|Jazz face offensive questions, Nuggets in opener|
SALT LAKE CITY -- Replacing an All-Star is never easy to do. For the Utah Jazz, it means creating a new offensive identity this season.
Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics as a free agent in July after carving out a niche as Utah's primary scorer over the past few seasons. Now the Jazz, starting with their season opener against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, must construct new roads on offense to fill the void Hayward left behind.
Hayward averaged a career-best 21.9 points on 47.1 percent shooting in his final season in Utah before signing a four-year, $128 million deal with the Celtics over the summer. In his Boston debut Tuesday, he fractured his left tibia and dislocated his left ankle.
George Hill, Utah's No. 2 scorer from a year ago, also left the Jazz and signed with the Sacramento Kings.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder is optimistic that replacing the offensive production won't be as big of an issue as some outside observers want to believe.
"That's a narrative that is being pounded, but I don't think our guys are trying to prove anything that they can be or not be without Gordon," Snyder said. "If we lose some games early, we're not going to look and say, 'What if we had this or that?' We're playing with the guys we got; so will other teams that have lost or gained players."
Utah's fortunes will rise and fall on Rudy Gobert's continued progress as an elite center and the ability of starters such as Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors to bounce back from injury-plagued campaigns a year ago. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell could be an immediate impact player.
Ricky Rubio is also poised make a positive impact on boosting Utah's offensive fortunes. The Jazz traded for Rubio in the offseason, giving them a better distributor at the trigger for running what Snyder wants to see on offense.
Rubio comes to Utah after posting per game career bests in assists (9.1) and points (11.1) a year ago. He hopes showing what he can do in a new offense will finally silence criticisms about aspects of his game, such as his shooting ability.
"At one point, it did bother me, but now it doesn't bother me at all," Rubio said. "I know myself. I know what I have to work (on) and (where) to put a lot of work. Some nights it will come, some nights not. But I'm beyond that point where it bothers me."
Denver won't make it easy for Utah to turn the page on offense. The Nuggets were one of the hottest NBA teams over the second half of 2016-17 and just barely missed the playoffs. They should be even better this time around after making some nice upgrades to their roster over the summer.
One key addition came in the form of Paul Millsap. The All-Star forward left the Atlanta Hawks to sign with Denver in free agency. Paired alongside center Nikola Jokic, Millsap promises to give the Nuggets some extra juice on both offense and defense in the frontcourt.
Millsap put up a career-best average of 18.1 points and also collected 7.7 rebounds for the Hawks a season ago. He agreed to a three-year, $90 million deal with Denver over the summer, and he gives the Nuggets a veteran leader who should mesh well with a talented, young core.
"Paul Millsap is not just about the money," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "He's about substance and character, and I think he saw a lot of great things about this group of people where he wanted to continue his career (here). And I think it's going to be a great decision for him and for us."
Millsap's presence will only make Jokic more dangerous and even tougher to defend. Over Denver's final 28 games last season, Jokic averaged 18.7 points, 12 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
Denver and Utah split the season series a year ago, with each team winning two games. The Jazz have won five straight regular-season home games over the Nuggets dating back to the 2014-15 season.