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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Utah Jazz

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Youth will be served in Utah this year (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

The Utah Jazz don’t do rebuilding. Usually they don’t, at least.

The last time the Jazz backed into a rebuilding project, they truly didn’t mean to. Former general manager Kevin O’Connor thought he had scraped together a playoff team in 2004-05, but forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer lost scores of games due to injury, and then-coach Jerry Sloan shuffled through the only (!) losing season of his Jazz career. The prize for that turn was Deron Williams.

The prize for this year’s stinker hasn’t revealed himself yet. What we do know is that the Jazz were smart to pass on retaining big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, two players that somehow found a way to play well together, but two bigs that weren’t putting the Jazz over the top. A younger core featuring Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward is worth chasing down, but those two are already a year removed from their second contracts. The Jazz still have quite a bit of building to do and no real star, and that’s what the 2014 NBA draft is for.

Between now and then, there will be losses. In a way, a lineup featuring Favors, Hayward and center Enes Kanter is more orthodox than the older version pitched last year, so head coach Tyrone Corbin may have a more typical blueprint to work with as he attempts to secure his job. Few expect Corbin, in the last year of his contract, to be around for the Grand Reveal following this June’s draft, but that doesn’t mean he can’t surprise on his way to tossing plenty of reps toward the young players that should have received this sort of seasoning far earlier in their careers.

It’s a pricy way to learn on the job, but the Jazz have made their commitment. 2013-14 is going to be a wash. Richard Jefferson will be around for all of it.

That doesn’t mean that Jazz fans should tune out until July hits. In Kanter the team has an enviable center with growing confidence, and it will be fantastic to watch Favors unleashed for big minutes in his debut as a starting power forward. Favors trended toward a double-double with huge blocks spread out over 36 minutes a game last season, and for once he’ll be working with the knowledge that the Jazz consider him a cornerstone, and not a prospect to play with.

Hayward may never roll into the sort of high usage player that you can trust to lead your offense, which is a shame because he doesn’t offer much in terms of rebounding or defense, but as long as his efficiency stays relatively high he could be worth the eight figure a year price tag. Could be. I’m less bullish on rookie point guard Trey Burke, but the Jazz weren’t going to get a superstar with the ninth pick in a weak draft, and he’ll have ample opportunity to learn on the job once he gets off the shelf.

The real kicker here is Corbin.

If the Jazz surprise, and with a young team full of talented parts, they may do just that, Corbin could earn his way to a new contract. Approximating last year’s 43-win record would seem like Coach of the Year/contract extension-territory, but Corbin has made puzzling technical moves throughout his coaching career, and the team’s front office has to take the entirety of his run into consideration when they decide who their next coach is going to be.

Again, things are looking up for the Jazz, even if this season will spiral downward. Massive cap space, emerging young talent and a probably high pick in a very good draft will create great things for this organization.

Things are going to have to smell for a bit, though.

Projected record: 20-62

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Coach Tyrone Corbin could be entering his final year with the Jazz (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Jazz for … young bigs unleashed, at long last.

After two years of waiting, the day’s finally here -- the Jazz will now give starter’s minutes to just-extended power forward Derrick Favors and third-year center Enes Kanter. The changing of the guard won’t prevent a protracted, painful season in Utah -- that’s what happens when you choose to lose four veteran starters, go cheaper and younger, and delay being competitive for a couple of years -- but it should make a second straight lottery trip much more bearable.

Favors is a two-way beast on the glass, grabbing the league’s 13th-highest share of available rebounds last year. He’s an excellent athlete who can fill the lane on the break (a sterling 1.25 points scored per transition possession used, per Synergy Sports Technology) and make multiple-effort plays on defense, moving well to cover ground in corralling pick-and-rolls before recovering to protect the rim. The Georgia Tech product does that at an elite level, blocking opponents’ shots at the NBA’s fifth-highest rate last season, and altering many more he didn’t send back.

