You get the point. The Jazz have a lot of young talent on this team. But the problem with having a lot of young talent is it’s hard to keep that talent. Is there enough space to keep this main group of guys together? It’s possible. But this core, at least in my opinion, doesn’t stand much of a chance against Golden State, Cleveland, or possibly even San Antonio in a seven-game series. Locking this core in again means the Jazz would be making the playoffs every year, but their hopes of a championship would be very slim. Examples like the 2004 Pistons and the 2011 Mavericks are brought up to show that those types of teams can win a title if conditions are just right and luck sides with them. But those conditions are rare, and who’s to say injuries don’t prevent the team from capitalizing on them when they do arrive?
This is the conundrum that the Jazz front office must confront, starting at the trade deadline. If the organization, plus fans, are alright with competing for a top-four spot in the Western Conference year in and year out while hoping for a magical year, then the decision is pretty easy. If they decide that’s not the path, then it gets a little dicey. Who goes and who stays? Gobert is locked in place with his extension. Hayward is putting together the best season of his career and is making a compelling argument to be included among the NBA’s more elite players. Regardless of whether or not you think Hayward can be a number one option on a championship team, it’s tough to let that walk away. And at this point, the returns from a trade would be nowhere near the actual value that Hayward gives. The Jazz should be the frontrunners to resign Hayward, and unless he desperately wants out of Utah, he should be back next season. As stated earlier, the Jazz probably don’t want to be thrust back to point guard purgatory, so Hill will also probably be back next season. Hood and Exum are both too young with too much potential to let walk. That’s only five players, but already a lot of money.
The one player I didn’t mention that you’re undoubtedly thinking about: Favors. Favors is the wildcard in this situation. He’s only 25 and already a great front-court player. Despite the injuries, it would seem that keeping Favors would be an easy decision. But the presence of Gobert does make Favors more expendable. Utah is one of the few teams in the NBA that still starts two low-post big men, but against teams like the Warriors, Celtics, and Rockets that stretch the defense, the Jazz end up having to sit one of Gobert or Favors for long stretches of time. Those ‘small-ball’ units allow the Jazz more spacing on the offensive end while maintaining strong rim protection on the defensive end. The Jazz could easily double-down on those lineups by trading Favors at the deadline. The problem with that, however, is who? Favors is a little undersized to play center and isn’t the prototypical stretch-4 that most teams idolize right now. You could maybe conjure up some rumors of a trade with Portland-based around Favors and CJ McCollum, but it’s hard to see the Blazers parting with McCollum, especially to someone in their division, and that still brings salary cap issues to the Jazz. The Timberwolves won’t give up anything satisfactory enough for the Jazz to send them Favors. If the Bulls decide to blow it up, maybe they listen to a package including Favors for Jimmy Butler, but that seems extremely unlikely. My favorite idea is a trade with Charlotte that sends a package surrounding both Favors and Hill for Kemba Walker and other pieces, but I doubt either team would even think about that. Simply put, there’s just not a ton of landing spots for Favors should the Jazz decide to explore their options.
The worst case scenario for the Jazz is they don’t trade anyone at the deadline and then Hayward leaves. If Hayward leaves, the likelihood of Favors leaving the year after rises. Players want to play for championships. They want to contend. People can talk about loyalty all they want, but nobody has fun while getting destroyed at the local rec center. That’s what makes this season imperative. The Jazz are proving that this core can be one of the best in the NBA, and that’s huge. Hayward and other free agents are much more likely to stay on or come to a team that’s closer to 50 wins than 35. Success over the next stretch of the schedule can solve a few of the Jazz’ problems. But make no mistake, the Jazz have several key decisions to make that will impact the organization for years to come. The Jazz may be in the thick of a race for home-court advantage, but the most important game might be played by the front office.