Earl Watson. Get pumped. (Getty Images)For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the much-taller-than-you Utah Jazz.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The Utah Jazz have been lauded for their treatment of the team's roster in the wake of what is turning into a years-long rebuilding process, and for good reason. Losing Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko as free agents and peddling Deron Williams away on the then-New Jersey Nets turned the team on its ear, but in return for the swift breakdown the team pulled in a legitimate low post stud in Al Jefferson with a trade exception, a defensive-minded center/forward in Derrick Favors from the Nets, and enviable salary flexibility for the summer of 2013 — an offseason that could have the team over $30 million under the salary cap should it decline to retain Jefferson, guard Mo Williams, Paul Millsap, and a few other veterans.
Utah even took in a playoff appearance in 2012 along the way, and possibly another 2013 appearance in the postseason awaits. Sound moves, for a team picking up the pieces on the fly.
Endless patience, though, for a fan base that was used to enjoying the finer things during that remarkable Stockton and Malone stretch. And "enviable" flexibility also puts front offices in the unenviable task deciding which players to retain at a price that more or less signs off on the next few years of Jazz basketball. Should Jefferson and Millsap continue to play well, and we've no reason to think they'll fall off, they'll both be back with new deals and the Jazz would return to working around the margins to try and acquire a franchise-level superstar.
Until then, Jefferson and Millsap aren't far off from that level, and the team's various front court assets will give returning coach Tyrone Corbin plenty to work with, even if his rotation is tilted toward the taller side of things.
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Williams, an ex-Jazz who has played for several teams and even made an All-Star team in 2009, will be counted on to be a difference-maker in the backcourt this season. At this point in their respective careers, he might not be a superior player to his predecessor in Devin Harris, but his strong outside shooting and pick and roll game is being looked upon as a better fit than Harris' drive-for-two contributions. Williams turns 30 a year into the season, so there's always a chance the legs could go; but for years this guy has worked as a consummate pro, and he'll have the added bonus (like most of the Jazz) working in a contract year.
Jefferson and Millsap, two players that really would should have no business playing well alongside each other, will probably fight all year to turn into The Guy That Stays in Utah following this season. Jefferson has done exceedingly well at continuing to remain a low post scorer (that rarest of NBA commodities, with that weird push-hook of his) that turns the ball over once a fortnight, and how many NBA players have adapted this brilliantly to as much frontcourt weirdness as Millsap, a guy that made life miserable on both ends for NBA small forwards last season?
From there, two young centers that are well on their way toward playing starting-caliber ball in Favors and the recently-reformed Enes Kanter. Marvin Williams will turn in a strong upgrade on the wing, Gordon Hayward will get to pick and choose his spots more often as a result — and though Randy Foye is a stopgap until 2013 hits (as the Jazz endlessly search for an off guard in the wake of Jeff Hornacek's retirement in 2000), he's a stopgap that will consistently go right and from time to time work as the tilting force in a few 12-2 fourth quarter runs.
It's still a potential turnover year, even if there is nary a bum to be found amongst this lot, and that has to be a mild source of frustration amongst Jazz fans. Which could lead to the worry that comes from bringing the whole gang back, at a cap-killing price, after yet another first round exit in spring. Despite the smart asset-hoarding and the admirable play from these Jazz vets, the waiting and uneasiness has got to be somewhat annoying.
While we wait, though, the Jazz will play hard and make the playoffs. There's no go-to franchise savior, yet, but this team's impressive depth isn't a bad substitute for now.
Projected record: 46-36
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Once again, all that depth in the frontcourt and the opportunities it affords. Heading into last season, the most appealing thing about Utah was its treasure-trove of talent at the four and five spots, the options the gifted group gave rookie head coach Tyrone Corbin and the flexibility it offered Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor to shape the future of the team. The Jazz enter this season with the same strength, options and flexibility -- only this time around, the front office under new general manager Dennis Lindsley might actually be compelled to use it.
After the lockout, it was clear that Utah would rise or fall up front, where starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap would be spelled by exciting youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, with back-from-injury Mehmet Okur eventually rejoining the fray. In our Jazz season preview, we wondered if one or more bigs would wind up keying a deal for backcourt or wing help; as it turned out, a trade did come just before the start of the season, but it was minor and did nothing to help last year's team (Okur was shipped to the New Jersey Nets for a future second-rounder). Still, though, with the minutes crush eased a bit, Utah's remaining four bigs all flourished.
Jefferson again neared his customary 20-and-10, but did it a little differently -- dishing assists at a career-high rate, turning the ball over a career-low 5.2 percent of the time and even making more of an effort on the defensive end, en route to his best all-around season. Millsap also cut down the turnovers, grabbed defensive rebounds and picked off passes at career-high rates, and averaged right around 18-and-10 per 36 minutes. Favors showed why he was the key to the Deron Williams trade, crashing the boards on both ends and showing signs of being a viable weapon attacking the rim off the pick-and-roll (1.19 points per possession as the roll man, 16th-best in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports Technology) and in transition (1.35 PPP, 25th-best). Kanter didn't see a ton of floor time, but when he did, the 2011 draft's No. 3 overall pick showed toughness on the glass and took the first steps toward developing his raw offensive game.
