I've been working on this post for a week. I wanted to do a preview of the team, and I wanted to do it right — to go through all the players and write about who they can become.
It's nice to finally have it done. All 5,000 words.
A month ago, I wrote a piece about pre-season Power Rankings. I never got around to posting it. But here's what I predicted we'd read a lot about with the Jazz (and yes, I really did write this a month ago):
#11: Utah Jazz. — Yawn. Al for Boozer. Raja for Wesley Matthews. Same team, different flavor. 50 wins, 6-8 seed, first or second round playoff exit.
Pretty much sums up the sentiment on the "expert" blogosphere, no?
The main problem with all these previews is the "experts" seriously follow only 3-5 teams. The "experts" have no idea what is going on at the Jazz training camp and preseason games. They have no idea how well Al is fitting in so far (not perfect, but better than I expected this early). They have no idea what Fesenko has become. They have no idea that defense suddenly appears to be a strength. They have no idea what they are talking about (remember that when you read previews of, say, the Bucks or the Bobcats—they are likely to be as inaccurate and absurd as the previews for the Jazz).
So I'm going to do a Jazz preview here. And I'm going to do it right. I'm going to write what the "experts" would be saying IF they knew what was going on with the Jazz.
I'm also going to do this preview in a different way: as if all the experts and all the fans could suddenly pull their heads out of the toilet and remember that the stats don't matter, the box scores don't matter, that scoring champs don't matter—the only thing that matters is how much does a guy help his team win.
So I'm going to talk about Jazzmen making runs for awards that they will never compete for in the real world. I'm going to talk about All-Star seasons for guys with no chance at making the All-Star team. I'm going to talk about intangibles as if they are as important as talent, about defense as if it is as important as offense, about deflections and disruptions and tough D that forces bad shots as if it is as important as highlight-reel steals and blocks, I'm going to talk about guys helping the team by NOT scoring 25 a game, even though they could.
I'm also not going to predict. Anyone who claims to be able to predict how the Western Conference will end up is full of it. The teams are so good and so close that a minor injury, a couple bad bounces, a crazy scheduling quirk could mean the difference between a #2 seed and a #7.
Instead I'm going to talk about this team's ceiling. About how could they can become if they come together the right way. I'm not going to say Deron will win the MVP. But I am going to suggest that we watch what could be an epic run for it (except, of course, that he won't make a serious run because the Jazz have too many quality scorers for him to score 25 a game—even though he could—remember, I'm writing from an ideal world where voters actually see through such nonsense and realize if a guy makes his team better by scoring only 17, then by golly that is more impressive than a guy scoring 30 while his teammates stand around and slowly regress)
Anyway, here's what to look forward to this year:
1. Deron Williams' run for the MVP
Deron is the rarest of superstars. He currently has a single peer, and that peer is on his last few hurrahs. Aside from that peer, Deron can do what no other superstar can do. LeBron can't do it. Wade can't. Kobe? Utterly preposterous and laughable. Rose? Roy? Melo? Nope, nope, and nope. Not Dirk, not Chris Paul.
Deron can dominate a game without also always having the ball in his hands.
Among current players, only Tim Duncan can compare.
And if the Jazz — the team, you know that collection of 12 guys who are all working together to win every game they can — if the Jazz reach their potential, it will be because Deron perfected dominating the game without dominating the ball. In fact, since the Jazz ceiling is a championship this year, Deron's ability to do this could be the single most important skill in the entire NBA.
So besides not needing the ball in his hands at all times, what else will we get from our team leader?
Brilliant play at PG, huge threes, unstoppable drives to the baskets, ridiculous passes, unfathomable fast breaks, an ache to win, a hunger to take over when things get tough, a drive to tell his teammates that he'll take care of them. A fun player to play with, a great guy to hang out with, a guy who trusts and respects his coach, who trusts and respects his teammates, and a guy who does all the little things to make the guys click, on and off the court.
And one of the most underrated things about Deron is his drive to improve his game. Since his rookie season he's become better at: driving to the basket, shooting 3's, leading fast breaks, rebounding, and free throw shooting. He's become better at trusting his teammates.
There is, of course, still more to work on. He could cut down the turnovers, he could pay attention when guarding backup PG's (please no more career highs from the Ty Lawsons of the world), he could concentrate more when shooting free throws.
But I think he'll address some of these. Because last year I would have added "trust teammates more" and "rebound better" on the list of things to work on—and they were addressed. Deron doesn't just sit and say he's good enough, no more work to do. He'll be better this year. Bank it.
