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NBA Season Preview 2015-2016: The Utah Jazz are going to be out to get you

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Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The young and hungry Utah Jazz look to pounce upon opportunity and assume some level of regional power in the Northwest Division this season. They return to action with a mostly in tact roster and a desire to shock the world with their brazen defensive play and developing swagger. You should watch them this year, but it’s really your choice. If they play up to expectation then the choice will be removed entirely from national audiences as they may force themselves into the NBA Playoffs. Even without Dante Exum this season they are going to be an up and coming team that may be a lot closer to beating the best teams than most pundits expect. I’m not saying they are world beaters, with youth and inexperience comes inconsistency and slumps. It will be a learning season for these young players; but also one where they teach a few lessons themselves.

Jazz at a glance:

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

While it isn’t sexy, the most significant move for the team was to not shake anything up. Utah had the cap space and assets to move up in the 2015 NBA Draft, but did not. Perhaps the asking price was too high, or the potential gains did not look to be worth it in the long run. Regardless, Utah stood pat with their late lottery pick Trey Lyles. Lyles does not look like he will challenge for a starting spot on a playoff team. That’s not to say that he isn’t a good player – but historical evidence suggests that the late lottery pick players who do make it are more likely to be specialists than generalists. Down the line Lyles will find his niche, but this season his role will be minor.

When June turned into July the Jazz also still had the cap space and assets to be a player in NBA Free Agency. They did not make much noise by quietly re-signing team clubhouse leader Joe Ingles (SF/SG/PG/Whatever). And in a palliative move they decided not to bring back fan favorite Jeremy Evans (PF). Last season was a step back season for his career as he couldn’t find a place in Head coach Quin Snyder’s rotation. His energy and efficiency will be missed.

Utah didn’t do anything sexy, and they also should get credit for not panicking after Dante Exum (PG/SG) went down with a season preventing ALC ACL (duh, get some sleep, Amar) injury over the summer. General Manager Dennis Lindsey is very openly displaying confidence in the team he has built. The return of Alec Burks (SG/PG) from a season ending shoulder injury, coupled with the year-to-year development of all of the remaining youths, should be enough to bolster Gordon Hayward (SF/SG), Derrick Favors (PF/C), and Rudy Gobert’s (C) Western Conference campaign.

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2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Like last season, the main big-picture strength has to be youth. The average age of this team by November 1st, 2015 will be 24.38 years old. Only four players, Elijah Millsap (28.24), Joe Ingles (28.10), Trevor Booker (27.96), and Tibor Pleiss (26.02), were born in the 1980s. And none of them are in their thirties. If you remove those four players the average lowers down to 23.39 years old. The three most important players this season will be Gordon Hayward (25.63), Derrick Favors (24.32), and Rudy Gobert (23.37). Moreover, among the players on the books, Alec Burks (24.30), Raul Neto (23.64), Rodney Hood (23.05), and Trey Burke (22.99) are all under 25 – with Dante Exum (20.32) and Trey Lyles (20.01) just barely leaving their teens. What’s probably better news for Jazzfans is that this season the franchise will round the corner from being largely potential filled to having actual on-court gains.

Utah’s defensive prowess after the All-Star Break last season has been well documented, and does not need to be restated. That defense is going to be more formidable this upcoming season with another year of refining. In 2015-16 the Jazz will be capable of fielding multiple shot-blockers on the floor at the same time – even when Rudy is on the bench. Having more than one guy protecting the basket will allow for the perimeter players to be more aggressive in turn. It’s the Mark Eaton effect which really allowed John Stockton to be a terror. Outside of doubling down on bigs, opportunistic defenders like Hayward, Burks, Millsap, Hood, and the rookie Neto will thrive in the passing lanes. They can now, if they are beat it doesn’t mean the other team will score. Frankly, the obvious conclusion here is that teams will either break their heads against our rim protecting rocks, or settle for the diminished returns of an outside attack their rosters may not be capable of carrying. The slow pace of play that the team currently plays at will combine with this defensive capability to become a strategic force multiplier. Who knows, it may also end up resurrecting the long dormant Jazz transition counter-attack?