While Favors is further ahead defensively, Kanter showed some encouraging offensive signs in his second season, flashing a bit of touch beyond the paint (39.1 percent on midrange looks) and at the line (79.5 percent last year, up from 66.7 percent as a rookie). He crashes the offensive boards, too -- he cleared 14.5 percent of his teammates’ misses, which would’ve been the league’s third-best rate had he played enough minutes to qualify -- and shot 48.1 percent on post-ups, according to Synergy. Kanter’s developing offensive game could offer both a low-block replacement for Al Jefferson and, if the jumper continues to fall, a bit of offensive spacing that allows Favors to focus on contributing as a screener or weak-side/baseline lurker.

Utah has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions with Favors and Kanter on the floor than off it in each of the past two seasons, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, and that’s where general manager Dennis Lindsey and head coach Tyrone Corbin (or whoever replaces him, should it come to that) will hope their young bigs can make the biggest impact. The Jazz have finished in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency three years running; if Utah teams of the future are to have any hope of competing in a brutal Western Conference, they’ll have to shut down, or at least hamper, multiple elite offenses. The Jefferson and Paul Millsap-led teams, for all their virtues, just couldn’t do that; Favors and Kanter offer the hope, at least, for a brighter, stingier tomorrow.

There are warts to the young bigs’ games, of course. Favors fouls too often (five whistles per 36 minutes last season), shot just 27 percent outside the restricted area last year and hasn’t shown much offensive progression. Kanter can tend toward black-hole status and get lost on defense. Neither passes particularly well; both turn the ball over too much. Some of these failings could be fatal flaws, while others come with youth and inexperience; this year, Favors and Kanter should get the chance to play through their mistakes and learn by doing, because for the first time in their careers, there isn’t a more seasoned, higher-paid option available to replace them.

This experiential learning will likely result in peaks and valleys, pockets of play that send Jazz fans careening between envisioning deep postseason runs and wondering whether the front office has made the wrong bets. It’ll be frustrating at times for a fan-base accustomed to a certain level of consistency, for better and for worse, but it’ll also be fun. Volatility and variance are always cooler than the status quo, and with the Favors-Kanter duo leading the way for an oddball reserve crew featuring 7-foot-1 French shot-blocker/poster target Rudy Gobert, perpetual curiosity/odd man out Jeremy Evans and haunted reclamation project Andris Biedrins, few groups in the league figure to be as volatile and variant as the Jazz frontcourt.

Honorable mentions: Trey Burke working to get out from behind the injury eight-ball and become Utah’s point guard of the present/future; re-signed backup Jamaal Tinsley regularly doing pretty audacious stuff; Brandon Rush getting back on the court for the first time in more than a year; Gordon Hayward, who might soon become overpaid but for now remains a fun sort-of secret; Ian Clark, who shot his way from Belmont into an NBA backcourt job (if not yet into a rotation spot)

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Although he has not yet reached an agreement, Gordon Hayward is currently negotiating a contract extension that figures to match or exceed the four-year, $49-million deal recently signed by big man Derrick Favors. This news is surprising for several reasons. While Hayward has already accomplished quite a bit more than Favors, his potential impact would appear lower and he plays a position that has historically been easier to fill. Hayward does a lot very well, but he doesn’t immediately appear to be an eight-figure-per-season wing based on a 16.8 PER and 27 starts in his third NBA season. He’s part of Utah’s core, but that would seem to say more about the team’s roster than Hayward’s gifts.

He’s very promising, though, and perhaps looking at this potential salary as if it occurred in a vacuum is the wrong way to go. Due to Utah’s constant difficulties attracting top-level talent in free agency, their willingness to overpay homegrown talent is less of an issue than it would be for other teams. Simply put, cap space means less for a less-than-elite Jazz team than it does for others. The team’s next star is going to be obtained through the draft, not on the open market, and whatever gives that hypothetical player the best opportunity to succeed is the best thing for the franchise.

Hayward is a player who can help the team accomplish just that. He has varied skills, doesn’t need to dominate the ball, and can fill gaps as necessary. Given the fact that any other top-level players the Jazz add will be on rookie contracts, handing Hayward this sort of deal is not going to kill their flexibility. It may even give them real hope of entering a new era of contention a few years from now.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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