And when he improves, when he still gives us all the dazzling play we know we'll get, when he lets his teammates do their thing, when he keeps his hands off the ball so their skills develop rather than atrophy — well, if his stats go slightly down this year at the same time the team takes off to the elite ranks — then you should be able to carve his name on the MVP. Because the list of guys who could do that is very, very small.
2. Four guys earning All-Star nods
Deron. Big Al. AK-47. Paul Millsap.
But times have changed. The elite teams today have 1 or 2. Sometimes 3 (Like the 2007 Spurs—as an aside, that Manu Ginobli has only made on all-star team, and was snubbed in 07 and 08 remains one of the most obscene all-star injustices ever. I could go on, but I won't. I just want it said).
Yet the Jazz have 4 guys primed for All-Star runs. I've already gone over Deron, so let's start with the best of the bunch, the guy who should be a shoo-in, the second best guy on the team, the guy who doesn't have much of anything he needs to improve ...
Ha. I know it's not who you expected. And in the real world there's no way AK makes an All-Star team. But this is a fantasyland preview, in which people ignore the PPG stat and care about the correct thing: how much does a guy help his team win?
Here's one of my favorite excerpts of Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball. It's about Bill Russell:
Whereas Wilt famously swatted shots like volleyball spikes for dramatic effect, Russell deflected blocks to teammates for instant fast breaks; not only did those blocks result in four-point swings, but Auerbach's Celtics were built on those four point swings. That's how they went on scoring spurts, that's why they kept winning and winning—they had the perfect center to launch fast breaks and the perfect supporting cast to execute them.
You just read exactly why the Jazz were so good last year after reinserting AK into the starting lineup. Perfect defender to get steals and blocks, the perfect PG to lead fast breaks, and the perfect supporting cast to run and finish the breaks. Seriously, think about the impact AK has: as Amar pointed out, AK had 2.6 blocks/steals per every foul this preseason (and Zeus knows how many deflections). Amar showed a while ago how AK's defense relates to the all-time great: Scottie Pippen. And now go watch Moni's AK video and notice how many blocks and steals end up in Jazzmen hands and launch immediate fast breaks.
When I made my Deron Williams video and watched all those Jazz games and highlighs again, nothing stood out as much as the fast breaks initiated by deflections, steals, and blocks. Or just plain disruptions, as I like to call them. And nobody on the Jazz—perhaps ever—is more disruptive on defense than Andrei Kirilenko. And nothing kicks the Jazz offense into fifth gear like disruptions.
No, AK will probably not score 20 per game. But he may score 14-16. He will do so at a ridiculously effective rate. He will get to the free throw line a lot. His effective FG% will be close to 60%. He'll rebound, pass with aplomb (I loved how he seemed to intentionally make awesome passes to Fes, just so Fes could shine this preseason), set screens and make Sloans offense just plain work (notice how much better the offense runs when AK's in—yes the offense runs through AK, it runs wonderfully through AK); he'll defend, block, steal, disrupt, and bring about more team success than any Jazzman not named Deron.
Watch for it, and enjoy. Outside of Deron, nobody's more prepped to be as awesome this year as Andrei Kirilenko.
And in a perfect world, he'd be an obvious all-star. He'd be picked before Brandon Roy and before Melo, before all the guys taking a gajillion shots and thus scoring a gajillion points. Because the number of guys who have bigger impact on their team's success is very, very small.
And, like Deron, one of AK's greatest skills is to dominate games without dominating the ball. He lets and helps the other guys shine.
In the real world he's the most likely to get an All-Star nod with Deron. He plays at a weaker position (Yao will start, because while 2 billion Chinese can be wrong, they can't be outvoted—but there's nobody else in the center spot that is close to a shoo-in). And, of course most importantly to the casual fan and "expert", Al will probably score most. Or end up about the same as Deron.
But there's a lot to get excited about besides his scoring. His defense has proved to be much, much better than advertised. As has his free throw shooting. He can pass really well. He can block shots, he can rebound. He has a great attitude, gets along with his teammates well, etc., etc., etc.
But I want to see something more.
In the few games I've seen, I've been able to predict within a nanosecond whether Al is going to look to assist someone else or look for his own shot. It's as if he makes up his mind while crossing midcourt "this time I'm going to look for MIllsap" and then follows through, regardless of what choice actually makes sense once the defense does its thing. The results are (a) Millsap less involved in the offense than he ought to be, (b) some questionable shot selection from Al, and (c) a lower FG% than Al should have, given his footwork and distance from the hoop.