The last, and on the individual play level most important, strength for the Jazz will be size and length. Exum will be missed this season, but outside of non-guaranteed Cotton everyone on the team is a freak in some way. (Trey Burke’s wingspan could be a saving grace for him, for example.) Gobert’s anthropometric results are legendary, and backing him up will be two other seven footers. And while the rest of the team isn’t seven feet tall, for their position they are either prototypical or better for size and length. This makes the court smaller when they are on defense. And it may just be the difference in 50/50 balls. For a club that may not have the experience to counter the savvy of some of their Western conference foes, their size, defensive focus, and youthful vigor could help even up the score.

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3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Man, how much time do you have?

The most obvious weakness will be that of inexperience. Everyone is still learning. This is still GM Lindsey’s first team as a GM. This is coach Synder’s first stint being an NBA head coach. Hayward and Favors are the greybeards as they enter their sixth season in the league. The team was forced, mainly by injury, to play nine different rookies in 2014-15. This season the team looks avoid that same fate. The silver lining is that while not a lot of players have over five years of NBA experience (by my count, only three do), many of them have been playing professionally for years in other leagues. While it was suggested that Ingles and Millsap were not "true rookies" last season, one could make a similar statement about Neto and Pleiss. Both NBA Rookies will bring with them ACB experience. The Spanish league could make a strong case for being called the second most competitive basketball league on the planet. That doesn’t mean that they will make seamless transitions to the NBA. It just means that they’re not coming into this league without any professional readiness.

Of course, the most overt weakness will be on the offensive end. Utah is bereft of an offensive star, let alone superstar. Only three players can make their own shot when a play breaks down, Hayward, Burks, and Hood; and two of them are in preseason shooting slumps. Maybe it’s the personnel driving the strategy a bit here, but I don’t expect the team to run an "isolation as the first offensive option" play too frequently. And I think that’s fine, as isolation oriented play was never really championed in Utah. Rather, team play has long been a staple. From what we saw last season, Snyder’s Xs and Os favor ball-sharing and producing uncontested spot-up jump shots. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a team that was even average from deep on those open jumpers last season. If that doesn’t improve then the offense will continue to be a season-long struggle.

Inside, only Favors appears to have the makings of an offensive game with the currently-19-year-old Lyles as the second most promising candidate. None of the bigmen are stretch bigs. While some can hit from distance none of them are currently considered floor spacers. It’s natural for bigmen to not have that kind of touch, just as long as a roster can compensate by having traditional outside firepower. This team may not have that either. As a result, floor spacing will have to be maintained through passing and movement; and not through anchoring a defender to an outside shooter. Shooting is just such a big problem for this team, but the most confusing aspect seems to be a complete lack of discipline at the free throw line. Utah does make it harder on itself with all the free points they leave at the line.

I don’t want to down my team too much, but the elephant in the room is point guard. Or as this season without Dante Exum could be called, "missing-the-point" guard. Last season the Jazz didn’t strike fear into anyone at point, and the production from the position was deplorable. This season could be more of the same if Burke, Neto, or Cotton do not step up. The Western Conference is littered with point guards. Utah’s serious talent deficit at the position could be the most difficult weakness to overcome.

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4. What are the goals for this team?

The media friendly goals for the team are to compete every night and continue improving. Everyone with the organization wants to prove the stellar play at the end of last season was not a fluke. Also, some of the individual players are motivated to work together in order to enhance their individual stature. For certain players, like Hayward, Favors, Gobert, Burks, Burke, and Hood, they all want to give the other team hell on every night while contributing to a winning program. Booker is in a contract year and has so far demonstrated an individual goal to get that next contract. A goal that will not at all come into conflict with the greater team goals for this season.

