Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Team Preview: Utah Jazz

Having spent the last three days limping around with sore quads after pushing it too hard at the gym, I'm looking forward to sitting down for an hour or two and breaking down the Utah Jazz, even if they used to be one of my least favourite teams.

Oddly enough, the Utah Jazz bear a striking resemblance to the Wizards team I previewed yesterday; they have a great mix of youth and veterans, their young core is improving every season and they have a frontline which boasts an enviable combination of quality and quantity, going a legitimate four players deep. There is one key difference though, but more on that later. I used to dislike the Jazz for a number of (admittedly petty) reasons, whether it was people putting Deron Williams above Chris Paul in the pecking order of PGs, Carlos Boozer's inability to rebound and silly tattoo and out of misguided loyalty to the long-retired Michael Jordan. However, with Williams traded and Boozer walking in free agency, the last remains of the 90s Jazz in Jerry Sloan gone, I looked at the franchise with fresh eyes, and I liked what I saw. So let's break it down.

With Raja Bell excluded from training camp, C.J. Miles traded and Devin Harris shipped off to Atlanta, the guard rotation for the Jazz is going to be a little different from last season. New signee Mo Williams will likely fill the starting point guard spot - a weak spot on the roster last season with the inconsistent Harris starting - but you have to wonder whether Williams is going to be much of an improvement. Like Harris, he played an All-Star level (apparently) for a brief period in the past, but those days are behind him. He found new life coming off the bench in a Jason Terry-role for the Clippers last season, and was a difference maker as a Sixth Man. The question remains though whether or not he can re-adjust to a distributing role and display leadership for a team which is lacking it - if I'm being brutally honest, I don't see things going so well for Mo. Luckily, there are plenty of other guards to pick up the slack, with young 'uns Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, and vets Randy Foye and Earl Watson filling out the rotation. Hayward is a tricky player to categorise because while he has the size of a prototypical SF at 6'8", he seems to play his best at the shooting guard. Known as the "baby-faced assassin" in college, Hayward remains a fearless scorer, sound decision maker and committed (if not particularly special) defender. He's a very hard worker on the court, and despite questions about his upside has shown that at the very least he's a starter in the NBA, whether at the 2 or 3. With another full training camp under his belt, expect Hayward to boost his numbers from last season as arguably the best perimeter scorer on the roster. I say arguably the best perimeter scorer because of his fellow young gun Alec Burks; standing 6'6", with a slick handle, great vision and an uncanny ability to get to the foul line, he was a player I was hoping Charlotte would take to give him a chance to be a first option player down the line. While this didn't happen, he slowly but surely worked his way into the rotation last season and showed flashes of brilliance towards the tail end of the season, with a few notable fourth quarter performances indicating that the Jazz might just have gotten themselves a steal. With his first full training camp under his belt and valuable post-season experience gained last season, if Burks has added a little muscle, improved his shooting and defends more consistently, he can play the role of James Harden for this Jazz team, leading the second unit and being an isolation scorer when called upon in the fourth quarter. Not much to say about Foye and Watson other than that they are great insurance off the bench and are great role players to have on any team.

Small Forwards:
New import Marvin Williams, Gordon Hayward and occasionally Alec Burks will probably take the lion's share of the minutes at the 3. Williams has underwhelmed after being taken 2nd overall in the 2005 draft ahead of another (more successful) Williams, and the esteemed CP3. However, at only 26 years of age, and freed from the pressure of being a number 2 pick, Williams will have a successful season if he can defend with energy, shoot the long ball close to how well he did against Boston in the playoffs (50% from deep), and not step on the toes of any of their young wings. If Coach Corbin decides to put both Burks and Hayward in the starting lineup this season, then Williams might find himself back to his college role of sixth man. If there's a real question mark on the Jazz roster, it's the SF, but at the very least they have the length to defend some of the bigger SFs in the West (Durant comes to mind) with Williams checking it at a legitimate 6'9" with great mobility.