Ah, the black hole accusation. Sadly, it has thus far been somewhat true.
But there are signs for hope: mostly that when Al makes up his mind to pass, he actually does it rather well. So it's not that he doesn't have the ability, it's that he's not reading the defense and recognizing when the pass makes sense. And he's probably still getting used to Millsap's ability to catch pretty much anything thrown his general direction.
Plus, we've all seen the fruits of Al's willingness to work on his game and follow his coach's admonition. Better defense? Check. Better free throw shooting? Check. Better passing? Check.
So now, just learn to remember the spots and routes your teammates will run in the sets, read the defense, and react to what the defense and sets give you.
Then you'll go from being an important cog to becoming an invaluable one.
Just hang in there. I predicted an All-Star run once Boozer was gone. My thinking was simple: Zach Randolph was an All-Star last year. Would all the coaches in the league stand up if you would rather have Millsap than Randolph on your team?
No, all 30 probably wouldn't stand up. Vinny Del Negro can't figure out how to push the footrest in from his recliner, so we can't put too much stock in that. But do you know who stood immediately? Sloan, Popovich, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley (he forgot he's not the coach again quite yet).
If those kind of coaches know what it takes to win, and if they would prefer Millsap to Randolph, then doesn't it follow that Millsap actually helps his teams win more than Randolph—regardless of how many shots and points he racks up?
And in my dream world, that is what matters. How much does a guy help his team succeed?
So MIllsap, finally given a bigger role and made a primary post scorer, makes an All-Star run. I could easily envision 18 points and 10-12 rebounds per game.
But that was BBA — Before Big Al.
We've all seen enough to know that Sap hasn't exactly had a huge role in the preseason. We've all seen that the Sap/Al frontcourt dynamic has not hit its stride yet.
So we're all waiting for it to click. A lot of the onus is on Al, to recognize when the defense makes a pass to MIllsap preferable to a shot from Al. But some of it is also on AK and Deron, to go out of their way to get Millsap involved, and a lot is on Millsap, to still play with the energy and blue collar ethic that earned him the starting spot.
I believe that Al recognize and make passes more as the season goes on. I also expect defenses to adjust to Al's presence and leave Millsap open more often as the season progresses. I expect Millsap to start off with diminished stats, but I also expect them to steadily increase as the season goes on. In the end, I think 16 points and 8-10 rebounds, along with solid defense (the the front line of AK-Sap-Al has been actually quite good defensively), a block or two per game, a steal or two per game, lots of deflections, and lots of hard-nosed play. I expect a high FG%, and lots of play initiating those four-point-swing fast breaks, and lots of dunks finishing those four-point-swing breaks.
And in the end, I don't ding guys who could score 20 per game, but doesn't just because the team has so many scorers to distribute shots among. Whether the real world accepts it or not, the player I just described above — if his sacrifice and play helps a team jump to elite levels—that player's an All-Star. Sorry Z-Bo.
Two Guys going after Defensive Player of the Year Award
AK and Raja.
I've already written tons about AK, but one more thing deserves to be said. When deciding on defensive awards (Player of the Year, All-Defense Teams, etc.), we need a more complicated analysis of blocks and steals. Here's what I propose:
- Blocks swatted out of bounds = 1/2 block. Because, really, is this any better than a dude accidentally tripping on his own feet and bopping the ball out of bounds with his head? Is it any better at all?
- Blocks ending up in teammates' hands = 1 block
- Blocks starting fast break and four-point swing = 2 blocks.
Every passing lane gamble that results in giving up an easy layup because you were no longer in position to defend anyone results in -1 steal.
Add it all up, and AK will suddenly lead the league in blocks, and possibly steals. Because he deflects shots to teammates, and his steals are rarely gambles that kill the team defensively if it doesn't pan out.
Then include his good man-man defense, his great help defense, and the effect his disruptive play has on his teammates — add it all up and that's the kind of guy I call Defensive Player of the Year.
But AK will have some competition from ...
So far, just from opposing fan threads, we've learned that Raja is a Brandon Roy killer and a Tyreke Evans killer. We already know how well Raja plays Kobe. If you aren't convinced, compare Kobe in the first preseason game and Kobe in the second. Kobe in the first, when he ran off 19 points in the 3rd quarter and shot 8-9—Earl Watson got a good share of that time defending Kobe. Kobe in the second game? 2-13. Guarded by primarily Raja Bell.
