This post has been a long time coming, but after last night's ascension onto "Cloud 9," I don't think there is any better time to write it. How good is this team and how good are they going to be this season? That is the question almost every team asks themselves at this time of year. I'm not sure I have the answer about the Jazz, but I have been very amused by what the NBA "experts" are saying on the matter.
I obviously use the term "experts" loosely, because, let's be honest, it's really really hard to be correct about NBA season prognosticating. Some use statistical theorems. Some use logic and pie charts. Some use the naked eye. But I think they are all inappropriately sleeping on the Jazz. For instance:
John Hollinger is a statistical guru for ESPN who uses a statistical model he invented after studying the statistics of basketball for 6 straight months at Harvard University. Okay, I don't know where or why he developed it, but his projections are made up solely of statistics and statistical tendencies. He has the Jazz finishing this season at
47-35, 3rd in the Northwest Division and 6th in the Western Conference
It seems like a low win total for a Jazz team, but you have to remind yourself that Hollinger takes all of the bias out of his projections.
Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus also uses statistics and his stats don't smile down upon the Jazz at all. Pelton and his cohort Bradford Doolittle have also put together advanced statistical projections and have determined that the Jazz will play 500 ball this year.
41-41, 4th in the NW division and 10th in the Western Conference. Again, no bias, only statistics.
And then there are your NBA experts who have just considered probably a hodgepodge of everything from numbers to watching films, to "following their hearts," I don't know their methods.
A group of ESPN NBA experts averaged their projections and got:
47-35, 4th in the NW division and 7th in the Western Conference
48-34, and the 7th or 8th seed in the West
And my personal favorite prediction? Rick Fox on NBATv's Utah Jazz Preview. He says the Jazz will be the 6th seed in the West and will be upset by the Lakers in the playoffs again, but not make it to the Western Conference finals. So by his logic, the Lakers will have to finish 2nd or 3rd in the West. I'm guessing that he just started throwing out random numbers and guesses. His cohort, Brent Barry also thinks the Jazz will make the playoffs, but not have home court advantage in the first round.
So why play out the season? I can't find any expert who thinks the Jazz will finish better than 50 games and a 5th seed. So it's pretty easy to see that the Jazz will win 47-50 games and finish 5th, 6th or 7th in the West.
Do you buy it? I don't. I would be shocked if this team finishes with less than 52 wins and I wouldn't be surprised at all if they finished with the number 2 seed. The caveat here is that the difference between the 2nd and 8th seed in the west this year, might be only 3 or 4 games, which makes predicting the outcomes almost impossible.
Over the last 3 seasons (07-10), the difference in games won by the 2nd seed and the 8th seed has been an average of 5.6 games a season. Contrast that with the previous 3 seasons (2004-2007) which averaged more than 14 games won between the 2nd and 8th seed, and you can see just how competitive the Western Conference has become recently. The moral of the story is that if anyone tries to tell you, expert or not, that one team is a clear cut favorite to capture the 2nd seed, then they are just trying to sell you something. Don't buy it. Which is why I sort of laugh at the low end seeding projections for this Jazz team. If they can manage to just win one or two more games than these predictions allot for, the Jazz could vault all the way up to the 2nd best team in the West.
But what are people outside of Utah missing with this Jazz team? Because even if the Jazz don't finish top 4 in the West, I can tell you that they are going to win more than 50 games. And I hate to even imagine what types of things would have to happen for this team to finish 41-41 overall. But here is a list of things that I think most people don't realize about this Jazz team.
1. The Jazz aren't being coached by Jim O'Brien
No offense to the Indiana Pacers coach, but Jerry Sloan is not some average, run of the mill, be able to get guys to play for you for a season here and there coach. He's currently top 3, and probably top 20 coaches in the history of the NBA. He hasn't won a championship and I guess some of that could be his fault, but the guy gets production from every team he coaches. We have all heard the statistics about how often he takes his team to the playoffs and we all remember when he took a junior varsity team to the cusp of the NBA playoffs in 2004. But most importantly, we are seeing the fruits of Jerry's "system" and attitude in the play of the Jazz this preseason. Guys like Gordan Hayward don't step onto a floor and put up 26 against the Lakers without some help. Players don't practice hard and show such effort on the court unless they have it instilled into them by their leaders. Sloan's demands that basketball be played as a team and with fundamentals lead to better team basketball and ultimately wins. With this team, I would think that Sloan could coach them to a handful of extra wins over an average coach like Jim O'brien or Paul Westphal. Some years Sloan probably accounts for an extra 15-20 wins.
