The NBA Playoffs have progressed so far as that there are now only four teams left playing. The Western Conference Finals will be the Golden State Warriors (1) hosting the Houston Rockets (2). And the Eastern Conference Finals will be the Atlanta Hawks (1) hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers (2). Sooo . . . whomever said the regular season doesn't count is still probably half right, but it's interesting to see the top two seeds from each conference make it through to the Final Four. If you predicted the Final Four of the NBA would be these teams before the season started then you just may be psychic. Last season the "Dubs" won 51 games and were bounced in the first round. The Rockets won 54 games, and were also out in the first round. The Atlanta Hawks won only 38 games last season, and also were out in the first round of the playoffs. And last season's Cavaliers won only 33 games, and didn't even make the playoffs.
So what happened?
The Warriors got a coaching upgrade from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, and most of their young core got one year older and better (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes), and one of them exploded this year to be an impact starter: Draymond Green. Andrew Bogut still played fewer than 70 regular season games, again for the 8th time in his 10 year career; but their defense was much better as a team all season long. They won 67 games, for a +16 win improvement. Crazy.
The Rockets said goodbye to Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin and replaced them with Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley (who is now hurt), and a bunch of junk -- but took some chances on Josh Smith and Corey Brewer and Jason Terry that are paying off. They won only two more games from last season, but are a much more organized team on the court. People know their roles, and while guys like James Harden and Dwight Howard can be hit or miss, Kevin McHale has a strong bench that can continue playing without the wheels falling off.
The Hawks are like the 2000s Detroit Pistons, you don't see an overt star there but there are a bunch of really great players who are performing well together and with the system their head coach has. We all love Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver. But they've both expanded their games and roles from their time with the Jazz. Sap is more than just an "energy guy", and he's playing with passion -- something that left him in his last few seasons in the 801. Korver can defend, and create a little. With the Jazz he was pretty much the spot up guy. Speaking of improvement from the Jazz, DeMarre Carroll is on the precipice of making a lot of money this off-season. He works hard. Contract years have an effect upon players. But part of me thinks that he's actually just playing for one team right now, and that makes a difference too. Jeff Teague is solid, if unspectacular, and the return from season-long injury to Al Horford has made an East playoff team into the Beasts of the East. And season to season that's been a +22 win difference.
While the other three clubs did minor tweaks or relied on internal improvement to get better, the Cavaliers just signed LeBron James in free agency, and then made moves to compliment him. Head coach David Blatt wasn't the power in this relationship, and I don't think their general manager David Griffin is either. Kevin Love was traded for, then got injured in the playoffs. Tough break. Worse still, Anderson Varejao was out for the season after only 26 games. But this just shows you how weak the East is and/or how strong LeBron is. A group of Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov doesn't scare anyone. At the end of the day you can't discount LeBron's affect upon a franchise. They won +20 more games this season.
Most of these clubs were pretty much established before their blow-up season. And I think the Utah Jazz
has have a very good core, but it seems like more than just internal development is needed to jump +15 (or more) wins from season to season. I guess that's what the off-season is all about. I believe in our front office, and love the coaching change that the team did last off-season (Tyrone Corbin out, Quin Synder in). With how fluid the NBA is right now with star injuries, free agency, and just bad luck -- it's not out of the question to dream that our Jazz can jump from the lotto to the playoffs, and then the playoffs to the Conference Finals in a few shorts seasons.
These four teams show that teams can be drastically better in a short time frame. I really believe that our Jazz could follow in those footsteps in a season or two.
Speaking of the off-season, last week was the NBA Draft Combine. Being out of the country, I didn't get to watch any of it, but I am going to get the straight dope from talking to my Chicago peeps when I return home. The Combine is a lot of fun, especially this year with the slight format change that included scrimmages and actual box scores. I know, right? In previous years it would be guys (some of them sleepwalking) going through drills and trying to make an impression. Rudy Gobert did with his measurements, but not everyone was there to see his on court mentality -- like we were two years ago. I fell in love with how he consistently wanted to attack the rim, and was challenging shots out of his area code. He was hobbling, but the desire was there, and defensive desire was something I really missed as I had to watch Al Jefferson for a few seasons in a Jazz uniform.
The teams get some private time with a few players over the week, and the last few days, media days, is where everything goes crazy. According to the Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones, the Jazz met with:
- Chris McCullough (Notre Dame, F)
- Christian Wood (UNLV, F)
- Stanley Johnson (Arizona, F)
- Jerian Grant (Notre Dame, G)
- Trey Lyles (Kentucky, F)
- Kevon Looney (UCLA, F)
- and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Arizona, F)
The team also had contact and/or interest in Cameron Payne (Murray State, PG), Frank Kaminski (Wisconsin, F), and Kelly Oubre (Kansas, F). It is expected that they may be coming for individual workouts for the team, along with the guys mentioned above. Now, not everyone scheduled for a workout comes (Kawhi Leonard was supposed to work out for the Jazz but didn't show up), and not everyone who gets drafted by the team comes for a work out (Ronnie Brewer).
For now, for the media, I think the Jazz will gather data but run nothing but smokescreen. They may end up working out players within two groups (like they did last season): the group is players in the target area of their draft picks, the second group are players they want to keep their eye on for NBA DL, or 10 day contract call ups (lots of evidence to support this theory). But when the draft comes it's going to be all about getting the player they want -- not settling for the player that falls in their lap.
Oh, and speaking of the draft, the lotto is tomorrow! The Jazz have the 12th most ping pong balls, and no team at that level has ever won the lotto. Buuuuut . . . things are funny. In the last decade the lotto as been won by the team with the worst record all of zero times.
- Worst record -- zero times
- 2nd worst - 1
- 3rd worst - 2
- 4th worst - 0
- 5th worst - 2
- 6th worst - 2
- 7th worst - 0
- 8th worst - 1
- 9th worst - 2
- 10th worst - 0
That's a funny distribution when you see that the 8, 9, and 10th seed has won the lotto just as frequently in practice as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seed. Strange things can happen. Now, I'm not relying on the Jazz to need a high draft pick in order to get the player they want; nor do I put all my hopes in slim probability either. The Jazz have a 0.7% chance of winning the lotto. That's a 99.3% chance that they do not. The odds for the #2 pick are 0.8%, and 1.0% for the #3 pick. It's going to be fine. Some #12 picks are pretty awesome.
Like this guy.
Alec Burks was the #12 pick in his draft. Sure, there are some guys who are better than him in the hindsight being 20/20 issue (Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Isaiah Thomas), but like most all draft picks, there was some guys picked ahead of him that he is better than too (Derrick Williams, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Jimmer Fredette).
If the Jazz end up with someone like Looney at #12 I'm not going to be upset. If the Jazz package #12 and some other stuff to get the guy they want I will be really happy.
Moni is just the best for digging up this pic of Jerry Sloan:
Little known Utah Jazz fact: One of the first Jazz players Jerry Sloan coached was Tobias Funke. pic.twitter.com/wI7MVOm1nt— moni (@monilogue) May 15, 2015
Seriously. How does Moni find this stuff?
Also this happened a number of years ago yesterday:
This day in history (88) John Stockton had 23pts & 24asts vs Magic Johnson (20/13) in GM5: http://t.co/vJQcjHAQD4 pic.twitter.com/K9xh9qpnRe— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 17, 2015
And yes, John Stockton is awesome, even if Magic Johnson's team won that series. Also, yes, this is the Weekend downbeat on a Monday. Monday's downbeat will come next.
What is an appropriate estimation for the Jazz win improvement next season?