Now Kobe won't always go 2-13 against Raja. But Raja will play tough, physical, make Kobe work for every shot, and generally just piss him off.
In fact, that's probably the best stat to measure Raja's effectiveness (because he doesn't rack up steals and blocks, like AK does). How many times does the opposing SG get pissed off? With Raja on the team, it will be a lot.
And if the Jazz continue showing their improved defense, if they continue to play tough and physical, if they continue to show ZERO intimidation before the Lakers, the Heat, and the other elite teams — well, all that derives from Raja Bell. Welcome back, dude.
CJ gunning for both Sixth Man of the Year
How good has CJ looked? It has been suggested that the Smart CJ vs. Dumb CJ meme be banished from SLC Dunk completely. He's become just CJ. And he's played really, really well.
He's taken good shots, he's driven to the hoop, he's rebounded and gotten to the free throw line at a much, much higher rate than ever before. He's become the guy we always wanted him to be. Does he occasionally still jack up a stupid shot (usually a contested three or twenty footer)? Sure. But do you know what? So does Deron. So does AK. So does everybody. The point is what kind of shot, what kind of play does a guy naturally tend to go after?
And CJ's become a guy who naturally takes good shots, drives to the hole, makes an extra pass, plays decent defense, etc., etc., etc.
Suddenly 15 points, 4-5 rebounds, and 2-3 assists from our first guy off the bench seems realistic. And what's fun is CJ is a genuine 6th man. He's not one of the three main guys the team is built around (eg. Ginobli, the Jet, Jamal Crawford, etc.). Even at his position, SG/SF, CJ's plays behind AK and Raja for legit reasons (not just to get a scorer off the bench—AK's the second best player on the team, Raja's the opposing SG killer). CJ will likely be the 4th or 5th leading scorer on the team (behind Deron, Al, Millsap, and possibly AK).
That's what you call a genuine Sixth Man of the Year, and if Smart CJ Miles is your 5th or 6th best player—your team is pretty stinking good.
And now I formally banish Smart and Dumb CJ from my vocabulary. He's just CJ.
Three Guys going after Most Improved Player of the Year
Millsap, CJ, Fes.
In real life, the award goes to someone who gets a huge increase in minutes, and therefore his scoring/rebounding/assist stats also increase.
So, that gives us Paul MIllsap.
But I say Millsap won't really be most improved. He was already good. He was already a quality starter. He was already playing like a borderline All-Star. He just didn't have the requisite role and minutes.
The real guys who look to have improved a lot are CJ and Fes.
I've already gone over CJ, but just one more thing: CJ has shown flashes of his potential for three years now. He finally put it all together the final month and a half (plus playoffs) last year. So he most of the improving already happened. He's just working on maintaining it.
So let's move to our favorite Ukranian Center:
(note to all announcers in the NBA—particularly the dude that does game recaps at NBA.com—it's pronounced "Kuh-ril" Fesenko. The "o" is silent)
First of all, it's important to see who he was in order to appreciate where he is now and where he can be by the end of the year. No, Fes didn't show the crazy post moves we're seeing now. No, Fes wasn't a dependable offensive force in the paint previously. BUT, the Jazz played well with him last year. And that's what's important. He already gave "Fesenko, Fesenko, Fesenko." He already gave the team a decent chance to play well with him.
So despite the pizazz, Fes hasn't actually improved quite as much as you may believe. I'll reiterate this: the Jazz played well with him in last year, and that is ultimately the issue that matters most.
But still, how can anyone argue that Fes hasn't improved. He's dropped weight. He's developed post moves. He's worked on his free throws. He's actually calling for the ball on offense. But he's still active on defense. He still blocks shots. He still rebounds. He still rotates and plays pretty decent help defense. He also still fouls at a ridiculous rate, but we don't need him in for 36 minutes anyway.
As crazy as it sounds, the only thing that I think can keep Fes from putting up 10-12 points, 5-7 rebounds, and 1-2 blocks per game is minutes. He'll probably end up with 12-18 minutes per game. Which, of course, will lead most of the "experts" around the NBA to overlook that Fes has to be one of the most improved players in the league — and I feel confident saying this right now, before any more development over the season.
Jerry Sloan finally wins Coach of the Year Award
Oddly enough, this is probably the most likely to happen in the real world. Here's basically how the real "experts" vote: (team wins - predicted team wins)*(predicted conference place-actual conference place). The team with the highest number gets their coach the award.
If the Jazz play to their potential, we're looking at a figure like this: (58-46)*(7-2) = 60. Sloan wins COY.
