Upstill: What to expect from the Utah Jazz this season
After a busy summer, the NBA season is closing in and with multiple new additions to the 2016-17 Utah Jazz, expectations are high. Many NBA experts expect the revamped Jazz to not only compete for a playoff spot, but to also win a first-round series. Here is what makes this year’s version of the Jazz so appealing.
Lineup flexibility and depth
Last season, the Jazz had a slew of injuries that ended up costing the team the postseason. Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey vowed after the season, “The players are like everybody else, they saw what happened last season and they know that we know that we need some reinforcements. Come early July, we plan on being very active in the free-agent market.” Lindsey made good on that promise.
After Dante Exum’s injury last summer, the Jazz point guard depth went out the window. They started their 2013 second-round draft pick, rookie Raul Neto, for most of last season. Neto did his best, but was miscast in this role. The Jazz backup was Trey Burke, traded this summer to the Washington Wizards, who is now on the verge of becoming a draft bust if things don’t work out for him in the nation’s capital. To Lindsey’s credit, the Jazz acquired Shelvin Mack at the trade deadline, but he was still the third string point guard in Atlanta.
The first move of the offseason was trading for George Hill. Hill provides Exum with a soft landing spot, allowing him to come back at his own pace. The position that was weakest on last year’s team now might be the strongest. Hill is a top 15 point guard in the league; Exum, when fully back from his ACL tear, looks to be one of the best backups in the game; and Mack and Neto are probably the best third-string point guards in the entire league.
The next move was to provide depth at the wing position. Lindsey inked Joe Johnson to a two-year deal. Last season, after Alec Burks went down, coach Quin Snyder was forced to play Joe Ingles and Chris Johnson more minutes than he may have liked. Ingles’ best role is being a fourth wing and now he is probably the fifth. Chris Johnson isn’t a good enough player to get many minutes and would be a surprise to make this roster this year. With the addition of Joe Johnson, the Jazz can now go five deep at the wing position, something most NBA teams can’t do.
The last move of the offseason was trading for Boris Diaw. With Rudy Gobert missing 22 games and Derrick Favors out 23 games, the Jazz played and started a combination of Trevor Booker, Trey Lyles and Jeff Withey. Switching Booker for Diaw gives the Jazz a more versatile player, and one with much more playoff experience.
Last season the only team that started two rookies that often was the Jazz. Lyles and Neto started 33 games and the Jazz almost made the playoffs. With the moves Lindsey made this offseason, depth shouldn’t be an issue.
One of the exciting things with the new additions is that players who would start on most teams will be able to take advantage of matchups against other opposing teams’ weaker benches. Imagine Johnson matched up against a player like Chase Budinger; Johnson will destroy him.
Last year’s team struggled to close games. The main reason being they fell behind during the first 43 minutes of the game when the starters were off the court. Now with the Jazz’s depth, not only should they be able to keep up with other teams’ second units, they should be able to extend the lead against them. Playing with the lead is much easier than playing from behind. This will help the Jazz improve their play in the clutch.
Another benefit to having depth is lineup flexibility. Hill is the perfect partner for Exum because Hill can ease the pressure on Exum. Plus, they can share the court with each other due to their ability to defend both guard positions and play off the ball.
Gordon Hayward, Johnson and Ingles can all play three positions: shooting guard, small forward and power forward. All three players can take the place of a point guard and run the offense; Rodney Hood and Burks can also do this. And they have the ability to defend both guard positions and small forward.
The Jazz bigs also provide many options. Gobert and Withey should only be guarding centers while Lyles, Favors and Diaw will be able to match up against either big position. All of them should be able to handle switching to a smaller player in pick-and-roll situations.
The Jazz will have the flexibility to play big or small and be good while doing either. The Jazz could play a quadruple wing lineup, similar to last season’s triple wing. A lineup where all positions can effectively shoot threes or handle the ball is available to the coaching staff. Defensively, the Jazz could put out a lineup that can switch on any pick-and-roll and take the opposing team out of its offense. This is the true strength of this team.
The one positive that came from the lack of depth due to injuries last season was providing many of the young Jazz players a chance to develop on the court. Lyles is the best example. At the beginning of last season he looked completely lost and couldn’t hit a three-point shot to save his life (16.7 percent). But by the end of the season, he had developed into a key piece on the team. He would never have had the opportunity to grow on the court if there had been veterans ahead of him.
Hood and Gobert will have a full year of starting behind them. Both of these players now know what it takes to play against starting level players, game in and game out for a full season. Also, they learned how to prepare their bodies in the offseason for being a full-time starter. Hood will hopefully take the second to third year jump, which is usually the biggest jump for players during their careers.
Exum came in to the league with a teenage body, but with a full year of developing it, he has put on about 15 pounds of muscle and still has his elite first step that made him the fifth pick of the draft. During this past year he has also had plenty of time to rework his shot. As a rookie he averaged just 34.9 percent from the field. Hopefully, all the hard work will pay off this season.
Last season the Jazz averaged 35.5 percent from three-point range while 29.6 percent of their possessions ended in a three-point shot (ranking 12th). This season the Jazz are replacing Booker’s 29.3 percent from three with Diaw’s 36.2, Chris Johnson’s 27.5 with Joe Johnson’s 39.4 and Burke’s 34.4 with Hill’s 40.8.
To complement this, Lyles and Neto substantially improved their three-point shooting over the course of last season and finished averaging 38.3 and 39.5 percent respectively. If they and Exum continue improving, the Jazz’s three-point shooting could be one of their best weapons. In a recent article CBS’s Zach Harper said, “This may be one of the best three-point shooting teams in basketball next season. The Jazz hype train will eventually become a runaway death machine, but for now, all aboard!” Three-point shooting is a key to success in the NBA. Nine of the top ten teams in three-point attempts made the playoffs. The two finals teams, Cleveland and Golden State, ranked first and third.
Two seasons ago, after Exum and Gobert were inserted into the starting lineup, the Jazz quickly became the best defensive team in the league. They finished holding opponents to a 94.8 defensive rating, which is pretty incredible. That number might not be sustainable, but having both Exum and Gobert healthy again, the Jazz should be able to recapture some of the defensive magic that made them so special two years ago.
This is always the No. 1 factor in a team’s success. The Portland Trail Blazers, which made the playoffs last spring and won a playoff series, benefited from plenty of luck in the health department. Portland’s top seven rotation players missed a total of 13 games all season. In the playoff series it won, its opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers, lost its top two All-Stars to injuries, helping Portland move on to the next round. How far would the Blazers have gone if they had the injuries of the Jazz? Forty wins would have been a stretch.
Most of the Jazz’ injuries affected key rotation players. Favors missed 23 games, Gobert 22, Burks 51 and Exum the entire season. If the law of averages evens out and the Jazz get the health of the Blazers, the playoffs are almost a lock.
Hopefully the Jazz, with their newfound depth, can take a page from the San Antonio Spurs’ playbook and keep their players’ minutes down. Last season, the Spurs had only two players (Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge) average more than 30 minutes a games. The Jazz, on the other hand, had five players average more than 30 minutes a game. If the coaching staff can keep the players’ minutes closer to the 30 mark, hopefully they will be fresher, which should lead to fewer injuries and fewer games missed.
The Jazz missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. This new and improved team is looking to end that drought and bring postseason basketball back to the Vivint Smart Home Arena and their fans.
Follow Kincade on Twitter @kincade12 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Published at Wed, 05 Oct 2016 16:19:00 +0000