The Utah Jazz 2014-2015 season previews begin TODAY with this quick primer on our beloved team. Way more content to come in the following days, but first read this!
Team: Utah Jazz
Formerly: The New Orleans Jazz
Colloquially: "Man, you guys lost to that team?"
Last Year's Record: Redacted 25-57 (highlight to read)
What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The biggest change for the Utah Jazz this season is the head coaching change. Why is head coaching change big news, especially when you are replacing your coach with a rookie head coach (at the NBA level)? Well, for the New Orleans / Utah Jazz franchise the team has had only seven other head coaches in 40 years. Jerry Sloan coached for 23 years, Frank Layden before him for 8. Tyrone Corbin was in his spot for (rounding) four seasons as well. Stability comes from the head coach, and the Jazz org love to preserve stability. However, current Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey is shaking things up, and that's both a good and necessary change.
Richard Jefferson made the most money last season on the team, over $11 million, played 2,213 minutes, his "on court%" was 5th best on the team, playing over 56% of his available minutes, and was both 6th on the team in FGA per game and his "On court FGA%". (I know, I have stats in my spread sheets that no other Jazz blogger has. But hey, that's just to blind my haters. Or something.) He was a big part of what we did last year, and if you forgot, what we did was win 25 games. He's gone.
Marvin Williams made the third most money on the team, played 1,674 minutes, but had he been uninjured he would have gone past the 2k minutes barrier last year as well. His "on court%" was also above 50% (52.84%), and was 7th best on the team. He was also 7th in on court FGA% and FGA per game. I love Marvin Williams, but seeing him go to a playoff team is for his best interest.
Andris Biedrins made the second most money on the team, a whopping $9 million which gladly came off our cap so our team could match the max offer for Gordon Hayward. So in a way, this was his biggest assist of the season. In a box score way, though, he had no assists last season, but still made $9 million dollars.
I am only including Brandon Rush and John Lucas III here as significant moves because they help complete the picture of what a regime change the team is going though. Rush had an entirely forgettable season, but still made the 6th most on the team. John Lucas III was shoe horned into a starters spot as Trey Burke sustained an injury in preseason, which is more than any third stringer should ever be pressed into. If you break down his numbers he was a frequent enough shooter to bounce up the 'big deal' rankings on this team. He did not play a lot, but still managed to be an NBA point guard for nearly 30% of all the available point guard minutes the team had last year. So, yeah. Wow.
Out with the old, and in with the new. And there's a lot of novelty here. A new head coach in Quin Snyder; two new rookie 1st rounders in Dante Exum and Rodney Hood; and effectively a new bench in Trevor Booker, Dahntay Jones, and Steve Novak. Novak is better suited to being a stretch four than Marvin Williams is, so in a way this is technically an upgrade. Booker is likely to play in more than 6 games for the Jazz this year, and is an upgrade over Beans as well. Jones wasn't even in the league last year -- but then again, neither was Brandon Rush.
Obviously RJ is better than rookie guard/forward Rodney Hood, but Dante Exum is light years ahead of Lucas. If you add this to the fact that there are eight returning players who are under the age of 25 then you see that perhaps the most significant off-season addition was that everyone got one year older and more experienced. Another ring around the trunk will mean a lot for this young club.
In the interest of full disclosure here, though, many fans are curious about the absence of these two additions:
Not bringing over Ante Tomic and Raul Neto are significant off-season moves as well because a 25 win team shouldn't be too proud to shoo away the talented assets they own; especially not after their successful Euroleague and FIBA play. Regardless, all of the huge changes with the roster will make a huge difference with how the team plays on the court, and fans will be able to see that.
What are the Jazz' biggest strengths?
