Rarely do storylines come as cut and dried as this one. The only trouble was, outside of Utah Jazz fans and NBA dorks, nobody really knew Salt Lake City even had a story to tell last year.
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The Jazz stood at 17-33 with just a few games left before the All-Star break, working with the league’s fourth-worst defense. Neither mark was much of a surprise. The team started a defensive zero in Enes Kanter at center and it had recently decided to start an at-times clueless 19-year-old rookie in Dante Exum at point guard after Trey Burke’s poor showing. It was a young roster and the depth was lacking.
The team won two of three before the break to encourage a bit of momentum, and at the trade deadline the team moved Kanter on to Oklahoma City cap fodder and a future first-round draft pick. The draft pick (likely showing up in Utah in 2017, top 14 protected from there until 2020) was a nice haul for a player who was set to be a restricted free agent during the summer, and Kanter had his detractors, but the disappointment was real: Utah dealt the byproduct of a lost 2010-11 season for a draft pick they won’t see for years, as the unending rebuilding project droned on.
Then the Jazz went out and decided to make every sportswriter’s job easy by winning a whole bunch of games.
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With second-year project (eight months ago, at least) center Rudy Gobert shifted into the starting lineup alongside incumbent bruiser Derrick Favors, the Jazz went on to finish the season on a 21-11 roll. The squad turned into an astonishingly good defensive outfit, leading the NBA on that end over the season’s final two months, jumping a ridiculous 13 spots in the defensive ranking to finish 14th overall on that end.
Not to pick on the Lakers, and this is an imperfect comparison, but that’s akin to Los Angeles (the fourth-worst team in the NBA at the All-Star break) roaring back to grab the last playoff spot in the West in eight weeks. Inconceivable for everyone, Byron Scott excluded.
Finishing with 38 wins in the West, with that roster (which fielded 22 different players, as coach Quin Snyder searched for end-of-the-bench answers), was quite the accomplishment full stop. To do so after dropping 33 of your first 50 games, though, was a marvel. The go-to stereotype would have the Jazz plucking wins away from teams that either underestimated them or had given up on the season, but that simply was not the case in Utah on most nights.
No, this is a team with cornerstones. In Gobert, Favors, Exum (who was an uncanny defender for someone his age, even if his offense was lacking) and future All-Star Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have a nucleus.
And they have a hundred different ways to stop you.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Hey. We’re still playing. Winning a lot, too. Something like channel No. 759 on Direct TV. Do tune in.
Did the summer help at all?
No, sadly. Not at all.
Each of Utah’s young talents will benefit from a summer of rest and a move closer to their prime, but Exum tore his left ACL while playing in his home country of Australia in an exhibition match against a team from Slovenia in August. The non-contact tear reminded many of Derrick Rose’s 2012 ACL tear, and it will likely knock the 20-year-old out for the entire season.
(Those who may have any reservations about Exum playing in such a game should can it. Players work in international or stateside games all the summer, and you rarely see any major or even lingering injuries result – it’s basically down to Exum and Paul George. Furthermore, the non-contact nature of the tear meant he could have done it while practicing his jump-stop in an empty gym. On top of that, Exum needed and needs all the reps he can get, as the Jazz wait on him to develop.)
— NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) August 4, 2015
That loss was magnified by Utah’s inability (be it there fault or the market’s) to upgrade in the backcourt over the offseason.
Utah made its run last year with Joe Ingles starting at ostensible shooting guard, with Hayward doing much of the ball handling at point forward and Exum learning the ropes around the offensive fringes. The injured Alec Burks will return from a shoulder injury to play off-guard, and there’s a good chance his dash-and-finish game could fit right in with the reborn Jazz, and 23-year-old Brazilian point guard Raul Neto intrigues, but this is still a thin team.
Blessed with a late lottery pick despite owning the league’s sixth-best record after the break, the Jazz selected Trey Lyles 12th overall. The Kentucky product was shoehorned in at small forward with the Wildcats, but he’ll act as a welcome versatile option as this young team moves forward. The massive Tibor Pleiss will also join the team as a rookie center.
[The BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
Go-to offseason acquisition:
It would have to be Neto, as the Jazz were mostly shut out of the free agent market.