But let’s be real.

The team isn’t going to go out there and say it, but this is a club that really want to go out there and make the playoffs. Hayward, Favors, and Burks have only tasted the playoffs once before, as bit players. Booker has been there with the Wizards, but in a similar role. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011-12. Fans have been targeting this season as the return date. With where Hayward and Favors are in their careers, I would be confident in suggesting that they feel similarly to the fans in this situation.

I don’t believe the team is targeting a Top 4 seed in the West. They just need to break the lottery streak and make it in as one of the Top 8. With the talent Lindsey has assembled, and with fiery Snyder at the helm I think these kids can do it. I believe they think they can, as well.

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5. Which opposing teams are the biggest obstacles to achieving a playoff spot?

Assuming that the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Memphis Grizzlies do not have a date with disaster it’s likely that they will all be returning to the Western Conference playoffs. Similarly, we’d expect a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder to return to form. This would mean that six of the eight maximum spots to the post-season will be already filled. Of the nine remaining teams in the conference I can only confidently say that the Minnesota Timberwolves are not a playoff threat in 2015-16.

That leaves eight teams fighting for the last two spots (Teams listed by most to fewest 2014-15 wins; Players listed by most to least NBA experience):

I can easily see the Jazz losing to any of those teams on a given night, or winning. The savagery of the regular season should make life hard for the Blazers and Nuggets, possibly thinning the herd. That would still only make it a six team race for two spots. High roster turn over could cause a problem for the Mavericks, Kings, and Lakers – or probably just keep them from distancing themselves from the pack. I will pick out four teams to focus on here.

New Orleans: While they have more individual experience than the Jazz, I think convention states that they are considered a team on the way up. They are also one that features a very young, talented bigman. As a result, this team HAS to be a natural competitor to the Jazz who start Favors and Gobert. New Orleans has a more experienced head coach and much more outside shooting. Their bigs have more experience, and that could be a difference maker. Gordon and Evans used to light the Jazz up when they were with the Clippers and Kings respectively, but I take Burks and Hayward over them at this juncture. The Pelicans are going to be hard to deny, as they had what it took to make the playoffs last season. They’ve been there before, and on that alone are ahead of the Jazz.

Phoenix Suns: Another younger core that’s built around players who haven’t really been there before, it’s like the Suns are the guard oriented version of the big oriented Jazz. Jeff Hornacek and Earl Watson are also coaches there so these two teams are even that much more closely linked. I think Phoenix is hard to predict because Tyson Chandler is supposed to be on his last legs. Though, let’s be real, Phoenix’s medical staff is legendary for prolonging careers. Alex Len is another question mark for me, but he took the Jazz to school in the preseason so maybe I should just be quiet with line of questioning. They have plenty of talent at guard and the floor spacing to take advantage of our traditional paint strength. Beating Phoenix will be a challenge, both in versus play and in the standings.

Sacramento Kings: Look: George Karl took the Milwaukee Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals back in the day. He’s an alchemist – and has an uncanny way of making talent mix despite personality issues that would normally prevent success. Sure, he’s not a long-term solution for any franchise; but his wizardry does produce some short term results. This team DOES have talent. To deny it would be folly. Utah hasn’t regularly housed the Kings, and I believe a small market rivalry is rekindling between the two franchises. Of course, the Jazz won 9 more games than they did last season. And Utah should be ahead of them. After all you and I would both take Rodney Hood over Caron Butler as a bench scorer. If Karl can get his "on paper playoff team" to play as good as the video game players will rank them then we may be in trouble. But reality rarely crowns these "on paper" teams.

Los Angeles Lakers: Of course I am going to list them here. This could be Kobe’s last season as a player – though I believe his ego will prevent him from actually making that the case. Nevertheless, the NBA will be rolling out the red carpet for him all season long as they try to make life easy for their premiere franchise. LA is a huge market and I’m already calling in the fix here. Courting a new generation of Lakers fans with a new, post-Kobe Lakers roster is more important to the league than letting them languish in the lotto for a Timberwolvesian number of seasons in a row. LA will win some games this year. And if the NBA has its’ way, it will be Game 82 of this season when the Lakers host the Jazz.