The overriding perception of the Jazz right now is that they are a bad team that will be stuck in the lottery once again, despite collecting and cashing in for multiple lotto picks in the last few seasons; picks that have resulted in players that are overlooked in their respective draft classes if you pay attention to online polls from big media (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Slam Magazine, etc). I do not share in that opinion, in fact, I see Utah as being far from hapless. Furthermore, the greatest strength I see in this team – based upon evidence – appears to be their front office "three dimensional chess" game, and in particular, their ability to scout, maneuver, and draft NBA roster players in all stages of the draft. Most teams can pick a winner in the early lottery, few teams have a good track record in the late lottery or the end of the 1st round. The 2nd round is a mystery to most teams, but the Jazz have even gone far enough to pick rotation guys from the undrafted pool. In quick succession the Jazz have collected talent, depth, and potential in a few short years. Some lottery teams are perpetually there (mainly because they never bottom out and get to pick in a good spot), but with how the Jazz have drafted, and where they drafted from, I do not anticipate that they are going to be a lottery team forever. And when they break into the playoffs, it’s not going to be because three other teams tank. That said, there are some legit strengths outside of the front office as well:
- The most obvious strength here is youth. Fifteen of the nineteen players invited to training camp will be 25 or younger by the time October 31st rolls around (my default idea of when the NBA season actually gets going). Youth is a strength, and not a weakness, because with youth we see brashness and in the right players fearlessness. As Utah Jazz fans we have seen flashes of this, like when the then "C4" beat up on a talented Los Angeles Lakers team in their own gym three seasons ago. Let’s not forget that this is a franchise that has previously CHAMPIONED that exact type of fearless youth when the young John Stockton and Karl Malone won Game 2 of the second round of the 1988 playoffs in the Great Western Forum, against the Showtime (Magic Johnson / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Los Angeles Lakers. Having youth means having to trust in them though. If a coach doesn’t feel that trust he will never play them, and as a consequence, they will never trust that coach either. Quin Snyder has made it a point to stay in communication with each of his younger players all off-season long. This is something we have never really seen before with this franchise. Effectively, Snyder is actively campaigning for the trust of his young players so that they in turn will trust in his coaching. And trust is essential for development.
- With most successful relationships you need that trust as well, and it is something the players have with one another already. During the most recent mass sojourn to Santa Barbara to work out at P3 during the off-season the Jazz players there were sharing scenes from a boat trip they all took on social media. I don’t think that DeShawn Stevenson used to hang out with Gordan Giricek in the off-season voluntarily. I don’t think that David Benoit and John Crotty used to pool their money together to hire caterers for an off-season players only outing. Because of their work responsibilities these younger guys were hanging out together, but instead of retreating into their hotel rooms or whatever after the day was done, it actually looks like they enjoy each other’s company. More importantly, this is obvious on the court. They trust one another, they like one another, and even if the idea is that they should be naturally competitive against one another (Derrick Favors vs. Enes Kanter; Gordon Hayward vs. Alec Burks – two sets lotto picks who play the same position who were picked a year after another) they actually prefer playing on the floor WITH one another. The better you know each other the more trust develops. And the more trust that develops helps accelerate cohesion on the court. And with that the better the Xs and Os will be executed because you know not to cheat off of your man to help out on D, because you know your teammate will recover and check his man. You trust him to do so, as he trusts you not to leave a good shooter open behind the three point line. Having great chemistry on offense allows for brilliance to occur. It gives you Andrei Kirilenko between the legs bounce passes and Deron Williams looking for Mehmet Okur as the trailer for three. While we were continually being sold the idea that our locker room was being held together I don’t think that trust and chemistry was really there. But it appears to be at the forefront of this new era of Jazz basketball.
- A more subtle strength of this team is that amongst the youth no one has learned bad habits. The easy joke here is that none of the youth were actually taught anything either, so this is a double edge sword.
- This Jazz team is anthropometrically blessed. There is so much size, length, speed, and jumping ability. Up and down this roster, save for Steve Novak, everyone is an above average athlete. Not just the players the Jazz drafted, but players traded for as well – Carrick Felix has hops that make Ronnie Price look like he’s grounded. Trevor Booker is one of the fastest bigmen in recorded history. Rudy Gobert is a mountain with surprising mobility. Derrick Favors and Jeremy Evans are part of that 12’+ club in terms of how high up they can get. Enes Kanter could be the next Karl Malone when all is said and done. That’s just the bigs. Dante Exum is a quantum leap compared to the rest of his position. The hope is that all that athletic ability and length will help the team a) play better defense, and b) be better capable of counter attacking in transition and get a few easy buckets. Previous Jazz teams had to rely on execution in order to contend. This Jazz team has the one thing most of our greatest teams did not have – a whole stable full of great athletes.
