Utah’s 2015-16 turn was hamstrung from the outset.
Lead guard Dante Exum looked as skittish and ill-prepared as any teenaged point guard prospect with limited low-end international experience would during his 2014-15 rookie season, but his offseason ACL tear cast a bit of a pall on a Jazz team that was hoping to turn a corner and make the playoffs for just the second time since Jerry Sloan left the franchise.
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Instead, the Jazz slowed the pace behind a pair of should-be reserves at point guard and weathered the too-critical storm of significant injuries to a point where they didn’t embarrass, yet didn’t contend. Exum missed the entire season, the Jazz fell a win short of hitting the .500 mark, and the payoff was yet another year of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors’ youth wasted, coupled with placement at the bottom of the NBA’s draft lottery.
The team worked as well as could be reasonably expected, living the average life behind Shelvin Mack’s charming career turnaround and Rodney Hood’s emergence as a competent swingman. Hayward turned in an All-Star caliber year, while big man Derrick Favors offered the same (if only through 60 contests). Trey Burke and rookie Raul Neto worked as best they could considering their limitations, while Alec Burks slashed his way into our hearts yet again during limited (31 games) action.
Most impressive was the team’s work when center Rudy Gobert was healthy, as expected. The team looked all the part of a real Western Conference comer-in-waiting, stopping the entire 2015-16 turn from feeling like a lost year (when, regardless of how things turn out moving forward, it still may very well be). Coach Quin Snyder slowed his team to the league’s most lethargic pace out of principle, need and due, at times, to advantage.
The team still had its issues pulling out close games, but that was to be expected with so much Strum und Drang at the point guard position (hardly a shot at Mack, who was an absolute mensch and pro for this squad) and the team’s unease with pushing the ball to overcome slim deficits.
Utah felt like it should have been in the postseason, and you can bet the band on the bit was well champed even by the time the 2016 playoffs ended. The team is tired of being done by April and, frankly, we cannot wait to watch them work in May.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Back in Utah, let's get ready for a BIG season!
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) August 31, 2016
(Because, see, the 2015-16 season didn’t happen.)
Did the summer help at all?
For a team with a transactions list that can probably fit onto one page … yes. This summer only added to the cheer.
Dante Exum may not ever round into an All-Star, following that ACL tear, and he didn’t allow Jazz fans the chance to spy him during Australia’s impressive early run during the 2016 Olympics in Rio as he chose to sit that turn out. Still, Exum claims to be fully healthy and his presence will act as a destructive force for both ends for Snyder’s schemes.
Ahead of Dante is George Hill, whom the Jazz dealt for on NBA draft night.
Rarely do top of the order-level NBA point guards become available for lower run lottery picks, and yet the Jazz were able to score Hill straight out of central casting in return for the team’s No. 12 pick. Hill’s assist numbers took a dive during his last year in Indiana in 2015-16 with Paul George dominating the offense, but his defense is superb and if his nearly-41 percent three-point shooting sustains the Jazz could have the player that pushes them over the edge.
Veteran Joe Johnson isn’t that sort of contributor anymore, but in spite of working over a combined 45,000 regular and postseason minutes in his pro lifetime the swingman should fit in exceedingly well with Utah, provided his long career doesn’t take an unexpected drop off at age 35.
Once it became apparent that Johnson cared more about his minutes and shots (his career, not ours) upon his move to Miami (over Cleveland) last spring, teams knew that the suitors for the seven-time All-Star wouldn’t be limited to the typical factions alongside LeBron, Durant, Coach Pop and Doc Rivers.
It is to Utah’s credit that they were able to secure his services for two years and $22 million, even if that price tag seems a bit dear. That was well-established even before Gordon Hayward’s finger injury downshifted Utah’s momentum, pushing Johnson into the starting lineup to begin the season.
As was the case when the team acquired two first round picks (including Rodney Hood and a 2017 selection from Golden State), three second rounders and cash for easing Andre Iguodala’s move to Golden State in 2013, the Jazz took advantage of San Antonio’s need to clear cap space and pounced on the available Boris Diaw in an offseason deal with the Spurs. Diaw could also fall off the table like a Bruce Sutter split-finger fastball this season, but the savvy do-everything big man could be exactly what this squad needs to beat the early fourth quarter blues.
“Early Fourth Quarter Blues” is a fantastic Hank Mobley song, if you’ve got eight minutes to spare.
Potential breakout stud
Dante Exum, still just a year and a half removed from finishing up a miserable offensive season in his first NBA go-round, seems like the finger-poppin’ choice here. He may struggle to contribute consistently again on that end, and George Hill will earn the lion’s share of minutes as starter, but his defensive work on the bench could have Exum turning into a League Pass darling by the start of 2017.
Bully for him. We’re taking the guy that could earn some hardware.
Fully healthy, Rudy Gobert could not only turn these Jazz into a top-three defensive team (up from seventh in 2015-16), but it is possible that he’ll cobble enough rebounds and blocks to bridge the sort of no-stats/nice-stats gulf that Marc Gasol managed when he won Defensive Player of the Year. There might even be enough buckets, with keen passers like Hayward, Hill and Johnson around, to push Gobert well into double-figures (he averaged 9.1 points per game last season, with the Jazz ranking 30th in pace) and an All-Star berth.
Gobert hasn’t exactly been stomping around the fringes over the last couple of years, but with eight nationally televised Jazz appearances on TNT, ESPN and ABC this season, we could be in for a sly look at semi-stardom.
Crediting the arrival of a 3.5 assists per game-man in George Hill as the move to end all moves for a team that badly needs creative playmaking for its two studs up front might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it is exactly that sort of competence plus a return to full health that turns teams from also-rans into near-contenders. Or better.
(But probably “near-contenders.”)
A dervish of an in-shape Diaw season coupled with Johnson’s array of late-game moves and the return to healthy form of Gordon Hayward’s all-around brilliance should kick the team’s offense up into another stratum. This team already passed a ton with Shelvin Mack out there trying to keep things afloat, and the addition of two starting-level point guards in exchange for that wasted year (in the form of Exum’s injury, and the lottery pick that resulted) could have this team rolling.
The team’s point differential last season didn’t remind of a 40-win team, nor was the eye-test that tuned in. Sometimes the most obvious candidate to break out is in place for a reason.
If everything falls apart
Injuries and age are worth worrying about. There’s no getting around this.
Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks missed a combined 92 games last season, Gordon Hayward will need time following his finger setback in order to work his way into shape, Dante Exum may need all of 2016-17 to align himself to NBA speed (even with his quickness), and even this impressive array of depth may not be enough to stave off repeated hits of bad luck.
There is also the very real chance that, in direct defiance of how their career arcs appear to be unfolding, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson may not have the canniness needed to overcome their advancing ages. Ask New Orleans – sometimes repeated shots to the belt can get in the way of hamstringing the NBA’s Next Great Thing.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
51-31, sixth in the West.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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