The Mavs should be the strongest contender for the seventh seed. The Jazz will face off against these four other clubs for the best shot at the eighth.

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6. What can be expected from this point guard group?

Hopefully as few Shaqtin-a-Fool episodes as possible. Trey Burke, a lottery pick that Lindsey traded the rights to Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng for, is in a ‘put-up-or-shut-up’ season. His big game performances in the 2013 NCAA Tournament made him so coveted; however, he hasn’t been able to consistently play up to expectation in the NBA. He doesn’t get the credit he is due for being the passer that he is, instead people are apt to point out that he rarely takes risks with that aspect of his game. On the flip side, he’s almost too cavalier with his shot taking, but I honestly don’t see how he’s going to improve his percentages by being gunshy. Confidence is a huge part of his personality and on-court play. A reduction in his confidence will, or probably has, made him a shell of his former successful self. Ultimately for Trey I think a lot of what has so far held him back has been related to making the transition from college to the pros. This off-season he looked very motivated to turn his career around. But his preseason performance so far hasn’t been much to write home about. Of course, the silver lining there is that last season he looked spectacular in the preseason but regressed in the regular season. Perhaps the inverse will happen this year?

His main competition will come in the capable hands of Raul Neto. Neto was a second round pick by the Hawks in the same draft, and was acquired by the Jazz via a draft night trade. The Brazilian is a fundamental, pass-first point guard who grew up watching John Stockton videos. So he’s got the inside track to Jazz fan’s hearts. He’s also a passer with impressive court vision and isn’t a slouch on defense either. One thing Neto is not, and has never been, was a take charge scorer. That appears to be one of the trends in the NBA right now, particularly in the a Western Conference that boasts the likes of Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, Tony Parker, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, and Eric Bledsoe. It will be a struggle for someone like Neto, if he becomes the eventual starter, to keep his opposing point guards honest on defense.

Neither of them look to be a threat to shoot efficiently from deep, but if one of them did it would really make life easier for the wings. Instead, so far in preseason we’ve seen Snyder opt out of the point guard game entirely and trot out an Alec Burks (SG/PG), Rodney Hood (SF/SG), Gordon Hayward (SF/SG) perimeter group. The results have been mixed so far, but it’s small sample size theatre right now.

The dark horse candidate to steady the point guard ship is Bryce Cotton. Cotton is an energetic fan favorite who reminds some of us of Ronnie Price. Both are undersized gunners, and let’s not kid ourselves Cotton is a gunner, he shoots more frequently that Trey Burke does. Cotton, unlike Burke, was someone who did make some of his shots. The jury is still out on if the 6’0 Cotton will even make this team though. But from season to season, it will be an overall upgrade if Burke, Neto, Burks, and Cotton can move the point guard needle from ‘below average’ to ‘average’.

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7. What if Dante Exum didn’t get injured?

The biggest change would be that Bryce Cotton may not have made it this far in training camp, but largely the course of events wouldn’t have changed at all. After all, Lindsey didn’t panic or make any sweeping reactionary moves after Dante got injured. For example, the Jazz still would have drafted Olivier Hanlan in the 2nd round, and he still would have gotten the same opportunity in summer league as all of that happened pre-Dante injury. Exum would have retained his starting point guard spot giving Snyder options off the bench: if he needed scoring he could insert Trey, if he needed defense or passing put in Raulzinho. Those options aren’t available anymore.

