Never quite reaching the NBA mountaintop, the Utah Jazz last season completed their long descent back down the Wasatch Range to the Salt Lake Valley, submitting their worst record since the franchise’s infancy.
The Stockton, Malone and Sloan salad days behind them, the Jazz skied the peaks and valleys of NBA mediocrity until plowing into the base lodge and warming their feet as last season went up in flames. Soon enough, Dante Exum’s athleticism and Rodney Hood’s efficiency had joined them après draft.
Sans last year’s lottery pick point guard, Trey Burke, who broke his finger in the preseason, Utah started 0-8 and lost 14 of their first 15 games with the immortal John Lucas III and Jamaal Tinsley at the helm. Upon Burke’s return, the Jazz played above .500 (25-22) for a lengthy stretch — no small feat in the Western Conference — before driving a tank to a 4-21 finish and the No. 5 overall pick this past June.
The winter cost coach Ty Corbin his job after 3 1/2 unproductive seasons succeeding Jerry Sloan, whose career casts a mythical monster-shaped shadow some still see in the Great Salt Lake.
Gone were free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap from a team that finished just above .500 each of the previous two seasons, and in their place stood Enes Kanter’s sizable frame and Derrick Favors’ four-year, $48 million contract extension — respectable replacements for Utah’s latest youth group.
Despite both big men submitting double-doubles per 36 minutes, the results were disastrous defensively and nearly as bad offensively for a team that relied on Gordon Hayward for the bulk of its creativity. While Hayward submitted one of a handful of 15-5-5 seasons last year — notably joining Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Michael Carter-Williams in that fraternity — the Jazz respectively ranked 29th and 25th in points allowed and scored per 100 possessions in 2013-14, according to Basketball-Reference.com. (NBA.com's even less kind, slotting Utah dead last in defensive efficiency.)
Still, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey matched Hayward’s four-year, $63 million max contract once the Charlotte Hornets forced his hand in restricted free agency, committing nearly half the current salary cap to Hayward and Favors through 2017-18. Overpaying for talent is the price of playing basketball in Utah.
It also makes luring top-tier free agents down the Jordan River difficult, despite plenty of remaining cap space, so the Jazz will roll the balls out with a similar core, a pair of first-round picks and $8.4 million worth of Trevor Booker and Steve Novak to replace the departed Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams.
Now, it’s on new coach Quin Snyder to put his player development resume to work while installing a faster-paced offense befitting a starting lineup all under age 25 and somehow extracting some defense out of a group that failed miserably in that regard last season. Strap on the boots, fellas. It’s time to brave the winter again and begin the ascent anew. And there ain’t no gondola lift back to the top.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
This will all come down to a coin flip. Quite literally.
Did the summer help at all?
The Jazz handed Hayward four years and $63 million one summer after letting Jefferson walk for three and $40.5 million, only to watch Big Al anchor a top-five defense for the same Charlotte team that raised Hayward’s price tag. Utahns can’t be big Michael Jordan fans right now. Not that they ever were.
Lindsey also drafted an 18-year-old relative unknown with the fifth pick in a loaded draft, and then added three guys with deficient defensive reputations — Hood, Novak and Booker — to the NBA’s second-worst defense, so … no, the summer didn’t help all that much. At least not for this winter.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Hood proved a remarkably efficient scorer alongside Jabari Parker at Duke this past season — and will remain under Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching tree on Snyder’s branch — but Exum was the real prize for losing 57 games. At least, he’s supposed to be. In his first appearances on basketball’s biggest stages, the international boy of mystery has struggled his way through the FIBA World Cup, summer league and preseason. Then again, he’s still a teenaged 6-foot-6 athletic freak in the mold of Anfernee Hardaway, so there’s room to grow, and that’s all the Jazz should be asking of him in his first season.
Utah’s atrocious defense was somehow worse whenever any rotation player but Alec Burks and Jeremy Evans stepped on the floor last season, and nobody the Jazz brought in over the summer is expected to be of much help, so Snyder will be forced to rely on an improved offense to counter the balance.
Except they weren’t so good on that side of the ball, either, playing at the league’s fifth slowest pace. A quicker tempo suits this roster, but also creates more opportunities for superior teams to expose their defensive woes. It’s a chicken-and-egg argument, really, and Snyder will have to cook both perfectly.
Contributor with something to prove:
For better or worse, Hayward is a max contract player in the NBA four years removed from coming within inches of converting an attempt that would have been the greatest shot in college basketball history, and lofty expectations follow him signing on as the face of the franchise for the next four years.
During Hayward's first season in that role, when he made just $3.45 million in 2013-14, the increased burden translated into the worst shooting season of his career (52.0 TS%), even if his rebounding (14.0 DRB%) and playmaking (24.1 AST%) improved exponentially. At four times the price, he’ll bear an even greater burden, fair or not. A step forward from Favors, Kanter and/or Burks would help lessen that load, as should any floor spacing from Novak/Hood and playmaking by Burke/Exum.
Potential breakout stud:
There is a solution to all of Utah’s woes, and his name is Rudy Gobert. Last year’s 27th overall pick, the 7-foot-2 Frenchman with a 9-foot-7 standing reach submitted startling advanced defensive metrics in a 45-game rookie sample size, grabbing 28.5 percent of available rebounds, blocking 7.4 percent of opponents' shots and generally instilling fear anywhere near the rim in his 9.6 minutes a night.
The 22-year-old followed with an impressive FIBA World Cup performance, shooting 73 percent around the basket and outrebounding the Gasol brothers 13-12 in France’s quarterfinal upset of Spain. And then Gobert capped his summer with 36-minute averages of 17.9 points, 14.8 boards and 3.8 blocks in Las Vegas. The Stifle Tower is launching the NBA’s next French revolution from Salt Lake City.
If Burke, Burks, Favors and Kanter all benefit from playing in Snyder’s faster-paced system (it’s probably safe to assume Evans will), Hayward submits another 15-5-5 season — only more efficiently — both Exum and Gobert prove more mastery than mystery, and the youngsters all play hard defensively for their new coach, the Jazz are probably still a sub-.500 team in the Western Conference. Baby steps.
If everything falls apart:
The young Jazz just jam ambiently and never quite find their rhythm as a band, and Snyder conducts a symphony of suckitude that rivals last year’s horribly tone-deaf performance on both ends of the floor. But, hey, at least another top-10 pick would add another instrument to a promising young orchestra.
Another season in the base lodge isn’t the worst thing. They still serve beer in Park City until 1 a.m.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
Utah will finish 24-58, fourth in the Northwest Division.
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