All that steady, efficient frontcourt play led Utah to top-five rankings in offensive and total rebounding percentage, second-chance points, points in the paint and fast-break points. They were good enough up front that, despite the league's fourth-worst mark from 3-point range, the Jazz still managed the NBA's seventh-most efficient offense, scoring an average of 103.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool. And while there's talent on board -- point guard Mo Williams should add some backcourt scoring punch after coming over from the Clippers, and swingman Gordon Hayward often looked like he's just a steady jumper away from being a real game-changer -- the bigs will again be responsible for leading Utah to the postseason.
The question is: Which bigs? Both Jefferson ($15 million) and Millsap ($8.6 million) are in the final years of their contracts, and both will turn 28 this season. They're in the prime of their careers, but they've got much less potential for growth than the players they're blocking, and their expiring deals could make them attractive commodities come the trade deadline. Toward the end of last season, some of us came to love the "big lineup" of Jefferson, Millsap and Favors, a mix-and-match meat-grinder capable of both getting and preventing baskets that looked like the stuff of dreams. But if Kanter develops as expected -- as we've noted, he dropped 50-plus pounds this summer and has looked great in preseason -- then Lindsley might have a new dream, in which a 20-year-old center and 21-year-old power forward form an athletic, inexpensive, rim-defending, glass-controlling front line that's joined by, say, a scoring shooting guard who can actually shoot and score. Or, if Alec Burks looks like the real deal in his second year, maybe the dream keeps him at the two, moves the 6-foot-8 Hayward to small forward (where he played a bunch last year) and features a playmaking upgrade over Williams at the point. Maybe.
Whether such players would be available in trade this winter remains to be seen. If none are, Lindsley can just hang on to his chips, reap the benefits of Jefferson and Millsap playing for new contracts, make another (likely short) playoff push, then let nearly $41 million come off the books and decide how best to build around at least three (possibly four) very promising young talents. There are worse problems.
What Should Make You Scared: Getting enough out of that backcourt. As was the case last year, the Jazz enter this season with an awful lot of question marks in the backcourt. Mo Williams' particular brand of combo guard play has always skewed shoot-first, and while he's a smart cookie who can pass (just under six assists per 36 minutes for his career), he can also be pretty loose with the ball (nearly three turnovers per-36). He's been the full-time starting point guard on two kinds of teams: ones where he's been relied upon as the primary, and really only, table-setter (which weren't very good), and ones with another really gifted facilitator where he would do some setting up but didn't have to feed everybody (which were very good) -- and this Jazz team, to me, looks more like the former than the latter, which would have me worried were I a Utahan. (Utahn? Utahite? Ute.)
Mo will break down defenses, score and make shots as least as well as Devin Harris did, but I'm not sure he's going to be an upgrade in terms of running the offense, and while they were occasionally effective last year, I continue to be something less than wowed by the Earl Watson-Jamaal Tinsley backup combo. At off-guard, the signing of Foye -- a 38.6 percent shooter from 3-point range for the Los Angeles Clippers last year -- on the cheap (one year, $2.5 million) should bolster Utah's 27th-ranked 3-point shooting mark, but he doesn't offer much else at this stage; a lot will be riding on Burks' development from Year 1 to Year 2, and just how big a leap he took this summer remains very much in question. If Utah can't get reliable floor-spacing and occasional scoring punch from the backcourt -- not dominant performances, just enough to keep defenses honest and prevent them from packing the paint -- then the Jazz won't be able to maximize their advantage up front, and a first-round exit might be their ceiling again this year, too.
One last kind-of-but-not-really-related point: There's just something weird about the fact that the Jazz still haven't severed ties with disgruntled shooting guard Raja Bell. He feels like Corbin and the organization as a whole has turned their backs to him and don't want him around; he feels this way because they have turned their backs to him and they don't want him around. I can't blame them for that -- Raja's 36, offers nothing in the way of wing defense anymore and isn't worth the $3.5 million he's owed -- but then it's incumbent on him to make him a buyout offer he'll accept to send him on his way. At this point, it'd be like an exorcism, a fresh start at the possibly-still-crummy shooting guard position.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The 2011-12 Jazz performed better than most expected in their first full season without longtime centerpiece Deron Williams, sneaking into the playoffs and discovering a genuine strategic advantage in the paint. While their backcourt needs improvement, the Jazz have discovered a useful identity as an inside-out, frontcourt-focused squad. Few teams can match their trio of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors. They can even be downright imposing.
Their advantage might also be short-lived. Millsap and Jefferson, the two best players on the team according to virtually every metric and subjective opinion, are both unrestricted free agents next summer and should command sizable deals. With Favors able to sign an extension to his rookie deal in 2013 and the hoped-for emergence of the improving and in-shape Enes Kanter, the Jazz will almost certainly have to pick between one of their two stalwarts. What now stands as a building block for serious postseason success might turn into a mere strength.
Yet, with all that post depth, the Jazz also have a clear sense of their identity for the foreseeable future. With no obvious backcourt stars on the roster, it's clear that, no matter who mans the paint next season, Utah will be a frontcourt-oriented team. They can therefore organize their strategic and tactical plans with no fear of drastic overhaul in a few months. That kind of mental stability can help a franchise weather a period of roster instability, if only because those players, coaches, and executives who do stay around will have a familiar structure to depend on.
That might not be suitable consolation for a team likely to lose one of its two best players in a year. Nevertheless, there are much worse fates for a young, promising team about to enter a season of relative uncertainty. Unlike other organizations set to make massive free agent decisions, the Jazz know what they are. They are set to make adjustments, not full-scale changes. That's a much less scary alternative.
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