SLC Dunk is proud to be a part of SB Nation, and it is our honor to help contribute to the overall coverage of the NBA alongside the 30+ other basketball blogs on the network. Check out the rest of the previews here! No one should know the Utah Jazz better than us, and we endeavor to make that more than just a talking point. Personally I know that over the last three seasons I have watched every loss three times. That may have been a contributing factor towards a more negative look upon the team I love in the last few seasons; however, the negativity stops here. This season is going to be different in Jazz land. This season is the dawn before another golden age of sweet, sweet Jazz music.
Last Year's Record: 43-39, 9th in the Western Conference
Key Losses: Jeff Hornacek (Suns -- Head Coach vacancy); Al Jefferson (Bobcats -- Free Agency); Paul Millsap (Hawks -- Free Agency); Mo Williams (Trail Blazers -- Free Agency); Randy Foye (Nuggets -- Three team trade); Jamaal Tinsley (None -- Free Agency); Earl Watson (Trail Blazers -- Free Agency)
The biggest loss here in the big picture is the loss of Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek pulled double duty as an assistant coach and as a "on his own time" player development coach. He has worked specifically with helping players fix their shots or put themselves into rhythm to be effective on offense off the ball. His list of students is long, going from DeShawn Stevenson and Andrei Kirilenko to sharp shooters like Kyle Korver and Randy Foye (both had career years under Jeff). Most importantly for Jazz fans, Jeff has become integral to the development of Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. After all, they weren't getting better from all the playing time they were getting in games, it was Hornacek's work put in beyond practices and shoot arounds that made the difference for them. He even helped Derrick Favors on his free throws. And he's gone, and in the hearts of Jazz fans no adequate replacement has been found.
On the players side of things, last season alone these players averaged starting in 64.4 games and playing 25.4 mpg for Head Coach. Tyrone Corbin. If you add up the playing time numbers for some of his favorites over the last few years you see a significant removal of experience and potential on court playing time that could have gone to some of the younger players who are actually sill on the roster today. I'm not the head coach, but I know that if I was then Favors wouldn't have made the Rookie / Soph game just because Tiago Splitter was injured, and our guy was an injury replacement. I probably would have looked forward a little bit more than Tyrone did.
Key Additions: Jerry Sloan (Front office Position); Karl Malone (Part-time Bigman development coach); Trey Burke (Trade -- Timberwolves); Rudy Gobert (Trade -- Nuggets); Ian Clark (Free Agent); Brandon Rush (Trade -- Three Team Trade); Richard Jefferson (Trade -- Three Team Trade); Andris Biedrins (Trade -- Three Team Trade); John Lucas III (Free Agent); $15 M in Jumbotron upgrades
1. What significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Jazz made a number of good-faith moves this off-season in order to show the fanbase that they are serious. GM Dennis Lindsey was hyperactive on draft night as the Jazz made three trades: the first for Michigan Wolverines superstar Trey Burke; the second for the French combine wonder Gobert; and the last for Brazilian pass first lead guard Raul Neto (not listed above because he's not playing in the NBA this year). In addition to that, the front office bolstered the good Karma with the fans by bringing in two Hall of Famers back to the franchise in Sloan and Malone. Sloan's role is not as defined as we'd want, but Mychal and Amar found out about Sloan way back last May at the NBA Draft Combine. Malone's work with two raw, former #3 picks is the more overt addition, and it appears to be paying dividends already. Kanter and Favors are both running the floor better, and learning some of the tricks of the trade. The Jumbotron upgrades were long overdue, fans are happy.
