Jazz have a lot of variance because of their personnel. The team saw a lot of players take on new roles and opportunities. That should compound this year with a prospective new starter in John Collins and multiple rookies in tow.
The league will also see a lot of variance due to a large middle-class. Half the league was separated by 10 wins (Jazz at 37 to Knicks at 47). That theme figures to repeat this coming year with many of the bottom teams looking to make a jump and few, if any, of the middle class falling to either side.
A single extra win or unforeseen stretch of wins could make a massive difference in the standings come year end, especially for a team with a wide range of outcomes like Utah. Ultimately, that range is derived from their players. Let’s break down some of the biggest difference makers:
Full-time minutes for Walker Kessler
Walker Kessler was promoted to the starting lineup during Kelly Olynyk’s absence due to injury in mid-January. Even then he saw, on average, just 28.1 minutes per game. What he did with his time was incredible.
When Kessler was ON the floor, Utah had an average-ish defense (114.78) per PBPStats.com. When Kessler was OFF the court, Utah had a bottom 5 defense (118.92). That’s an enormous difference and it was felt all season.
Should all remain constant but Walker plays starter-level minutes for 70 games, that would equate to the team’s defensive rating improving by over a full point (season average from 117.14 -> 116.05). That’s 2-3 wins right there.
On the other hand, should such volume and improved matchups challenge Walker to a point this is a growth season, Utah could find themselves without a suitable floor and the losses could pile up fast.
Keyonte George’s skills
The Utah Jazz lack passing and self-creation. Already struggling in both of those areas last season, the deadline trade that sent Mike Conley to the Minnesota Timberwolves left the Jazz without an efficient ball-in-hand creator and facilitator.
Surely Kelly Olynyk will play a prominent role and Jordan Clarkson figures to focus on his passing (at least early in the year), but such skills are crucial to Coach Will Hardy’s system. Without enough competency, Utah could find it difficult to generate easy, efficient offense.
However, much like in Donovan’s rookie year, such a void presents an opportunity, should someone rise to the occasion.
Keyonte George put both skills on display in his five Summer League games. He could earn minutes and fill a big need if he checks the right effort and disciplined defense boxes Hardy is looking for.
Most rookies don’t contribute positively and shouldn’t be expected to. But every year there is a couple. and should Utah hit on one, this season’s prospects go way up.
John Collins revitalization
John Collins in one of the new members to the Utah Jazz, having finally been acquired have a multi-season saga or rumors and speculation.
He had an abysmal year last season. He was regulated to even more spot-up shooting, his touches in the paint were down, and he was asked to just contribute on defense. That’s a far cry from the offensive bruiser he was to kick off his career.
Despite the struggles, he was right on the league median last year in EPM (estimated plus-minus), a model that evaluates a player’s impact while adjusting for situation, teammates, luck, etc.
With a fresh start, a role more akin to his strengths, and encouraging signs about his shot coming back, there’s hope of Collins being a big swing piece. On the other hand, there’s a world in which we look back on the cost for Collins as not quite the “steal” we all made it out to be.
Lauri Markkanen’s ascension
Lauri was a selected All-Star and an All-NBA candidate last year; just a brilliant season that saw increased efficiency on increased volume. He shouldered a big load and proved a lot. If he repeats the same season it is a tremendous accomplishment.
But what if he improves? What if he sharpens the saw by 5%, and polishes up some remaining rough edges? It’s a pretty awesome day dream, to say the least.
Lauri has his work cut out for him. The areas in his game fit for improvement are self-creation, taking on higher volume, making the right pass, and playing weakside defense. All of those components require more than just reps or hours in the video room. They don’t come easy or quick.
Another leap from Markkanen would be a major swing for this season and contribute massively.