Yeah, it's stupid. You can tell it's stupid when you look at the obvious best coaches in the league today: (Sloan, Popovich, Jackson), count their COY awards (2 total in 58 combined seasons) and remember Mike Brown, Mike Dunleavy, Sam Mitchell and crew have all won the award instead.
But in my world, where we look at things that matter, here's what you have to keep in mind about Jerry Sloan.
- Deron Williams is better than anyone thought he would be. Not that anyone predicted a slouch, but I don't think anyone imagined the complete, dominating player we have today.
- Memo (when healthy) is much, much better than he was his first year on the Jazz.
- Millsap has become a much stronger scorer than anyone expected
- You could go on with virtually every player on the team.
Sure Sloan isn't perfect, but who is? The most important thing is that his players are better because of him, and the team is better because of him. We just don't see it so obviously because the improvement and quality develops long-term, not in short term flashes. And this long-term effect, this sustained quality that builds and builds over time, that puts a team in contention, keeps it there for decades, finally building up to one of the true elite teams in the league despite few high draft picks and few big-name free agent signings — that kind of quality usually eliminates Sloan from the COY contention.
I guess it's more impressive to lead a crummy team to a .500 record, make the 8th seed in the playoffs once, and then fall back into mediocrity, or worse.
But the stars are aligned for Sloan to win the thing this year. In real life and in my dream world.
Jeremy Evans and Gordon Hayward turn heads and compete for Rookie of the Year
I know, it ain't happening.
Even in my dream world it isn't happening. Barring catastrophic injuries, neither will have:
- The number of shots to get their PPG up to the required level (real world requirement), or
- The number of minutes to make major contributions to a winning team, (my dream world requirement)
Still, I wanted to bring this up. It's a question I asked last year regarding Wesley Matthews. Is it more impressive for a rookie to play 35 minutes per game and score 20 while leading a disgustingly bad team? Or is it more impressive for a rookie to start on a playoff team, chipping in 10-12 points and pushing the team to a much higher level with his all-around brilliant defense?
If you really think about both situations honestly, I don't think there's an obvious answer.
Back to our guys. This isn't a prediction, but it's a plea. With the potential Evans and Hayward have, I want them to get more than garbage minutes. Right now, I think the top 9 guys on the team, when you balance both current abilities and potential, have to be: Deron, Al, Millsap, AK, Raja, CJ, Fes, Gordon, and Evans. I want my top 9 guys to be the guys who also play the most. Kind of like how I want my best lineup to be the one that plays most often.
If you notice, there isn't a backup PG among my top 9. That's the answer to me. Give Gordon the backup PG minutes. I know he's not as polished as Earl Watson right now, but it's okay. Gordon will learn. He can already handle the ball and pass well—he just needs experience. And if you put Gordon in the backup PG spot then both he and Evans can get about 15 minutes per game to develop.
Until Memo comes back. Then the minute crunch really gets crazy.
The rest of the crew
The bench is already strong. When Memo comes back it will be ridiculous. The only question is how will the players respond to fewer minutes across the board. This is where having unselfish leaders like Deron, AK, Millsap, and Raja will really matter.
Ronnie & Earl
I still like Ronnie better. Others like Earl. Neither will set the world on fire (actually, Ronnie might). It's cool that Earl was willing to go from a starting gig to backing up the best PG in the league — especially while Deron's still young and worth 36 minutes a game. But watching Earl so far, I'm not dazzled.
He's got some Dutch nastiness to him (don't Google that). I like that. This team already has already shown more toughness and competitive orneriness in 8 preseason games than in the past 4 years combined.
But he shouldn't get minutes ahead of anyone previously listed.
My Final Word ... For Now
Again, this isn't so much a prediction as a look at this team's ceiling. Can the team make a run at a championship? You bet. Will they? That's a different question altogether. There are definitely other teams with better chances. But there are no shoo-ins, and the more I look at this team, the more I see a team that has a legit shot. And I see players with a chance to become the players I described above.
Whether they make it or not, whether they reach their ceiling or just 80% of it, it will be a fun year to see the guys make their runs I described, it will be fun to rant and rave when the "experts" ignore our guys because all they see are PPG stats, while all I see is team-play (And keep in mind that the PPG stats CANNOT be overwhelming for any Jazzman — there simply aren't enough shots or minutes for any guy to score as much as he theoretically could),. And it will be fun to see the Jazz make the best run they can.
I'm stoked for this year.