According to the Las Vegas Westgate superbook, the Utah Jazz are 50-1 longshots to win the Western Conference this NBA season. That speaks more to the heights and unimpeachable talents of the conference’s top three teams than it does say anything about the Jazz. Utah’s outlook can be felt better in its over/under win total projection. After going just 40-42 a season ago, the Jazz’s over/under is set at 47.5 wins. Utah is going to be a very good basketball team this season. All the pieces are in place.
Piece number one is not currently in place, but he will be back soon. That being Gordon Hayward. The star forward broke his finger during the preseason and is expected to miss roughly a month of the regular season. This may do a number on Utah’s chances of hitting their over bet, but outside of gambling purposes, this isn’t the worst news in the world. Hayward will be back before the games start to matter the most, and Utah actually has some depth to tread water while he’s out.
Part of the reason Utah managed just 40 wins and had one of the least-productive offenses in the league last year was because of its backcourt. After having simply horrendous guard play in 2015-16, Utah’s backcourt now looks like a thing of beauty.
George Hill, one of the most underrated players in all of basketball regardless of position, is now in line to start at point guard for the Jazz. Hill is a tremendous defender and underappreciated creator. The Indiana offense he was in always went through Paul George, but when the talented forward was out injured, Hill did a great job of picking up his production. He can do a similar thing here with Hayward on the bench.
Alec Burks is still here, and the team will get former number five overall draft pick Dante Exum back for this season after he missed all of his rookie year with an injury. Exum is a 6-6 point guard who is just 21 years old. Entering the league, he needed to improve his jump shot, but the athleticism, length and game IQ for Exum were already NBA-ready.
The wing rotation for Utah will also be deeper this season than it was a year ago. Joe Johnson was brought in as a shooter to space the floor around the Jazz’s twin towers inside. Boris Diaw spaces the floor better than most NBA centers because of his intelligence and passing, which was beautifully displayed in his recent 10 point 6 assist outing against a good Celtics Basketball team. There is no such thing as a crowded paint when Diaw can fit passes through spaces no other big man can. The team will also be looking for vast improvements from two young players who are already super talented: Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles.
Lyles is actually younger than Exum yet already proved he belongs in this league with his exceptionally effective rookie season. He should see an uptick in minutes this season at both forward spots and could anchor a small-ball lineup if Utah decides to get creative.
The improved spacing, guard depth and overall talent improvement underscores how good Utah can be. It also ignores the best thing about this team. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert form the most formidable frontcourt pairing in the NBA. Last year, Utah allowed the second-fewest paint points of any team in the league thanks to those two. It was also seventh in second-chance points allowed and defensive rebounding percentage. Favors and Gobert had a massive impact on any and all opponents who ventured too deep past the three-point arc.
That defensive calling card will remain in 2016-17. In fact, it could even improve with gained experience and the addition of Hill on the perimeter. What will push Utah from a .500 team to a team capable of winning 50 games will be the offense. Coach Quin Snyder has a great group of guys here in Utah. If things come together, a 10-game improvement on last season isn’t out of the question.