This is where the summer turns serious for the Utah Jazz.
Sure, introducing their three draft picks — Donovan Mitchell, Tony Bradley and Nigel Williams-Goss — was a big moment for the future of the franchise.
Renovation work on Vivint Smart Home Arena, the team’s home for the past 26 seasons, is well underway and should be one of the NBA’s premier showplaces when the work is done in September.
The increasingly popular Utah Jazz Summer League gets going Monday at the Jon M. Huntsman Center at the University of Utah, with former lottery pick Dante Exum set to take part along with the rookies.
But all of that pales in comparison to the fact that star forward Gordon Hayward — he of the multiple billboards throughout the Salt Lake Valley pleading with him to stay in the Beehive State — is officially a free agent come Saturday.
After years of mediocrity, the Jazz are back in the conversation as one of the elite teams in the NBA’s Western Conference. They’re not quite on the level they were in the glory days of Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, but truthfully, they’re not all that far off.
If Hayward leaves for the opportunity to play for his old college coach, Brad Stevens, with the Boston Celtics, or he opts to join up with a young Miami Heat squad looking to make some noise in the Eastern Conference next year, the Jazz could quickly find themselves back in a difficult position — not good enough to make the playoffs, but likely also not bad enough to quickly rebuild with a lottery pick or two.
Minnesota just added Jimmy Butler, who is teaming with his former coach Tom Thibodeau and could turn the Timberwolves into the second coming of the Chicago Bulls of a few years ago. Oklahoma City is the home of newly minted NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook. Portland was a playoff team last year and their trade-deadline acquisition, center Jusuf Nurkic, will be there all season. Denver very nearly made the playoffs and boasts one of the league’s most intriguing young players in Nikola Jokic, and has been mentioned as a possible destination for such free agents as Paul Millsap and Blake Griffin.
The Jazz will not be able to compete in the increasingly difficult Northwest Division if Hayward is gone. They need him around merely to tread water in a division where all five teams have legitimate playoff hopes and all could win 45-50 games if things go right.
If things go wrong in Utah in Hayward leaves? It could be a return to the post-Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan years. Vivint Smart Home Arena may be gleaming, but it will be a dark time in Jazz history if their star departs.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. His backside will not miss the old plastic green seats in the Jazz’ home arena. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.