BDL 25: Expect the Utah Jazz to take a big leap forward

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5334/" data-ylk="slk:Rodney Hood">Rodney Hood</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4724/" data-ylk="slk:Gordon Hayward">Gordon Hayward</a> can’t believe it either. (Tom Pennington/ Getty Images)
Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward can’t believe it either. (Tom Pennington/ Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

Fans and media generally pick one team to improve considerably before every season, to the point where once games start that group usually sneaks up on no one. The identity of this year’s group was obvious as soon as the 2015-16 season ended, if not earlier.

The Utah Jazz, who lost out on a playoff berth right before their last game of the season, are widely expected to make the postseason, perhaps even easily enough to nab home-court advantage in the first round. Quin Snyder’s young team added veterans in the offseason, will get several key players back from serious injury, and looks ready to take the next step. Bet against them at your own peril.

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All the pieces are in place for a very successful year. The Jazz followed up a strong final few months of 2014-15 with a 40-42 campaign, their best finish since winning 43 games in 2012-13 (another non-playoff year). Ending up in ninth place was relatively disappointing given preseason expectations, but the Jazz dealt with more adversity than many anticipated.

Point guard Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014, tore his ACL in August and missed all of what was supposed to be a crucial campaign for a high-potential player. Shooting guard Alec Burks joined him on the shelf in December after suffering a fractured fibula, robbing the Jazz of what looked like their backcourt of the future. Highly effective big men Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert each missed at least 20 games, as well, which kept the team from exercising its biggest advantage on many nights.

The good news is that a lot went right. When Favors and Gobert did team up, they served as one of the league’s top interior tandems, giving Utah a very good chance of dominating the paint on any night. Playing two traditional big men is out of fashion in today’s NBA, but Snyder has used that to the team’s advantage. The Jazz gave many opponents fits throughout the season — including the 73-win Golden State Warriors, albeit without any wins to show for it — and should do the same this year. Plus, Gordon Hayward continued to develop and contributed in various facets with a near 20-point average. The frontcourt was genuinely one of the conference’s best.

The injuries to Exum and Burks decimated Utah’s backcourt depth, but a breakout campaign from shooting guard Rodney Hood helped to ease the blows. Hood became a much-needed secondary creator next to Hayward and hit several big shots, earning confidence from Snyder and exceeding expectations in just his second NBA season. If the injured players return at full strength and develop as expected, the Jazz could boast one of the league’s best collection of guards on rookie contracts.

The Jazz boasted many of these same strengths prior to last season, as well, and they nonetheless fell victim to several issues and failed to make the playoffs. That’s likely why the front office made a concerted effort to create depth this offseason, adding various veterans with proven track records. The big addition was point guard George Hill, obtained from the Indiana Pacers in a three-team deal that saw them give up the No. 12 pick in the draft. Hill will be the starter and bring much-needed stability to the position, which saw a number of players rotate through the starting lineup in 2015-16. Hill will allow Exum to ease into his return without the pressure of developing too quickly, as well, which should be great for the Jazz’s future.

The rest of the additions are past their primes but very capable of thriving as reserves. Joe Johnson should be excellent as an instant-offense type and late-game shot-taker, while Boris Diaw will give Snyder frontcourt flexibility if he’s motivated. Holdovers like Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack played too many minutes last year but should be more able to contribute because of it this year, too.

With the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, and Memphis Grizzlies all aging or diminished by offseason departures, there’s no reason to think that the Jazz cannot take advantage and become one of the West’s second-tier playoff teams. This group is still well off the upper echelon of the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Clippers, but they could finish fourth or fifth if a few factors go their way. The Jazz are not sleepers — they’re one of the West’s most likely playoff teams. Making the playoffs as a lower seed would represent a successful season anyway, but many people in the organization would probably be disappointed things didn’t go better.

Don’t call this team a sleeper. Instead, impress your friends by acting as if you knew they were a playoff-caliber team all along. They will sing your praises and invite you to all the best parties.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

The Trail Blazers, and the promise and peril of ‘pretty good’

Will the Pistons ever get into gear?

Introducing the (maybe) thoroughly modern Grizzlies

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers core worth fearing?

It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds

How will the Warriors recover from a historic Finals collapse?

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers’ core worth fearing?

Counting on the Clippers to contend is insane, so call them crazy

The 76ers and the fascinating challenge of figuring it all out

On the final ‘couple of years’ of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA

Can Jimmy Butler and ‘the three alphas’ coexist on the Bulls?

The Knicks make no sense, which makes all the sense in the world

LeBron, the Cavs, and writing sequels to storybook endings

Russell Westbrook is going to absolutely go nuts this year

The Spurs’ post-Duncan challenge of winning the West

The Lakers venture into the post-Kobe era

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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