- The Jazz Xs and Os are going to be trouble for the other team this year, particularly for teams trying to defend something most of them have never seen before out of a Utah Jazz team. Coach Snyder’s offense will feature a diversity of attack, as a function of personnel and game plan. This is going to be deadly when Trey Burke, Dante Exum, and Gordon Hayward are on the floor together at the same time as all three can change role primacy during the course of a single play.
- Last, but most importantly, Derrick Favors occasionally remembers that he is the most talented player on the floor. When he does he is able to use his athletic ability and basketball talents like a conductor weaving together a symphony. Being occasionally amazing is a strength of this team, it seems. So he is the microcosm to the greater macrocosm. No wonder he's our franchise player.
What are the Jazz' biggest weaknesses?
Oh man, where do I start?
- For at least the short term, the legacy team defense that hopefully doesn't carry over from last year was horrible. Average teams made the Jazz look silly in the half-court last year, and good teams made the Jazz look undisciplined, unprepared, and incapable of getting stops. It was like a game with bad AI programming and poor control, eventually if you were patient the Jazz would beat themselves. And last season they did precisely that.
- As of right now there is no "Go to" player on the floor on offense. This is such an invaluable player to have (which is why many feel like Jabari Parker may run away with the Rookie of the year Race this year), because when the chips are down and the other team is dug in on defense you are still going to need to find a way to score. The best players are able to make a shot for themselves. Al Jefferson was especially proficient in stopping the flow of the offense and making a move in order to try to score. For better or for worse he was a real first option. One does not jump out at me when I look over our roster right now. And that's going to prevent Utah from winning some close games down the stretch. The saving grace is that a player with a dominant clutch gene can take over games while not being a legit first option: John Stockton did that countless times. I think that Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward both have that clutch gene as well. Time will tell though.
- Utah will have to rely on some players that are severely behind the curve his year. There is no Marvin or RJ to start and play a gazillion minutes this year. Right now the vets are the same guys the Jazz owned media brow beat for years, and other Jazz "fans" claimed didn't deserve to be on the court because of their inexperience and youth. Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, and Rudy Gobert (to name three) are all behind the experience curve but will be expected to produce consistently game in and game out. And that's going to be tough.
- Furthermore, the current roster can be reduced to a team of specialists, not All-Around talent. Steve Novak is a shooting specialist. Dante Exum is a pick and roll distributor specialist. Trey Burke is a pick and roll shot taker specialist. Alec Burks is a slashing specialist, and so on. Successful teams have specialists, but those specialists can only be freed up to go off if the star players have solid fundamentals on all sides of the ball. Many of our players have parts of their game that need to be improved in order for me to feel a little more secure about how well rounded they are.
- Derrick Favors only occasionally remembers that he is the most talented player on the floor. Favors doesn't take it to that next level enough. I firmly believe he can, but until he does it consistently then his potential talent will not be productive talent. And that's a key weakness.
What are the goals for Utah this year?
No one is expecting a championship this year. But the braintrust feels as though there needs to be enough demonstrated progress made towards maybe being able to compete for one down the line. Last season Tyrone Corbin's team was going to be judged on defense, discipline, and development according to the General Manager Dennis Lindsey, and several other higher ups. Those were clear goals, none of which included wins.
(Aside: Which makes it all the more funny when some people develop a strawman argument in support of Corbin which suggests that " Even ______ (name of great coach) wouldn't have won with the team Ty had last year." Lindsey didn't ask for wins. His criteria for the team didn't include wins. To say Ty should be absolved because of a lack of wins is some high level jujitsu, because he lost his job for not meeting the very public goals the GM set for the team. Goals which could be achieved regardless of winning or losing games.)
Much of the incomplete tasks Corbin was requested to at least take a stab at now falls to Snyder. The team really needs to get better on defense, and I believe --fully-- that the team is actually devoting the majority of the time to this issue. Lots of talk has been had about the revamped offense. But it's the stealth project of making the defense formidable that will most help Utah in the long run. Fundamentally Goal #1 is to get better on defense.