On the court, Exum would have been a great alpha defender on the perimeter in his second season. He was playing with increased confidence and looked like he belonged among the next generation of hyper athletic point guards. A year with this starting group would have helped him and the team adjust to one another. Moreover, it would have allowed for the organic growth and co-operation between him and Alec Burks. Both are somewhat hesitant to shoot three pointers despite some level of proficiency. Being on the court together would have made one of them somewhat more open than normal, and perhaps led to more confident and in the flow of things shooting. Furthermore, combined with Hayward all three ball handlers have the ability to penetrate and pass. Offensively the team would benefit from this versatility and in transition the Jazz would be a terror.

On defense the team wouldn’t have to make any sweeping changes or adjustments either. I do believe the defense this season will be better than last season, but that’s due to the natural improvement and maturation of the team. If Dante wasn’t injured I would feel confident in saying that the team would also improve on defense, but perhaps take another quantum leap forward there. The improvement this season will be much more humble in direct hypothetical comparison.

The largest difference or "what if" would be that the Jazz would be going ‘all-in’ on trying to be the best that they can be. This season, one bereft of Exum, will deal with some level of experimentation. Furthermore, that experiment will continue the season after (2016-17) as the team tries to re-integrate a behind the curve Exum into the mix. Without the injury everything will be running in step, instead of out of step. It’s a shame a year of development for Dante is lost, but the silver lining could just be that he’s going to learn so much this year that his natural abilities will be better served when he finally does return to the court.

Lastly, with a healthy team it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to expect this team to perhaps be in the running for a 50 win season. The expectations without him have to be measured accordingly, and those expectations are realistically lowered.

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8. Will it be feast or famine off the bench again this year?

It will be a buffet of sensibly portioned meals that, overall, should be enough to help out as long as the starters do their fair share of scoring. The easiest idea would be to start Neto and Hood, while having the Burkescourt off the bench. Is that the best thing for their egos? I don’t know. Are the Jazz at a point in time where they can afford to NOT start their top five best players? I don’t know. Is it better to be the 4th or 5th option on offense with the starters, or be the 1st or 2nd option off the bench? Again, I don’t know.

I do think I have a few answers though. Off the bench if Snyder does keep one of Burke, Burks, or Hood, there should always be one guy who can handle the ball in the pick and roll situation while being someone who can put the pressure on the defense. The last time the Jazz had a really strong bench was back when Favors, Burks, and Kanter were all still coming off of it. Last season too many people were gunshy which led to having Trey be more gunshow-y than he was perhaps effective being. Burke and Burks are starters level talents (if the production hasn’t always been there). During periods of this season I wouldn’t be surprised to see them both come off the bench. In those cases they should feast on opposing bench units. If it’s not Burke and Burks it could be a different story.

Rodney Hood appears good enough to be a Jamal Crawford bench flamethrower right now, even if he’s in a shooting slump. If Alec starts and Rodney comes off the bench it shouldn’t be that much of an output difference. The main thing is that the bench needs to have someone who can draw in the defenders. That allows for lower skilled offensive players to get open and be effective. This preseason we’ve seen Tibor Pleiss and Jeff Withey be effective either scoring the ball in the paint or getting to the line. They aren’t doing this by going back to the basket and creating their own shot. Their shots have been created for them, and if put in a position to succeed they have. That’s a far cry from some of the back-up bigs the team has had to deal with over the last four decades. Either the bigs couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t make the right move, or couldn’t even score when open. Pleiss and Withey may not make anyone forget about Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar anytime soon. But both are able to put points on the scoreboard off the bench if they are spoonfed.

Also, let’s never forget about Trey Lyles here. He could easily be a guy who averages 8 points per game this season off the bench. That means there will be a few nights out there where he only scores 4, but by the law of averages quite a few where he breaks double digits. The highest scoring season in franchise history for a bench player was Thurl Bailey’s 1987-88 campaign where he played in all 82 games, but started only 10. He would average 19.6 ppg. A huge part of that was John Stockton and the pace of play. This team doesn’t have a Stockton and will probably play slowly. Outside of Thurl, only John Drew and Matt Harpring have been effective bench scorers for the Jazz. If given a shot it’s possible that Lyles could develop into someone who can give the team double digits off the bench. It’s not going to be this season, primarily because Trevor Booker plays the same position and is in a contract year, but it could be something to watch over the next two seasons.