This is where the strength of the Jazz lies, in their outstanding quartet of big men. The two veterans who (barring a trade anytime soon) will continue to hold the starting spots are Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. If either of these two is going to be moved to the second unit it will be Millsap, at only 6'8" he's a little undersized for the PF position, even if it didn't stop him playing at an All-Star level for much of last season. That said, he was exposed somewhat in the post-season against San Antonio, scoring 4 less points per game and shooting 12% less from the field than he did during the regular season. Admittedly, the Spurs are a tough defensive team with great length and interior defence, but then so is every playoff team in the West, and he might be more useful coming off the bench rather than struggling against the Gasols, Howard, McGee, Ibaka and any the other starting bigs who have the length and mobility to render him ineffective. Moving on to Jefferson; Big Al has been bounced around to a few teams now, but he remains a very skilled scorer in the low post, one of the few Cs who can draw a double on the block, and his numbers in the post-season weren't far off his regular-season numbers. That said, he takes too many shots to get his points, and despite averaging a career high 2.2 assists last season, he remains a black hole offensively. If Jefferson is going to remain on board as a cornerstone of this Jazz team, he needs to score more efficiently and improve his mobility defensively. However, if the Jazz do make the post-season and face off with the Lakers, Jefferson has the requisite strength to bother Dwight. Similarly, Jefferson has the right build to guard other Western Conference Cs in Andrew Bogut, Marc Gasol, Nikola Pekovic and DeMarcus Cousins who like to use their sheer strength to score inside. Nipping at the heels of these two 27 year-old vets are youngsters Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Favors was the linchpin of the trade that sent Deron Williams to the Nets, and despite a slow start in both New Jersey and Utah, he came on strong towards the end of last season, showing the length and athleticism that demostrates his potential as a game-changer at the defensive end. While his scoring numbers are modest, he upped them against the Spurs in the post-season and is still very young. Look for Favors to possibly oust Millsap for the starting PF position, as his mobility, rebounding and shot-blocking ability meshes well with Jefferson's low-post scoring and slow feet on the defensive end. Despite having finished his rookie year in the NBA, Kanter remains an enigma to many people. After missing a year of basketball due to eligibility issues, Kanter looked out of shape, slow and underwhelming for a 3rd overall pick. However, recent pictures circulating the internet show Kanter to be in drastically better shape than before, and the benefits of his first full training camp shouldn't be underestimated. Kanter's Turkish coach recently said he wasn't being used right by the Jazz because they aren't taking advantage of his shooting touch, but with the added mobility he'll bring to the table, Kanter might be able to play more of the pick and roll this season. That said, don't expect great things from Kanter whilst Jefferson is still with the Jazz, as they play a similar role and at the moment Jefferson is simply better at it.

Interesting Storylines:
I said earlier there was one key difference between the Wizards and the Utah Jazz, and that difference is that the Wizards have already found their franchise player and he doesn't have any positional overlap with their veterans. Utah on the other hand, are still sort of scratching their heads about who is going to emerge as the star of this team. Favors, Kanter, Burks and some might say Hayward all have the potential to be franchise players, but with their young bigs playing behind veterans and Burks battling with Hayward for minutes at the 2, the Jazz almost have too many young prospects for any of them to reach their full potential. While this isn't an immediate concern as the Jazz are still deep enough to win without a star, in a few years you might see these four young players start to step on each others toes and force the franchise to break them up. The other major cloud hanging over the Jazz this season is the possibility that either Millsap or Jefferson will be traded; with the hectic schedule last season their quartet of big men weren't complaining about minutes because there were always enough to go around, but with the more sedate 82-game season it's possible that either the veterans will expect to increase their minutes and the young bigs will flounder, or the young bigs will play well enough to usurp a starting spot and cause discontent in the locker room, forcing a trade. It's highly likely that this rotation isn't the same one that will be there after the trade-deadline, and how this plays out is going to be very interesting.

Season Prospectus:
The aim of the Utah Jazz this season is two-fold; firstly, to make the playoffs once again, and secondly, to develop their young players so they can break into the NBA's elite. These two goals are somewhat conflicting, as Ty Corbin will be forced to juggle between them or he might find himself under pressure of being sacked. If the Jazz stay put and hold onto Millsap/Jefferson, I can see them sneaking into the playoffs as an 8th seed and putting up a fight in the first round, but the West just got even deeper with the Warriors now a legitimate threat for the playoffs when healthy and unless one of their perimeter players blossoms unexpectedly, the Jazz could miss out on a post-season birth without the added value on depth imposed by the lockout season's frantic pace.

Next up we have the Toronto Raptors.

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