Off-Season 2010: Better, or worse?

Okay Jazzarinos, it’s October and we’re already completely in love with our team again. We added a popular player from a previous season in Raja Bell. We’ve gotten rid of a productive player from last season in Carlos Boozer. There have been a number of changes from last season; those are just two of the bigger ones.

By my appraisal, some of our biggest problems over the last few seasons have been:

  • Interior Defense
  • Bench Stability
  • Outside Shooting
  • Health

How have the Jazz addressed these points? Let’s examine these in greater detail . . .

Interior Defense

This has been the big question since the Karl Malone / Antoine Carr / Greg Ostertag days for the Jazz. Part of the defensive philosophy over the years has been to play other teams in single coverage. This includes playing really good inside scorers in single coverage. For example, the Jazz defended guys like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in single coverage, for the most part. Why? The Jazz coaches did not want to fall prey to offenses swinging the ball around to an open guy. They would rather have a big man beat them one on one, rather than give a guard an open shot.

That makes sense, and has resulted in some series wins for Jerry Sloan these last twenty years. A great example of this was the year Jerry dared Shaq to win games by himself. He scored a lot on Ostertag and Jarron Collins . . . but the Jazz won the series in 4 games.

The last few years the Jazz have been defeated in the playoffs by one of the longest teams in recorded history. To make things worse, the Jazz have countered this length with the skilled line-up of 6’9 Carlos Boozer and 6’8 Paul Millsap. Millsap thrived in the playoffs, while Boozer shrank. We saw this on offense, for sure. But it was most noticeable on defense. The Jazz defensive schemes then had to change, and involve really poor double teams – that allowed a good ball sharing team like the Lakers to get a lot of open shots.

Utah does not look like they have changed their defensive scheme, so any actual improvement in interior defense will have to come from a) personnel changes and b) individual player improvement.

Carlos Boozer had all the potential in the world to be a great interior defender based on his agility and footwork. He was so mobile and quick on offense – but never did any of that stuff on defense. I wonder why? He was, though, under sized to guard really big guys. He hardly ever blocked shots. He was a monster on the defensive glass – but most of the time that was a rebound he got off of someone else on the team playing good defense making that guy miss. (Not Boozer making the guy miss) Boozer is gone now, and in his place, we have Paul Millsap. This is an obvious upgrade, despite the fact that ‘Sap is shorter. What he loses in size he makes up in heart though. Millsap does not get the respect from the refs, but perhaps that will change this year as he’ll be a starter.

Promoting Millsap leaves a hole at back-up power forward. That is, a hole unless you recognize that this ‘hole’ is going to be filled by Rookie Jeremy "Elevator Action" Evans and Boris Diaw Andrei Kirilenko. Evans is not going to be strong enough to keep someone like Bynum out of the paint, but he has the length, quickness, and hang time to get up there and send his shot back. Kirilenko spending more time at the four brings our best shot blocker closer to the paint than he was standing out 22 feet away. Is Evans/AK and upgrade in interior defense over Millsap? I don’t know – but we still HAVE Millsap, so at the very least, this is a wash.

Mehmet Okur is out, and we don’t know when he’ll be back. What’s worse is that when he is back we won’t know how good he’ll be. I think Memo is a good defender. He’s not going to get a ton of blocks, but he did average over a block a game last year. He’s working on his defense, and he is getting better. If he was good enough for us to win a series with him playing Yao Ming one on one in the paint, then he is good enough for us to challenge the Lakers in the playoffs. That said – the Lakers have been really lucky the last two seasons because he’s been injured by the time we got a chance to play them.

Because Memo is not there we’re going to be starting Al Jefferson. Jefferson is another guy who can block a shot, but isn’t going to be on an All-NBA teams. He’s going to play the center, and thankfully, there are very few good offensive centers in the league right now. (Dwight Howard has fewer post moves than I do) This way it’s a little incorrect to balance the defensive trade off of Boozer to Jefferson (at least not until Memo gets back). It’s more of a Boozer to Millsap *and* Memo to Al equation.