Fans are going to be even more happy with the more they see from Burke as the season goes on. The Jazz sent Trey Burke (and Alec Burks) to study under John Stockton for a bit this off-season as well, and if you watched the first pre-season game you could see some signature Stockton in the off the break, off the dribble, one handed passes that resulted in Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans finishes. He's my pick for Rookie of the year. And that's coming from the position of someone who abjectly focused a few months of his life on all the struggles he will have making the transition from the NCAA to the NBA.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
At the end of this season when national observers look at this team, and look beyond the presumption of a weak bench, they will see a team that really defended well. This Jazz team is going to buck the trend over the last few seasons of getting progressively worse on defense with each successive year. Instead of anchoring our paint with a disinterested post scorer and a tweener this Jazz team has four guys who could average a block a game or more in Favors, Kanter, Gobert, and Biedrins. Five, if you add in human Saturn V rocket Jeremy Evans (12'7 max reach!) if he ever gets on the floor. Many shots will be contested inside, some will be blocked, but the majority will be changed -- and thus the Jazz will finally get some stops.
It's impossible to think of a team as a defensive minded club without solid team defense against perimeter opponents. The Jazz suffered greatly in previous seasons when trying to stop pick and rolls with Jefferson and Mo Williams or Devin Harris. This year we expect to see a more mobile set of bigs showing and slowing the depredations of those Russell Westbrook / Tony Parker types. Our wings appear more defensive minded as well, with "hustle" guys gone, and actual three and D prototypes brought back in with Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush now in the fold. They'll work well with Gordon Hayward (criminally under-estimated on defense) and Marvin Williams in forming a core of athletic wings who all had distance on their shot, and defense on their minds.
Ultimately the main point of attack will always been against point guards. Rookie Trey Burke isn't going to make anyone think he's Rajon Rondo; but Corbin will be forced to use combo guard Alec Burks (6'6, crazy wingspan) against the bigger or quicker points. He isn't as amazing on defense as you'd want from a 'stopper', and I don't think Burks is a stopper, but he's a game changer for sure -- doing everything from getting to the line, making ultra-acrobatic finishes, hitting shot clock beating threes, and to executing game saving chase down blocks on the road (think Tayshaun Prince vs Reggie Miller -- but against opposing point guards like Ricky Rubio).
Burks, Hayward, Rush/Williams/Jefferson, Favors, and Kanter/Gobert aren't going to scare a lot of teams on paper -- but their cumulative length and non-aversion to defense will greatly improve the Jazz defensive rating as a team. The team can capitalize on this if they slow down the pace like those Mike Fratello Cleveland Cavaliers did in the Terrell Brandon days. But we'll see what this team does on the court. Fans like a faster pace. But thankfully we fans don't run this team.
The most overt strength this season will be the Jazz' youthful vigor and athleticism. No more shackled to the bench, and none of them having had any serious injuries, this youth brigade will excite with their enthusiasm on the court and frantic activity. Trey is 20, Rudy is 21, Enes is 21, Ian is 22, Alec is 22, Derrick is 22, Gordon is 23, Jeremy is 25 -- and if these players get the majority of the minutes then this team automatically becomes a League Pass Must Watch team in a hurry. Even if they are a grind it out, defense first team like those late 90s Cavs or current era Grizzlies they'll still be worth watching because of the activity.
And that youth and activity leads to probably the least obvious strength this team may have. This team have just have the audacity and naivete to beat teams they have no right to be in games against. The last few seasons when our franchise started and promoted browbeaten veterans no other team wanted, career losers, we were out of a lot of games before halftime. These guys, supported by vets like Rush, Williams, Jefferson and Lucas III, could stay in a lot of games they should stay in based upon inexperience and youthful vigor. We've seen it time and time again, like when the Toronto Raptors beat the Chicago Bulls back on December 8th, 1996. That Bulls team would win 69 regular season games and the NBA title, but on that night guys like Damon Stoudamire, Walt Williams, Sharone Wright, Popeye Jones, and Doug Christie gave it their all. Sometimes being too young to know better can get you a win.
This seasons' Jazz team will most likely finish with more wins that the '96 Raptors (Jazzfans hope), yet may still end up losing a lot of games this season. But they'll go down fighting with defense and activity. They'll give an effort. That was something sorely missing at times during the last few seasons.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Inexperience. The head coach is inexperienced. The projected starting point guard is inexperienced (just check out this info on rookie PG led teams). The top duo of Favors and Hayward have played less than 2,000 on the court together in their three years in Utah. The starting frontcourt has previously averaged 21.4 mpg and 14.4 mpg for their careers. This team isn't marketable. This team will be led by young guys who, according to the league perception, weren't good enough to play big minutes early in their careers (vs. the idea that a guy like DeMarcus Cousins is worth a billion dollars on the open market). There are going to be some calls that go against us this year, but that's not the big weakness.
