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Utah Jazz Season Preview: Is continuity the key for a contender?

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The Utah Jazz have brought back all but one of last year’s roster; can the Utah Jazz get better without significant roster additions?

Team Name: Utah Jazz

Last Year’s Record: 48-34

Key Losses: Jonas Jerebko

Key Additions: Grayson Allen

If fans didn’t get a chance to check out last year’s Utah Jazz, they’re in luck because the Utah Jazz haven’t changed a thing from last season to this season. From the front office to the coaching staff to the players, the Jazz are virtually the same, and who can blame them? This Utah Jazz team buzz-sawed through the NBA once they were finally healthy, winning the last 29 of their last 36 games. By keeping this same group of players together, Utah hopes they caught enough lightning in a bottle to have another successful season in 2018-2019.

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

This Utah Jazz squad is the same as last year apart from two departures: Assistant Head Coach Igor Kokoskov and Power Forward Jonas Jerebko. If Utah had their choice, they probably wouldn’t have let Kokoskov go to Phoenix as he was the catalyst for Ricky Rubio’s improvement from midseason on through the playoffs.

In their places have arrived assistant head coach Raul Lopez and Grayson Allen. Raul Lopez is filling in Kokoskov’s place on the coaching staff and was also credited with turning around Rubio’s season. Before that road trip where Utah survived overtime in Detroit and shocked Toronto in Toronto with game winning Rubio three, former Jazz point guard and Spanish National Basketball teammate Raul Lopez visited Ricky in Utah. Utah hopes that Lopez can be the Rubio whisperer that gets him to have a strong and consistent season.

Grayson Allen is the only significant addition to the roster. The no. 21 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has earned some fans in the front office and on the coaching staff; some going as far as to say that he’ll earn significant minutes throughout the season. He had a strong summer league and could be another late 1st round find by Utah’s general manager, Dennis Lindsey.

Otherwise, Utah is hoping that the chemistry and fit that was found last season continues to translate into the high level of play they enjoyed for the second half of last season. Dennis Lindsey has said that they studied the effects of team continuity and feel that they might be onto something by keeping their entire team together with little changes. This team likes each other and has a camaraderie that is truly unique. They’re also talented and deep. The Jazz didn’t just keep this team together because they like each other; Utah feels that this team can be one of the top teams in the NBA.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

World Wide Wob (Rob Perez) hit the nail right on the head at the beginning of last season when describing this Utah Jazz squad, “This Jazz team is such a necessary, humbling evil in 2017 NBA. A damn mud pit for any Lamborghini offense.” The frightening thing for teams in 2018 is the damn mud pit might be a ****ing moat. The Utah Jazz for the first half of the season in 2017 were a top 5 defense, then Utah got healthy—aka Rudy Gobert returned from injury—and that’s when they really started embarrassing teams.

Utah’s defensive rating post-All Star break and beyond was 96.0. To put that in perspective, the difference between Utah and 2nd ranked Philadelphia (100.8 DRTG) was the same as Philadelphia and the 14th ranked Golden State Warriors (105.6 DRTG). Utah’s defense could even be better due to their familiarity with one each other, their ability to communicate, and—the most important attribute of all—they are healthy.

This Utah Jazz team is also tough as nails. It doesn’t know when to quit. If a team can cheat death like Utah did last year—they were 8 games under .500 on January 22nd and ended the season 15 games above .500—then that team will have a sense of invincibility going forward. Utah showed that by beating a more star laden Oklahoma City Thunder team in six games. They even shocked the Houston Rockets by stealing a game in Houston while undermanned. Unlike teams that added a lot of new pieces in the offseason, Utah knows who they are and can hit the ground running immediately on opening night.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Star power. Utah’s ceiling was raised from a one story apartment to a 7 story cathedral because of the breakout season from rookie Donovan Mitchell. He’s a bonafide superstar in the making. Behind Donovan Mitchell, however, is a rag-tag group of misfit toys that was built for playoff runs led by Gordon Hayward then retrofitted for Rudy Gobert then jury-rigged around Donovan Mitchell.

Utah lacks a defined no. 2 scorer. That no. 2 scorer can be any Jazz player on any given night: Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert, Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors, etc., but that slot behind Donovan Mitchell is not a constant. While that can be spun as a positive because defenses can’t just zone in on one particular Jazz player on offense to shut them down, that doesn’t bode well if Utah wants to improve their 16th ranked offensive rating from one season ago. While Utah is a mud pit that can high center any Lamborghini offense, Utah’s offense is just as capable as miring itself in the muck.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Quin Snyder put it this way, “I don’t want to pick up where we left off—this is a new journey. We can take the experience with us.” The Utah Jazz believe they have the talent, familiarity, skills, and execution to be one of the best teams in the NBA and a true challenger to Golden State in the West; they do not expect to pick up right where they left off last season. Their goal is to make this season’s journey successful and unique.