So feast or famine off the bench? Bench scoring will be lean at times, but more diverse than last season. It’s an improvement, but after the meal you’re still hungry.

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9. Gordon Hayward, All-Star or All-Star Snub once again?

Gordon Hayward has been pretty good for a while now. In his third season in the NBA, his last playing fewer than 30 minutes per game, he finished with 14 points per game, 3 rebounds per game, 3 assists per game, almost a steal per game while shooting 41.5% from three. The next season, playing a star level 36 minutes per game, his numbers ballooned to 16 ppg, 5 rpg, and 5 apg, while swiping away nearly a steal and a half per game. A coaching change later, last season he played fewer minutes but became a much more efficient player. His scoring went up from 16 points to 19 points, while his shooting went from .413 to .445, and three point shooting from .304 to .364. Now just a hair short of the 20 / 5 / 5 / 1 boundary Hayward is on the precipice of wing stardom. How much more can he be expected to produce?

I don’t anticipate Gordon playing more minutes than last season – the Jazz are attempting to be Spurs –like with their rotations. But I do think that Gordon can still improve, after all he’ll be a whopping 25 years old this season. It’s not out of the question to find him averaging 20 / 5 / 5 / 1 this year. His 19 / 5 / 4 / 1 last season wasn’t that far off, after all. So which wing players have averaged at least that? LeBron James has done it 12 different times. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant have all done it nine times. Clyde Drexler, Tracy McGrady, Rick Barry, and Grant Hill all accomplished it either five or six times over their careers as well. In fact if you look down the list of players do have accomplished this feat the shorter list are of the players who averaged 20/5/5/1 and who were NOT star players. Only Tyreke Evans, Stephen Jackson, and Ray Williams averaged 20/5/5/1 at least once during their careers and did not make at least one All-Star game. Of the 39 different players 36 were All-Stars, and by the end of their careers, most of them will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Of course, one season at that level doesn’t make you an All-Time Great. But at least one season at that level makes you someone very special indeed. If Gordon can accomplish that numerical feat, and if the team is winning enough games, there’s a chance that the NBA Coaches will throw him some votes to make the team. Of course, the Jazz do next to nothing to promote their players in these situations, so he has that going against him. But I think the smartest basketball minds do recognize what he can bring to a team, and understand the type of talent that he has. With the way some stars decide to take the game off that may even leave a replacement All-Star spot or two to help Gordon make the team.

Yes, the West is tough – but so is G-Time. If he hits the 20/5/5/1 mark and the team has over 20 wins by the break I think he’ll deserve it. Other wings may also be deserving, but I think Gordon has paid his dues.

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10. What do I want to see from the team this year?

This is the easy one. I wish to see the team both improve the defense, while also making bigger strides on offense. I’d love to see the team get even more national recognition – but I’d rather that they still maintain the chip on the shoulder that they play with. Most of all, even more than wanting them to make free throws, is that I’d want to see them remain as healthy as possible. The wins will come when the team is ready. Development is still needed. And while I do think this team can reach 45 wins we shouldn’t be hung up on wins alone. It’s about being a team that can one day win a title. And this season that means playing like they can, while improving all season long. I trust in what Dennis Lindsey is doing. I am completely on board with Quin Synder’s coaching, teaching, mentality, and Xs and Os. Combined, those two aren’t bringing in washed up guys to keep our highest potential players on the bench anymore. And the sins of previous seasons (being infatuated with wins) are almost all washed off by the sustained and rational growth that we’re seeing. This is a fun team. And it’s fun to be a fan again. And just having another 82 (+) games to watch is going to be great.

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Prediction: Fans of opposing teams will continue to ask if ‘[they] can have Gobert’ all season long.