The big weakness is this doom and gloom perception of inexperience. The team is projected to be really bad this year, almost purely as a product of this inexperience. If the players and coaches start reading all of this it could negatively affect their play, or, you know, help motivate them. After all, our roster is almost exclusively made up of people with chips on their shoulder at this point. But that, in itself, could be a problem. Especially when you mix having a chip on your shoulder with a very volatile group of known troublemakers in contract years.
Clearly Andris Biedrins is the Latvian Dennis Rodman, right? Oh. He's not? He's some external threat of some sort though, right? Okay, so personalities shouldn't be a problem this season at all.
Well, aside from some vets coming off of down or injury plagued seasons last year, and our back up point guard being kind of a chucker, there are no serious, damaging weaknesses this season beyond inexperience.
Tyrone Corbin will get better. Trey Burke will get better. Sure, guys like Favors and Gobert can get in foul trouble. Sure, Hayward doesn't have the most consistent shot in the world from day to day. And yea, sure, Kanter has only played 1952 total regular season minutes. But these are all problems of inexperience. We'll screw up some plays. We'll get unforced turnovers sometimes. Someone may, at the wrong time, take the wrong shot.
But these are problems that will all go away with more on court experience, and time together as a team. (Is there a reason for this massive experience deficit? Maybe, but we're not finger pointing here today)
4. What are the goals for this team?
Head Coach Corbin has put it out in the most clear terms: "Get better [and/or] be better."
I don't think wins are every something an honorable franchise tries to avoid, but this season the evaluation of this Jazz team -- at least internally -- will be an evaluation that does not immediately regard wins and losses. This should take the pressure off of Ty first and foremost as he should be then more free to a) accept young players making mistakes on the court and not pulling them, and b) being more liberated in trying different things on the court. When the pressure to win games was on the last few seasons (because, clearly, when you lose a Hall of Fame head coach in Jerry Sloan, and trade away your All-NBA point guard in Deron Williams, you know your franchise is in "win now" mode), Corbin couldn't do a) or b) at all, the margin of victory or loss was just too slim. Which sucked for him, of course, because he was forced into trying things out during the season down the homestretch that he had previously not tried at all before. (Like the "Big Lineup" of Millsap / Favors / Jefferson, or the "Small Lineup" or Burks / Foye / Hayward)
This season should be different as the main goal of this team isn't going to be about trying to squeak into the playoffs for a cut of that playoff money and two televised home games. The main goal is to improve.
And in this league you improve mostly by making mistakes, making adjustments, and then slowly moving towards on-court comfort and eventual mastery. We Jazz fans all remember Kobe Bryant shooting air-ball three pointers in the playoffs against the Jazz, and the eventual sweep of his Lakers. But Kobe stayed on the floor, kept shooting those shots, and eventually got better. Perhaps way better than we ever imagined. This is that season for our guys. We have to get on the floor, and we have to take those shots regardless of success.
All the "good teams" that build through the draft do this. They have one or two down years led by their accumulated youth, but then surge ahead. We all know no top tier free agent is going to take his talents to Salt Lake, so it's obvious the youth movement has to happen now or never. And that's really what is going to happen if you listen to all the interviews the brainstrust give to local media.
My individuals goals would be 2,000 minutes each for our F5 (Future Five): Burke, Burks, Hayward, Favors, and Kanter. And plenty of no-risk in game and between game adjustments for Tyrone Corbin. I can't guess how many minutes need to go where beyond the necessary building blocks we've already drafted.
