There were plenty of good reasons for Gordon Hayward to join the Boston Celtics, however, he could very well find himself missing one of the finest pieces the Utah Jazz had to offer.
As disappointing as it was for Utah Jazz fans to learn that their once heralded All-Star opted to abandon the team that drafted him and head for the supposed greener pastures of the Boston Celtics, it has to be refreshing to learn that rather than undergo a painful and lengthy rebuild process, Dennis Lindsey has made it clear that instead the team is going to retool and aim to continue to be as competitive as possible.
The Jazz general manager recently said the following to the Salt Lake Tribune regarding the plan for the team moving forward:
“We feel like we can build defensively around Rudy Gobert. We look at him, and he’s a top 10 player and unique defender. So we wanted to build a team around his talents.
We just felt like we had too much talent to tear it down to the foundation. The main thing with Quin and Rudy is what do we stand for? We feel like we have a great player in Rudy, and we want to showcase his ability.”
And Jazz brass wasted no time putting quality defensive talent on the roster to further that mindset and attempt to soften the blow from the loss of Hayward, as it was announced last week that Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh had been added to Utah’s roster.
While there still could be moves made by both teams prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, when you remove Gordon Hayward from the mix, it’s certainly interesting now to consider how the rest of the rosters of the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics compare to one another for next season.
At the starting point guard slot, you have Ricky Rubio for Utah and Isaiah Thomas for the Boston Celtics. Thomas is beyond a shadow of a doubt the better scorer of the two. Last season he put up a mind-blowing 28.9 points per game on a solid 46.3 percent shooting from the field and 37.9 percent from deep. He did so at an extremely high volume taking 19.4 shots per game, 8.5 of which were threes, while boasting an extremely high usage percentage of 33.7.
Beyond that, Thomas was an unmistakably good passer as well, as he managed to put up 5.9 assists per game as well, good for 19th in the league, along with a respectable assist percentage of 30.5, good for 30th in the league.
But both of those figures pale in comparison to those of Ricky Rubio. Rubio was fifth in the league in assists per game at 9.1 while coming in at sixth overall in assist percentage at 38.5. Then there’s the defensive end of the court where truly it’s not even close. Whereas Thomas is an absolute defensive liability, Rubio is an underrated defender who over the past two years has been one of the best at his position on that end of the floor.
So while Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star and undoubtedly a superior scorer, one could argue that as far as being an elite passer who gets the most out of his teammates, and especially as a defender, Rubio has an edge over Thomas in some key aspects of his game.
Going down the rest of both teams’ rosters, it’s truly hard to see where either squad has more of an edge. Rodney Hood and Dante Exum both have an incredible amount of upside as do guys like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Both teams added rookies that were summer league stand outs that could be formidable pieces in Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum.
If healthy, Derrick Favors has proven to be just as daunting if not more so than guys like Marcus Morris and Jae Crowder. Both of those latter two guys are more versatile than Favors, but Utah has plenty of versatility of their own in guys like Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles and recently added Jonas Jerebko. Marcus Smart is a dog of a defender, but so is recently acquired Thabo Sefolosha who’s actually capable of defending more positions than Smart.
In truth, arguably Boston’s best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley, had to be let go in order to make room for Gordon Hayward. And I have a feeling that Thomas’ difficulties defensively combined with an overall mediocre defensive squad (Crowder and Smart are obvious exceptions), the C’s could miss Bradley more than they think.
Then there’s former All-Star Al Horford who was quietly one of Boston’s best players in the 2017 NBA Playoffs as he put up 15.1 points per game on an incredibly efficient 58.4 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from deep. Although Thomas was Boston’s most praised player and leading scorer, there’s certainly an argument to be had that Horford is possibly their most important. His numbers were down somewhat during his first regular season as a Celtic, but he certainly came through when the team needed him most in postseason play.
But as important as Horford is to the Celtics, even his value to his team simply can’t be matched by that of Rudy Gobert.
The All-NBA Second Team and All-NBA Defensive Team center took the league by storm last year by taking a massive leap from the player he was just one season prior. Although Rudy has plenty of room to continue to grow offensively, he took major strides on that end of the floor and ought to continue to get better. But where he was truly special, of course, was on defense.