I think that Boozer and Al are both not so hot on defense. Al instead of Memo looks like a step back to me. That said, Millsap is going to check the better scorer each time down the court in a half court set. Of course, in the case where the Jazz have to face a team with two solid bigs (you know, like the Lakers), then we are in trouble.

Of course, we’re looking okay at back-up center with Francisco Elson and new and improved Level 3 Kyrylo Fesenko. (he picked up a new feat as well!) Fes is doing okay right now against smaller guys, the real test will be against the Clippers. That said, I do think that Elson and Fesenko are better than Fesenko and Koufos. Add into the equation that Fesenko is improved from last season as well. I think we’re better here.

Lastly, Memo will come back and will still be a solid man defender in the paint. He’s not going to be so hot defending the pick and roll – but not a lot of teams run a pick and roll for their center. (I actually don’t know, because I don’t have all my spread sheets to look at!) Over all, I think we did get better at interior defense on paper. (The wonders of losing Carlos Boozer – I wonder, were there any people out there who vehemently defended him? I don’t really remember any...)

What will remain to be seen would be if this plays out over the course of the season, though.

Bench stability

We had a really good bench in the Finals seasons. We had scoring from a number of areas, we had defenders, and we had a floor general. Over the last few seasons we’ve had some of that, but not all of it. Could this season be ‘that’ season for the Jazz?

We will have scorers off the bench this year – maybe not at the beginning of the season, but surely at the end. It will, of course, start with Okur. He was an All-Star, and having him school back ups (when he gets back on the court) will really make the Jazz versatile in the 2nd quarter of games. Next, would be that one of C.J. Miles or Raja Bell will also be coming off the bench. They both have solid three point shooting ability and know how to pass the ball in this system. The wildcard, obviously, isn’t going to be AK this season (like it usually is). This year off the bench it’s going to be the Fabled Knicks Pick: Gordon Hayward. He’s not making shots right now, which hurts his apparent production on the floor. That said, he’s a very solid shooter who can make plays. His Summer League play was not a fluke. Over the course of the season he’s going to only get more familiar with the system and his place within it. That’s three guys off the bench who are going to be able to play Jazz basketball and not hurt the team when on the court – who are all coming off the bench.

Defenders? Well, Evans, Memo and this Earl Watson guy are all capable of playing defense at the NBA level. They all have different talents – Evans is a rookie with crazy athleticism. That alone will get you 5 mins of burn. Memo is a former starter who has had to defend some of the best bigmen in the league before. Earl Watson is a journeyman guard who has been in the league for a while now. You don’t stay in the league unless you can stay in front of your man. Aside from those three, you also have Elson and Fesenko. It could be worse. And if Miles starts, then you have Bell off the bench as well.

Sounds good so far, but what about that floor general issue? Howard Eisley was a floor general. Do we have a Howard Eisley on this team? The easy answer is no. The hard answer is maybe. The science fiction angle is yes (if you put them all together into one guard). The real answer is somewhere in between all three of those. Our bench is only going to be as good as the leader of the bench. I think our bench is better, but this is another thing that we’ll have to see in game.

Outside Shooting

As an aside, have you watched a lot of non-Jazz games? Some of these teams are just crazy for the three point shot. If Jerry coached those teams he would be in jail for murdering some of his players. This year we’re going to be without Kyle Korver and without Wesley Matthews. Both guys could hit from deep. We will miss both guys this year. However, Miles suggests that he can hit from deep at a close to 40% rate this year. I want to see that. We also have Raja Bell, Hayward (who showed in the Summer League that he has NBA range), and some of the usual suspects (like Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and crew). I think we’ll be okay from deep this year, and perhaps have to spread the wealth around a little bit. This makes the Jazz team less predictable to defend though, so that’s not bad.

Oh yeah, and later on in the season we’ll have Memo back as well. He’s really good at threes, unless you forgot.

Health

This issue gives us more trouble yearly than evil schedule makers or the Lakers do. I have a unique perspective on this issue as someone who is, for a lack of a better term, looking at sports medicine injuries daily. At risk of jinxing the team all I will say is that: Oklahoma City was one of the more uninjured teams last year. I wonder how good we’d be if we were that healthy.

Better or worse? We shall see over the next few months.

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