The next goal is to develop these players. That was supposed to happen organically during the course of their rookie contracts, but then it was to happen FOR REALS THIS TIME GUYS last season. We now hope to see significant teaching and improvement this year. After all, they brought in a few guys to the coaching staff who can actually teach players how to become better players. It's going to be a very positive change. The staff actually has a bigman who will coach the bigs, and the team has brought in fan favorite Mehmet Okur to start working with Enes Kanter in particular as well. It's about time, like, it's Kanter's fourth year in the league. Other teams don't wait until the rookie contract is up before a) trying to improve raw players, and/or b) trying to get a return on the risk/investment by having them do good things for the team by being in the damn game. He was a #3 pick, remember? Sheesh!
Stop me if you heard this before, but I think the third major goal should be discipline with this team. They are young, and you don't want them learning bad habits (on or off the court), or feeling entitled to being in the NBA. Bringing in a bunch of hungry NBA DL guys to training camp will push our young core more than a bunch of one-and-done mercenaries who have 'buddy buddy' deals with a cronyism-centric coaching staffs.
So I guess the main goals for this Utah Jazz team are the same ones that they had last year. Evidence of improvement needs to be seen.
Why should you be excited for this lotto team?
Sure, last season the team was specifically built for the NBA draft lottery. And that includes all the fun and games of going out there 82 nights in a season, and nearly having the worst season in franchise history. The team reported a home attendance average of about 18,176 people in the stands, but that just didn't pass the eye-ball test at all. The team last year didn't have any imagination on offense, were astoundingly poor on defense, and played at such a slow pace it only seemed to make the season seem longer than it was. It wasn't a fun team to watch, yet there were some die hards. Props to them for sure, but if there ever was a Utah Jazz era to be concerned customers about it was the previous era.
The new era promises much more for fans. For starters, get this, the team will attempt to score buckets in transition this year. They'll also try to fit the offense to the talents of the players, and not shoe-horn Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter in Al Jefferson's old playbook. This Jazz team has a point guard who can dunk -- and finish Alley-oops, not just throw them. The bigmen will be allowed to expand their range. And the pull quotes from practice this year are more likely to be informative and constructive, instead of the "get better / be better / young guys / you know" mantra. (It's no "Hare Krishna / Hare Rama," but it's a start Ty. Tybots could meet you at the gate in airports and try to sell you stuff. You have to be really old to get this reference.)
The most important reason is the simplest. This era will return Jazz style back to the Jazz franchise. The team is filled with hip athletes who get along and want to play with one another. The coach is bringing in an offense that flows, swings, jives, and jams. It's going to be the offense that Pistol Pete Maravich would have been perfect for, but instead we get to see Gordon Hayward and his clean cut looks in that role. (Floppy socks not included) The players will be smiling on the court, and getting fans out of their seats -- and not out of a desire to beat the traffic out of the arena after another blowout loss at home.
Good times will be back, even if the winning may not be. This is the perfect storm for this fanbase though, this season and the seasons after it will make a new generation fall in love with the Jazz for the right reasons, reasons beyond geographic convenience. When the team moved to Utah the fans had to wait a few years to see good basketball. But when they did, man. Organic growth of the team, the franchise, the players, and the fans developed a special bond in Utah. This season is the start of that next flowering. New coach. Young guys. Threes, dunks, and giving it all out on the floor.
Pathetic attempts to make the playoffs at the cost of your soul (bringing in non-Jazz players, playing a non-Jazzy style) robbed us of some crucial developmental years recently. The front office eventually saw what us SLC Dunkers saw, and everything we asked for has happened. (Get coach who wanted to teach, not scrounge for wins; no mercs; feature the youth; play a style that fits the talent the front office drafted) Now all that's left is the easy part for us fans.
Fall in love with Jazz again, fall in love with Jazz basketball again.
Be sure to check out all of these snappy, witty, and informative SB Nation team blog previews at this super group here. And prepare to be buried in content all month long as we get Jazzed up for the NBA season.