An expert passer, the 6-foot-3 point man could supplant Burke as starter if Burke continues to struggle from the field, and fails to improve on his catch-and-shoot percentages. Neto is hardly an accurate shooter himself, but as a second-quarter guy, he could be the key playmaker for the sort of 12-2 bench runs that put opponents away.
That’s the hope, at least. With three players making eight figures in 2016-17, Gobert and Exum eventually needing their rookie extensions and a not-overwhelming amount of cap space next summer (they’ll have some, but so will everyone), the Jazz will have to really nail their rotation additions moving forward.
It is fair to wonder about this offense.
That seems like an odd thing to say when pointing out that the worst offensive player amongst the heralded late-season starting five is out for the season (sorry for the insult upon the injury, Dante, we dig your game) but his replacement in Burke should have Utah worried.
Burke turned in a terrible second season for the 17th-ranked offense in the NBA. His usage rate nearly doubled that of Exum’s, he shot 36.8 percent from the field and took 5.1 3-pointers a game despite making just 31.8 percent of them. These are unacceptable numbers from a player who shot more often, per-minute, than Hayward.
If Burke improves his spot-up shooting, though, we could have something. With Hayward doing most of the initiation and Burks cutting away from the ball, the Jazz and coach Quin Snyder could have something here. The versatility of rookie Lyles (who struggled mightily in Summer League), competency of Neto, touch of Trevor Booker and outside touch of Rodney Hood could create a capable-enough unit.
(Also, while he’ll never remind of Hakeem Olajuwon down low, the advancements made by Gobert on the offensive end last season were massive. Gobert repeatedly turned the ball over in his rookie year, but even his frightening forays into the paint off of a pass – with a smaller defender either looking to slap the ball away or fall back with a flop – were just fine. He averaged more than 12 points per game as a starter and just 1.9 turnovers per 36 minutes.)
Contributor with something to prove:
It is clearly Burke, who might be approaching bust-dom if he continues to shoot as he did, and as often as he did, in 2014-15.
It’d be nice to wonder if Favors or Hayward or even Gobert could improve enough in 2015-16 to merit serious All-Star consideration, as all are capable even in the talented West. Those three are more or less established, though, unlike the Jazz’s 2013 lottery pick.
The Jazz die on the vine if Burke doesn’t play competent basketball. He can’t average more shots than points, he has to get to the line more often, and while he won’t be able to approximate Exum’s impact defensively, if he learns how to funnel his man into his defensively-dominant frontcourt (that includes Hayward), his size and timing limitations might be mitigated.
Potential breakout stud:
Burks went from one of the league’s more exciting finishers to a shell of himself around the basket in 2014-15. He has the excuse of a shoulder injury to lean on, but we’d prefer that he’d get back to his slashing self this season.
Burks’ ceiling is lower than some of his teammates, and he plays at the team’s least-important position, but if he can displace the 28-year-old Ingles, form some timing with Hayward away from the ball, and bring back that 38 percent 3-point percentage, the Jazz could have themselves an X-factor.
The defense returns, in full force. The Jazz may not be able to displace the Warriors or Milwaukee Bucks as the best defensive teams in the NBA over an 82-game turn (there was some merit to the idea that the NBA didn’t give the Jazz its best shot during that 21-11 run), and if the offense rounds into something competent enough to compete with, the Jazz could have a playoff berth in its sights.
Remember, this was a team that finished just seven games out of the Toughest Playoff Race Ever in the West last season, even after hitting February with just 17 wins.
The NBA might think that it’s ready for Utah this time around, but can anybody ever really be ready for that defense up front?
If everything falls apart:
The loss of the agreeable and exciting Exum casts a pall, as Burke continues to chuck away. Gobert, Favors and Hayward all regress, and a dodgy bench costs the team in the second and fourth quarters.
Meanwhile, the West stays rough and tumble despite Portland and Dallas’ disappointing offseasons, as the home-court advantage and defensive know-how can’t act as enough to help Utah win more games than it loses.
Kelly Dwyer’s Notoriously Unreliable Crystal Ball:
44-38, eighth in the West.
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