2. Change is good for this Utah Jazz team
It is easy to say, "Boozer is about as good as Al Jefferson, but Jefferson is new, so he needs some time, so Boozer is a little bit better than Jefferson. Jazz lost Wesley Matthews and Raja Bell is a nice replacement, but 10 years older, so that's a little worse and they are replacing Kyle Korver with Gordan Hayward and Korver shot 52% from the 3 point line and Hayward can't replicate that, so the Jazz got worse at three positions. So obviously the Jazz got worse and they won 53 games last season, so 50 is probably about right for this year." I have heard that sort of linear argument more than a few times this offseason. But the Jazz actually received more than they lost this offseason.
The reason? Versatility. Jefferson and Boozer might have put up similar numbers, but the fact that Jefferson is longer and plays bigger than Boozer will help the Jazz immensely. Jefferson is not a great defender. He has troubles moving laterally and has a lot of work to do in defending the pick and roll. But he is tall and long and can defend opposing centers straight up with some success. Boozer struggled to play pick and roll defense AND guard size. At least Jefferson can guard size. Offensively, I believe Jefferson and Boozer are very similar, but Jefferson's length is going to help greatly.
Bell may be older than Matthews, but he plays similar to better defense and is actually a better 3 point shooter than Matthews. But most importantly, Bell adds a veteran presence that has been lacking since Derek Fisher snuck back to Hollywood. It isn't a coincidence that Fisher's lone year in Utah was highlighted with an advance to the Western Conference Finals and big road wins in the playoffs. From the day he arrived in Utah, he talked, not about getting better, but about playing for a championship. He changed the culture and mindset of the team. Bell will do the same. His defensive toughness will also rub off on guys like Gordan Hayward and CJ Miles.
Hayward isn't going to shoot 52% from the 3 point line. But he will do a lot of nice things. He will have his ups and downs and will certainly hit a rookie wall about 40 games into the season. But he won't be asked to replace Kyle Korver either. Andrei Kirilenko, CJ Miles and maybe even Jeremy Evans will also help fill the void that Korver leaves on the bench. But you know what Hayward can do about as well as Korver? Shoot freebies. The Jazz still have a closer who can hit free throws when opponents are fouling intentionally.
3. The Jazz are deeper than anyone outside of Utah realizes
Besides Jefferson, Bell and Hayward, the Jazz also added Earl Watson, Jeremy Evans and Francisco Elson. Watson should provide solid backup point guard minutes, Elson proves that you can never have too many 7 footers on a roster and Evans already has Jerry Sloan considering him for the main rotation.
But the two new players I am most excited to see this season are CJ Miles and Kyrylo Fesenko. I know they have both been with the Jazz for the last few seasons, but the way both of them have improved, it is like the Jazz picked up two offseason free agents. Fesenko has developed a few offensive moves and looks in much better shape and CJ Miles attacks the rim with purpose and strength these days. Last season's CJ Miles would shoot three pointers to try to bring the Jazz back, but against the Lakers last night, it was a hoop and a foul and an alley-oop that helped trim the Laker lead in the 3rd quarter. The Jazz don't need Fesenko to be an all-star, but they do need him to play 10-15 productive minutes a night, which I believe he can now do. Last season he couldn't even play 15 minutes without being too gassed. And I haven't even mentioned Mehmet Okur who will be a great sixth man by season's end.
4. The safety is being taken off the AK-47
Take a look again at that 2003-2004 team that nearly made the playoffs. Andrei Kirilenko's numbers that year: 16.5 points, 2.8 blocks, 2 steals, 3 assists, and 8 rebounds...average...per game...for 78 games..in just his 3rd year. It wasn't his fault he was offered a maximum contract. Blame the numbers he was putting up. He also got to the line more than 6 times a game that season. Now look at this preseason numbers: 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, a block in 20 minutes a game. And he's shooting 58% from the field and 50% from the 3 point line. Okay, he's only taken two three pointers, but still. The Jazz are going to have a handful of games that read something along the lines of 15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks for AK and the Jazz will be better for it. If the Jazz get 65-70 healthy games out of Andrei, the Jazz are going to make the playoffs.
A couple weeks ago, I predicted 52 wins for this team. And now I am thinking that maybe even I sold them a bit short. Here's hoping I've become an "expert" at predicting the Jazz's win totals.