The appropriately named Stifle Tower made a habit out of making life miserable for opposing teams as he protected the rim unlike any center in the league as he led the league in blocks per game and was at or near the top of the league in several defensive statistics as you can see in the tweet below:
Rudy’s elite defense was a big reason why the Jazz as a team were elite as they finished fifth in the crowded Western Conference with a staunch 51 wins despite trudging through countless injuries all throughout the season. Although Horford certainly has the edge offensively, Gobert is trending in the right direction on that end of the floor and there’s no questioning that his rim protection and overall defense are superior.
In other words, when looking at both rosters, there’s certainly strengths and weaknesses across the board and advantages and disadvantages when comparing several different match-ups. However, it’s also quite clear that there really isn’t all that great of a gap between these two teams when playing at full strength, minus the one obvious exception – the Boston Celtics now have Gordon Hayward in their mix, who no one on Utah’s roster can match in terms of scoring and who is much better defensively than people give him credit for.
But after looking across both rosters and considering Utah’s obvious advantage on the defensive end, I can’t help but agree with the tweets below from Twitter user Andy Glockner:
Of course, had Hayward stayed in Utah, the Jazz likely wouldn’t have added all three of Sefolosha, Jerebko and Udoh, but since we’re dealing in hypotheticals anyway, just imagine how daunting the Jazz would be throwing Hayward into their now incredibly staunch defensive mix. But rather than go that route, Hayward selected an easier path to the Finals and a reunion with his former college coach, Brad Stevens.
Now, by no means do I intend to use this article as a platform to slander Hayward nor his decision. The choice was his to make and by all means there are clear reasons why he did so. Although I’m disappointed that he opted to leave the Jazz, I can in many ways see his reasoning, even if I personally don’t agree with it. At the same time, he’s gone and I’ve long gotten over that fact and am actually excited for Utah’s future in his absence.
But all that also doesn’t change the fact that I believe he’ll eventually end up regretting his choice – namely, the choice of playing for his former college coach over playing alongside Rudy Gobert.
As I’ve already mentioned, Gobert is the absolute anchor of the Jazz’s defense, covering for any slip-up or error made by his teammates and allowing them to suffocate opponents on the perimeter knowing that he is laying in wait. Horford is an exceptional talent, but Rudy has the makings of being an irreplaceable and unmatched talent. His length, timing, shot-blocking and ability to alter shots at the rim make him an incredibly precious commodity.
Not to mention, Gobert is barely 25 years old and more than likely has his best years of basketball still ahead. There’s a reason why a big part of the Utah Jazz’s free agency pitch to Hayward involved reminding him of the opportunity to play alongside one of the best centers in the league.
And although the Boston Celtics will most likely be a very solid team next year and almost definitely will have a better record than the Jazz especially considering their luxury of playing in the feather-weight Eastern Conference, I imagine sooner rather than later, Hayward is going to realize just what he gave up in Gobert and will more than likely miss it.
Defense will be just as important but isn’t going to be nearly as easy in Boston and especially with Avery Bradley gone, the Celtics are going to give up several more points than Hayward is accustomed to. He may be comfortable in a system put in place by Coach Stevens, but Quin Snyder had created a system that was designed to maximize Hayward’s talents AND was absolutely devastating on defense.
Stevens may be able to recreate the first of those two situations given his familiarity with Hayward, but won’t have nearly as capable of a personnel to recreate the second.
But, in truth, few teams do. Because few teams have the luxury of a guy like Rudy Gobert. And if Hayward hasn’t realized that yet, he almost surely will soon.
It will be extremely interesting to see how the next four years of Hayward’s contract with the Celtics turn out to see what comes of both his former and current teams as well as his own personal career. Boston could very well enjoy greater success in the playoffs in terms of advancing further, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Utah quickly catch up to Boston in terms of overall talent due to their young players, crafty GM, rising coach and of course defensive anchor Rudy Gobert.
And if that does indeed happen and the Celtics fail to overcome the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors or whatever other powerhouse team arrives in four years’ time, one won’t be able to help but wonder if Hayward will question his decision to exchange playing alongside the league’s best defensive center in Rudy Gobert for the chance to reignite a personal connection with coach Brad Stevens.