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Ben Anderson: With nothing to prove, Jazz are free to play

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have spent the past two seasons auditioning for Gordon Hayward to stay with the team that drafted him. After a brilliant close to the 2014-15 season, spurred by trading away locker room misfit Enes Kanter and replacing the lesser-talented Trey Burke with Dante Exum in the starting, the Jazz appeared to be on the rise in the Western Conference.

But a disappointing 2015-16 season, one that saw the Jazz fall short of the playoffs, meant the team failed to live up to the promise of the previous season.

This past year, the Jazz realized the lofty expectations set in 2015, winning 51 games and advancing past the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

But despite the front office’s best efforts and the most concrete evidence that the Jazz could be a force for years to come with Hayward on the roster, the star small forward bolted for Boston, preferring the allure of the unknown to the promise of the roster he knew.

Other than perhaps showing a little more urgency, spending more money to woo Hayward earlier in his stead in Utah, the Jazz did everything they reasonably could to keep him around. They surrounded Hayward with talent, showed him they could develop young pieces and built a system around his strengths, and still, it wasn’t enough.

Now, without the need to impress one player dictating the future of the franchise, with rising star Rudy Gobert under contract for the next four years and a group of promising young players whose rights are controlled by the Jazz, general manager Dennis Lindsey is free to build a roster his way for the first round after taking over the team’s front office in 2012.

Lindsey inherited a roster, formed with pieces from the Deron Williams trade, the last time the Jazz lost a superstar and were forced to rebuild. While any first-time general manager would welcome high lottery picks like the ones the Jazz got for Williams, (Derrick Favors and Kanter), neither was acquired or selected under Lindsey’s watch. He also had Hayward, another talented lottery pick, that he didn’t draft.


As of today, Hayward and Kanter are gone, and Favors is in the final year of his contract, somewhat of an afterthought on the post-Hayward roster. Now, out from under the theme of a Hayward audition, Lindsey is revealing his desires for his future roster.

Lindsey’s first five additions since Hayward’s departure feature heavy European influences. Both Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko played professional basketball in Europe before being drafted into the NBA, while Ekpe Udoh racked up a collection of awards playing overseas after initially falling out of favor in the NBA. Eric Griffin and Royce O’Neale, the Jazz's most recent additions, also played professionally in Europe before signing with the Jazz for the 2018 season.

Additionally, the Jazz traded for Ricky Rubio, another former European star earlier this summer, well aware that Hayward’s time in Utah may be limited. The Jazz were reportedly interested in signing free agents Danilo Gallinari, born in Italy, and Milos Teodosic, of Serbia, before they landed with the Los Angeles Clippers.

With Jerebko, Rubio and Sefolosha in tow, the Jazz feature seven foreign-born players (eight counting Joel Bolomboy, born in Ukraine), most of whom played professional basketball in Europe. Both head coach Quin Snyder and lead assistant Igor Kokoškov coached professionally in Europe before joining the Jazz.

> +🇸🇪 > > — Angie Treasure (@snark\_tank) [July 13, 2017](

That’s not to say Lindsey hasn’t also scoured the U.S. for the top talent. Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz's first selection in June’s draft, comes from the University of Louisville, while Tony Bradley, the Jazz's other first-round pick, comes from the University of North Carolina.

But just as Lindsey appears to have spread his wings now that Hayward has gone, whether he’d preferred to or not, it appears the rest of the team has followed suit.

Rudy Gobert took to Instagram after Hayward signed with Boston, reciting crass song lyrics about loyalty, while Joe Ingles, one of Hayward’s closest friends on the Jazz, acted as a playful troll on Twitter, recalling an incident when Hayward backed down from a confrontation with Delonte West, who stuck his finger in Hayward’s ear.

> 👉🏻👂🏻 > > — Joe Ingles (@Joeingles7) [July 14, 2017](

The Jazz now must hope that the freedom and playfulness displayed off the floor in Hayward’s absence follows them into the season. Under the pressure and cost of retaining Hayward, the Jazz's ability to test free-agent options, like the ones Lindsey has brought in this summer, was limited. As was the Jazz's offensive system that was dedicated to bringing out Hayward’s best.

It’s unreasonable to expect that the Jazz will match last season’s win total, now missing their top offensive option from that roster. But free from the carefully choreographed dance the Jazz showed hoping to retain Hayward, the team’s ability to blossom in multiple directions should provide new and untethered intrigue. At the very least, now out from under the weight of Hayward’s future with the team, the Jazz should be fun to watch, with little more than winning to play for.

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