The jury is still out on if minutes help development, but the jury is made out of joe sixpack and not learning theorists and organizational psychologists. For the educated it's obvious. But this is sports and the majority opinion likes to parrot the fables of hired propagandists. Regardless of if minutes advance development -- this season our young players should get minutes.
They should get the opportunities to lead a team either to success or failure. Many times high lottery picks are able to play well, and suffer early, on their way to greater career success. If our players can do that this year we'll be in good hands. If we play them, and success does not seem possible, and improvements are not happening -- then we've identified more things about our team. And that's the second goal.
The Jazz need to find out who they are. It's a mystery if you are on the bench, or pile up DNP-CDs. But if you run tests you can challenges your opinions through observation. This Jazz team is focused on improving, and identifying.
Wins will come and go, but it's the outlook of looking beyond this season that is long overdue.
5. What is the biggest obstacle?
The last few seasons it appeared that the team did not have a unified direction. We are being told the head coach was pressured into a win-now situation (perhaps with the hope that he would fail and become a fall guy), but we saw the head coach specifically doing things that didn't help him win games (promote players who did not play defense, consistently making the team play from behind for the majority of the games). Furthermore, we are led to believe that the team was interested in developing young talent -- which is hard to believe then one-and-done mercenary veterans would join the team, start, get minutes, then leave the franchise. These minutes also left the franchise, instead of being invested in developing these young prospects. You would be hard pressed to find a team out there in 'win now mode' that did so many non-winning things; and hard pressed to find a team interested in developing youth that went out of their way to keep lottery picks on the bench, watching games instead of playing in them.
The casual observer is able to understand that "win now" and "prospect development" are opposite goals. Additionally, the astute observer is able to view the Jazz critically and see that they did not succeed in winning now, nor did they help themselves with prospect development. They tried to do two different things, and failed at both. And they did that three seasons in a row. ("Fool me once, shame on you . . . . fool me twice . . . uh . . . ")
Many Jazz fans are putting their eggs in the Dennis Lindsey basket right now. We hope that the indecisiveness and inactivity the last few years were a product of tortoise-like Kevin O'Connor. The largest obstacle to this season would be a "fourth time is the charm" idea of trying to win now and develop talent. We hope for a unified sense or purpose and unified direction for the team this year.
It can all be derailed easily if one party puts their individuals goals ahead of the needs of the franchise. Tyrone Corbin's contract runs out at the end of the year, and he may feel like winning now will help his resume more than following directions to play rookies more now. A few veterans on the squad (by few I mean: Jefferson, Williams, Lucas III, Biedrins, Rush) are in contract years as well -- and for the most part, at least two of those guys think they are starter quality in the NBA still. Previously, Corbin would side with the veterans and play them the minutes. They may not stay with the franchise, but they would help him get wins now. They helped each other. This season is about Corbin falling into a long term relationship with the youth. If that marriage doesn't last, then this team could end up repeating the mistakes of previous seasons.
And Jazz fans will have a bad time.
I'm totally going out on a limb here and re-stating that the Jazz will win 30 +/- 5 games this year. My confidence in the youth is high. But you can have good players who play well, and still lose the game. After all, we saw the opposite last year. In science the opposite should also be just as likely. And I think we see that this year. We may lose a lot of close games. Hayward and Kanter and Favors could just be filling it -- but end up having to rely on a Richard Jefferson game winner (or loser) because he's left open.
I've tried to look at the teams THIS team could be like, from the Sidney Lowe Vancouver Grizzlies, to the Glen Robinson Milwaukee Bucks. We hope we can be like those '04 Utah Jazz that almost made the playoffs. I just don't know. I do know that this team is going to be fun to watch, and will give me a lot of hope for the future.
BUT THE FUTURE IS NOW!
It's going to be a fun season, a season we can cheer for. A season of a unified direction, exciting young players, and a coach willing to try new things. If we win, we'll be there cheering. If we lose, we'll be there at the games cheering too, and I'll be at the draft. Ideally, it's win-win. Practically, it's win later. No matter what you call it, I call it Utah Jazz basketball. And after a summer of watching baseball, I'm ready for another year of hoops.