Part of that successful journey is turning their good defense into an elite defense. Not just elite compared to their peers for the season, but elite in terms of basketball history. After talking about how Utah’s offense needs to improve on their 16th ranked offense, one might assume that Snyder has that side of the ball in his crosshairs. They’d also be mistaken.

“More than anything, it’s a question of being better at something we’re already pretty good at: defense,” Snyder said at the Jazz’s media day. “We can be elite defensively. Not just good, but elite. If we can do that, we’ll have a chance to win.”

For any team coming into Utah on a cold wintery night in the short days of December and January, the thought of an even better Utah defense is frankly terrifying. How can you possibly improve upon a defensive rating of 96.0? Like Professor Fletcher in the movie Whiplash, Quin Snyder wants to push this Utah Jazz team to their absolute limit and past it on the defensive end in hopes of creating greatness. For Quin Snyder, the two most damaging words to this Jazz team are “good defense.”

5. Can the Utah Jazz set aside their egos for another season for the sake of the team?

This seems like a question normally reserved for star-laden teams like the Boston Celtics rather than the Utah Jazz. On the surface it wouldn’t appear anyone would have to make sacrifices. The Utah Jazz have one defined offensive star in Donovan Mitchell and one defensive star in Rudy Gobert; what’s there to worry about?

Quite a bit, actually, once one looks at the depth of this team. While there’s a significant gap between the 2nd best player on this Jazz squad to the third best player, there is not a significant gap from the 3rd best player to the 12th.

Utah is an extremely deep squad with plenty of options off the bench. They’re a defensive swiss army knife built to adapt to any offensive situation. That also means that minutes for Utah players not named Mitchell and Gobert can rise and fall by the challenge presented by the opposing team rather than a strict minutes rotation to be followed. Derrick Favors could play 32 minutes one game and only 12 minutes the next due to a stretch four. Dante Exum could find himself on assignment to guard a larger point guard or shooting guard but off the floor entirely for a game due to his inability to stretch the floor. Alec Burks could be needed for a quick scoring punch to rejuvenate a struggling offense then completely abandoned for five games because the offense is just fine.

It was easier to do this last year as the team was winning at a high level and had an “us vs the world” type of mentality as they clawed their way back into the playoff picture. What happens now when multiple players are in a contract year and they are tasked with sacrificing their personal stats for the team over an entire season?

6. Can Donovan Mitchell take another leap in his sophomore year?

Utah’s ceiling this year can increase significantly if Donovan Mitchell takes yet another leap. If there was one constant in Donovan Mitchell’s surprising rookie season, it was his penchant for improvement. He would improve play to play, minute to minute, quarter to quarter, and game to game. If he struggled through three quarters of the game, he’d figure it out by the 4th quarter. He learned faster than an AI. But can he get better? If past players in his position are any indicator, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Rookies who averaged 17 ppg or more during their rookie year, overall, came back to have the same if not significantly more efficient seasons than their rookie years. The only players to really plateau were players whose teams had significant star player additions or players like Tyreke Evans or OJ Mayo. The good news is even those last two players had similar seasons as their rookie year. Donovan’s floor is his rookie self and his ceiling could frighten opposing defenses this season if he improves like his most direct player comparisons: Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, or Steve Francis.

7. Can Rudy Gobert repeat as Defensive Player of the Year?

The answer to this question is complicated, but, yes, yes he can. But the better question is will he? Rudy Gobert had the benefit of the Jazz going on one of the most uphill season comebacks for a team in NBA history. That storyline built with Utah’s multiple winning streaks and insane defensive rating to close out the year allowed Utah to have a storybook ending with Gobert receiving the Defensive Player of the Year.

Gobert also benefited from injuries to other defensive juggernauts. Past DPOY Draymond Green missed 12 games and the Golden State Warriors defense wasn’t the same due to their injuries ... and boredom. Another two-time DPOY Kawhi Leonard missed all of last year due to injury and disinterest in playing in San Antonio. There’s also another possible contender for next season, Anthony Davis, who could be in the discussion if New Orleans gets their defense in gear for a complete season. If he shows up big next season, he could be the front runner due to big stats and winner’s fatigue from Rudy Gobert.

But, and this is an important point, if Quin Snyder’s prophetic call to make the defense go from a good defense to an elite defense is heeded, the Utah Jazz could put Rudy Gobert back in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year and possibly have another member of their team on the 1st or 2nd All Defensive Team.