Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Utah Jazz.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
The NBA needs its size, badly. It wants its bigs, and it cherishes the forward/center. It gives DeAndre Jordan nearly $11 million a year to (as of right now) work as the Clippers' backup center, and it hands Kwame Brown $7 million for one season just because … well, the Warriors needed him.
And though the team's starting center is about 6-8, the squad's helpful defensive stud is raw and in his second year, the center of the future is even less refined, and the center of the past is coming off a series of debilitating injuries … the Jazz have size. They're not quite the envy of the league, but if orthodoxy is your thing? Be cheerful.
That's Al Jefferson down low, spinning around in the low left block, scoring away. Derrick Favors has the potential to be the sort of defensive stud that can play off of Jefferson's defensive shortcomings. Rookie Enes Kanter has obvious skill, out to 24 feet, and a fully healthy (and, purportedly, in shape) Mehmet Okur might have one very good year left in him. These are things that are tough to counter. Paul Millsap, half a decade later, still underrated.
Of course, the trick is getting everyone flowing at once. Jefferson has to be scoring while Favors stays out of foul trouble. Okur has to hit open jumpers, and Kanter has to be up to NBA speed. That's a lot to juggle for four players that, outside of Jefferson's exemplary pre-injury run with the Minnesota Timberwolves, have never really made the streets run red with consistency. Millsap needs a good passing point guard to find him, and Devin Harris isn't always on board with the pass-first ideal.
This season could be sloughed off as a building year, as opposed to a rebuilding one. The Jazz have to determine who stays and who goes. How Favors and Jefferson work together, how Favors and Millsap work together, what Kanter's ceiling is, and if Okur is worth keeping around after this season. The time spent between now and the trade deadline, we're presuming, will be used to gauge who stays and who goes to some other team for some badly-needed help at the wing. C.J. Miles is a sound enough scorer and Gordon Hayward is a strong athlete that at least looks like he can shoot, but with all that depth up front (and Millsap's contract ending after 2012-13, the Jazz can be huge players this February.
Between the end of December, and the finish of the regular season? This is supposed to be the cheery section, but breaking that top eight out West will be a struggle. There will be too many possessions used up by wings and backup point guards for the team to turn into an offensive juggernaut, and even a massive ascension by Favors won't make up for the team's overall limitations defensively.
While we're still fans of Devin Harris every so often, his game has fallen off. Maybe a new chance on a team all his own, free from trade rumors, will help the guy out. His ability to break the defense down after a broken play fits right into what Utah will need as it smoothes out the edges, but the team is also crying out for a passer that can find these bigs in the right spots. Andrei Kirilenko, currently a free agent, would seem to help in that regard; but he'd also add to the glut in the frontcourt.
The talent is there, though. And while that's cold comfort to Jazz fans that are a year removed from Deron Williams leading a team with a 20 and 10 stud down low and Paul Millsap hitting shots from all over the court, it does put the team in a much better spot than most squads on the outside of the playoff bracket looking in, especially with that 2012 cap space looming.
If Tyrone Corbin follows the Rick Carlisle ideal, he can put together something special in Utah. The template is going to take some time to develop, though.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Utah Jazz
I'm so excited for you!
That rotation of bigs looks monstrous. The Jazz four- and five-spots boast offensive stud (and defensive sieve) Al Jefferson; Paul Millsap, 2010's truly forgotten All-Star; second-year man Derrick Favors, who showed promise after coming to Salt Lake in the Deron Williams deal; elder statesman Mehmet Okur, who's reportedly healthy and in-shape following an injury-plagued 2010; and highly touted first-round pick Enes Kanter, who has already earned praise within the Jazz organization for his attitude and work ethic.
I'm not real sure how the minutes will shake out, and like NBA.com's John Schuhmann, I'm wondering if there isn't at least one trade for Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor to make if he really believes in his young bigs. If Okur's healthy and productive early, his expiring $10.9 million contract could draw suitors, and you'd imagine there would be widespread interest if the 27-year-old Millsap (with two years and $16.7 million remaining on his deal, according to ShamSports.com) was made available.
But in a pure basketball sense, the varying skill sets of the group -- Okur's range and passing, Jefferson's low-post and face-up arsenal, Millsap's excellent mid-range game, Favors' explosive athleticism, Kanter's touch and physicality -- create a wide variety of permutations and combination that Tyrone Corbin could conceivably throw out, and the prospect of seeing the matchups evolve, come at opponents in waves and potentially create problems for other teams' second units is pretty exciting.
I'm so worried for you!
That backcourt rotation looks suspicious, especially at the two-guard, where Utah needs one of its last two draft picks to ensure that 35-year-old Raja Bell (coming off a season-closing foot injury and a less-than-crisp 8.2 Player Efficiency Rating) does not need to be viewed as any type of answer.
The Jazz will need many minutes, and good ones, from second-year man Gordon Hayward and much-ballyhooed rookie Alec Burks, who made a great first impression with the locals by shooting the lights out at a Salt Lake City exhibition game this summer. Unfortunately for young Alec, though, they play defense in this league, so 12-for-13 nights are going to be a bit tougher to come by for the next few months.
Butler product Hayward found that out the hard way in the first half of his rookie campaign, but several strong late-season performances (including a 34-point bombshell in a win over the playoff-bound Denver Nuggets) have fans expecting a sophomore leap from the swingman that, combined with contributions from Burks, will give the Jazz the shooting guard they've missed since surprise story Wesley Matthews put a bird on it. It's possible, but it's also a lot to ask of two players who were not alive when "The Wizard" came out.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Man, is a lot going to be riding on Devin Harris.
Harris' stints with the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets ended for what turned out to be entirely understandable on-court reasons. Dallas thought Jason Kidd was the missing piece to reboot Dirk Nowitzki's soul and bring the franchise its first title, and while giving up a promising 24-year-old point guard in the bargain earned Mark Cuban plenty of criticism for a while, the Mavs' owner was eventually vindicated. After working one year an All-Star level and another at a not-All-Star level for bad Nets teams, New Jersey had a chance to acquire a significantly better player in Williams, and so Harris had to leave.
He hasn't been terrible or anything; he's just been judged worse than one of the greatest point guards of all time and (arguably) one of the two best point guards of his generation.
Now, though, he's entrenched as the man in Utah. (Barring injury, which seems possible, or usurpation by Earl Watson, Keith McLeod and Jamaal Tinsley, which seems unlikely, or a trade of one of those glittering frontcourt pieces returning a demonstrably better point option, which would be some seriously tough luck.) Harris' gift for breaking down defenses, getting to the rim and creating his own shot have never been questioned, but despite posting higher assist rates over the past couple of years, his merits as a facilitator have come under scrutiny.
If Harris can develop his table-setting talents to let his bigs feast on dump-offs and find quality, confidence-building looks for his incubating wings, Utah could compete for a seventh or eighth seed in the Western Conference. If he can't, he'll stop looking like merely the less attractive of two great options, and start to seem more like a solid but flawed player.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
UTAH JAZZ: "Deadwood"