November 22, 2017

There are a couple of ways to win the NBA offseason. Some do it the noisy, headline-grabbing way, like adding a perennial MVP candidate to a 73-win juggernaut. But there are subtler routes, and the Utah Jazz found a couple of them.

Actually, Utah’s most impactful offseason move took place long before free agency started at all, and even before the June NBA Draft. They used their No. 12 pick in a three-way trade to land Indiana Pacers guard George Hill, getting an early start on addressing their burning offseason needs.

Then Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey kept going, still opting for the stealthy route while surgically addressing his club’s biggest needs position-wise (point guard, wing depth, a backup big) and the biggest philosophical needs (veteran leadership, playoff experience, shooting). He orchestrated a nobody-saw-that-coming signing of Joe Johnson, and then used cap space to bring skilled big man Boris Diaw to Salt Lake City.

The Hill acquisition probably makes the most immediate basketball impact, and also represents the shrewdest summer decision by Lindsey. The free agent point guard class was as weak as it has ever been: only one star-level point available, and that one (Mike Conley) sure to cost millions upon millions. Conley went on to sign the largest total contract in NBA history (for now), making it all the more impressive that the Jazz landed a guy in a similar tier on a one-year, $8 million deal.

Hill is more than cheap: he’s an ideal guy to give Dante Exum a soft return from season-long injury. The Jazz have high hopes for the Australian phenom, but counting on him to log 30 minutes a night right away was a big ask after ACL rehab. A Hill-Exum tandem is, to say the least, better than what the Jazz have been able to muster for the last half decade as they’ve consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the league in point guard production.

Hill is also a great fit alongside Utah’s scoring wings, most notably Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, for many of the same reasons he fit alongside Pacers star Paul George. He’s not the type of point guard who needs the basketball in his hands all the time to feel like a complete human being. He can directly facilitate when needed, but he can also facilitate in a broader sense by letting the offense flow naturally, a big Quin Snyder talking point.

 

It would be inaccurate to describe Hill as just a corner spacer, but the reality is that his role with the 2015-16 Pacers was more limited than he might be used to. Indy management dropped the diminutive and ball-dominant Monta Ellis alongside him, and that meant that, on a lot of possessions, Hill’s job was to be static while George and Ellis probed for seams.

It didn’t help that none of the big men on that squad were necessarily prolific roll men, which further diminishes the reliance on point guard pick-and-rolls as a mechanism to score. Indiana screens a lot, but in terms of direct on-ball pick-and-rolls, not too many teams did that less as a staple of the offense.

But Hill is a better pick-and-roll handler than the numbers would indicate. People have reductively defined him as a catch-and-shoot specialist because that’s what he did last year. In fact, 59 guys finished more plays as a pick-and-roll handler than him, per NBA.com stats. Eric Bledsoe finished as many plays that way as Hill, and he only played 32 games. Trey Burke had the same total as those two and he’s, well, Trey Burke.

It’s important to remember, though, that those stats only measure the possession’s end. Hill was involved in a whole lot more than 259 pick-and-rolls (3.5 per game) over the course of the season.

It’s true that Hill’s shooting will be a massive complement when the Jazz want Hayward or Hood to attack at a 45-degree angle, another Snyderism. Hill shot a remarkable 44.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, and 43.7 percent from the corners. But good things happen when he’s the creator, too, even if he doesn’t actually terminate the possession with an attempt.

Hill is good at recognizing when early action has produced an advantage and skipping over some of the fluff to exploit it. This could be massively important to a Jazz team whose coach has talked about increasing the speed at which decisions are made. For example, if he’s trapped on the pick-and-roll and sees a third defender starting to shade toward the screener, he’s willing to pull the trigger on that skip pass instead of just throwing it out of the trap to the closest guy and setting up a longer chain reaction that might – or might not – end in the same open look.

He shows a similar willingness to ditch the script with the way he gives up the ball in transition.

Once in the halfcourt, Indiana’s offense moved somewhat glacially, not unlike the Jazz’s. So those opportunities to score quickies on a pass-ahead were important pace-changers. Like the skip passes, they happened because, whether he’s in the halfcourt or the open floor, Hill’s always got his head up looking for the best outcome for the possession, not tunnel-visioned into focusing on the next action just for the sake of the next action.

These are the kinds of plays you get from a heady and willing playmaker, but one who doesn’t have an ego about the amount of seconds he gets to caress the basketball.

In other words, he should fit fine alongside Utah’s playmaking wings for all the reasons you’ve heard, but he’s also more than just the corner-standing complement that people have reductively made him out to be. The Jazz can trust Hill with the ball, and they should, too. Yes, guys like Hayward can initiate for Utah, but the load Hayward has been asked to carry recently.

Hayward was the Jazz’s primary scorer, primary creator and, more often than not, he also checked the other team’s best wing player. That workload makes his 20-5-4 season (rounded) all that more impressive, but it also wore on the star wing over the course of the season. Fans and followers of the Jazz shouldn’t be excited about the idea of bringing in a point guard who can stand in the corner and watch Hayward do everything: they should be excited about bringing in a point guard that makes it so he doesn’t have to.

When Hill doesn’t have the ball, he commands enough gravity, especially when he’s on the ball side of the floor, to suck defenders his direction. He’s also a willing off-ball screener. One common route for Hill after passing the ball off at the top was a hard cut to the strong side for a pindown. This created so many options for Indy passers. His teammate could curl into the lane off the screen, or come back toward the ball for a jumper, or Hill himself can flare out to the corner three or punish the an overplay by “slipping” the screen towards the cup.

And thus far we’re only talking about his offensive fit. Hill’s also a long, strong defender who is great at the point of attack, but who also spent huge chunks of the year guarding twos. The Hill-era Pacers had their best runs with a group that was gritty and defensive-minded, and the Jazz give the point guard a chance to relive that. Utah could use some toughness lessons from the plucky vet, but they already have one of the best defensive foundations in the league, and having 48 minutes of pesky points with good size in Hill and Exum can only help in that department.

All of that is why Hill is an easy pick to be the most impactful Jazz newcomer, but Johnson and Diaw were smart additions, too.

Johnson was ostensibly brought in to be a fourth wing behing Hayward, Hood and Alec Burks, another guy mending after injury woes. Actually, a lot of what Burks offers in terms of strengths, Johnson does a little better – at least historically. Who knows if he can still create off the bounce at a pretty ripe 35. After Miami acquired him last season, they chose to use him almost exclusively as a catch-and-shoot threat, but he’s made millions by doing what Burks does: putting pressure on the rim and getting to the free throw line.

And Diaw is exactly the kind of skilled big that can help unlock some of Utah’s potent bench options with quick decision-making and creative passing. There’s a good chance their bench unit will be Exum, Burks, Johnson, Trey Lyles and Diaw, five guys who can make decisions and – for the most part – knock down shots. That’s an exciting bench lineup for a team that spent too much of last season relying on reserves like Chris Johnson and Elijah Millsap.

Aside from the Warriors, not too many teams has a better offseason, at least in terms of assessing the on-paper needs and then addressing them with surgical accuracy.

Improve the PG spot? Check.

Wing depth and skill up front? Double check.

Playoff savvy? Veteran know-how? Shooting depth? Check, check and check.

Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team’s Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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