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Leap Year: The Utah Jazz’s Charge at Contention

The leap from “good” to “great” is tough for young teams. Can the Utah Jazz make the jump this year?

Ben Dowsett

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Within the NBA and sports around the world, development is very rarely linear. Players aren’t flowers in soil, expected to grow and thrive at generally incremental rates so long as they’re tended to properly; the unpredictability and raw number of variables involved in the process make it far more complex. Most guys improve or decline at exponential rates, especially at the beginning and end of typical career arcs. Forecasting when, why and how much these changes will kick in is among the toughest tasks out there for league decision-makers.

The same reality exists for teams – particularly developing teams on the rise. Everyone in this position wants to emulate the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose bottom-up rebuild went so well that they neatly jumped from awful to bad to good to great in what may as well have been a hopscotch line – but it’s almost never this simple. Roadblocks are common somewhere along the line. Teams often reach a ceiling they simply can’t bust through.

Many falter even before this point, but it’s that last big leap – the one where a group goes from up-and-coming to true contenders – that’s frequently the toughest to make. A couple solid young pieces are usually enough to get a team out of the cellar within a year or two, and with any luck they’ll even be enough to form a competent core that’s competitive nightly. That next step, though, requires more: Further youth development that isn’t always realistic, cohesiveness among guys that isn’t always present, and even the successful integration of veteran talent to complement and augment things.

The Utah Jazz stand at this critical juncture in their team trajectory entering the 2016-17 season.

Utah got “awful” out of the way during a 25-win season back in 2013-14, which eventually netted them Dante Exum and Rodney Hood in the subsequent draft. They appeared ready to skip a step the following year when they added 13 wins and established themselves as a defensive force. Injuries and bits of stagnation brought them back to earth last season, the first in which the group collectively realized the challenges of leaping to that next tier. True to form, the man at the helm these last couple years takes the practical approach – and a non-basketball sports metaphor, golf in this case – when discussing last season’s roadblock.

“Obviously just mathematically, you get to a point where incremental gains [are tougher],” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said at the team’s Media Day. “It’s harder to take your handicap from scratch to negative-one than it is from 19 to 18. So there’s going to be early gains, and I think the main thing is that our players remain consistent in their approach. However fast that pushes us in the direction we want to go, it’s hard to say. I think we’re aware of the challenges of continued improvement, and we don’t want to set a ceiling on ourselves.”

That consistency in habits is one of Snyder’s most well-worn battle cries, and something he’s thoroughly ingrained in his group over the last two years. Do things the right way, even when the talent is still missing, and it’s simple muscle memory to keep it going once the collective skill level rises. It’s a top-down philosophy in Utah.

“There’s fundamental pillars behind improvement,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “The glass ceilings get thicker as you get better, but the characteristics of what you have to do to improve, many times, remain the same outside of changing personnel. That’s working hard, having a humble nature, the group coming together and giving of itself. Certainly we’re built defensively, so can we move from 12th two years ago to seventh [last year] to something that’s more unique? Can we sustain that? We had that stretch in 2015 that was quite unique, and everybody’s written about it, and appropriately so – can you do that over multiple seasons? Time will tell.”

Lindsey is playing the long game as always, but there’s a more immediate aspect to expected growth this year. Expectations are a real thing even for the most process-oriented franchises, and they’ve loudly arrived in Salt Lake City among a passionate fan base.

Lindsey’s summer shows he’s well aware: George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw are all obvious win-now acquisitions that generally run contrary to the team’s approach the last couple offseasons. The message to incumbent players is clear, and has been received.

“In the past couple years, [we’ve been] kind of experiencing things for the first time,” team captain Gordon Hayward said. “Trying to win basketball games for the first time, being in these situations we’ve never been in. So to have these guys come in and have done it before and have been successful at it, it’s going to be huge for our team.”

The acquisitions are in Utah in part to mentor youth. But make no mistake, they’re also a developmental incentive right away. Exum will start the year behind Hill after a lost season to an ACL tear, and the knowledge that Hill is fully capable of playing a heavy minute load should he lag behind should be pretty fantastic motivation for the young Aussie. Trey Lyles may begin the season ahead of Diaw in the rotation, but he’ll know a more-than-capable replacement is available if he slacks. Johnson offers similar insurance for Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and even Hayward.

The summer moves aren’t the only motivational tactic being used behind the scenes in Utah, either. The Jazz under Lindsey have been cognizant of the analytics sphere, particularly surrounding their youth and developmental trajectories, and they’ve found ways to leverage the league’s increasing reliance on big data on the practice floor.

“Certainly we want to be mindful of analytics and age graphs and improvement graphs – frankly we use those at times to challenge our players,” Lindsey said. “‘Hey, this is how your career arc is looking. This is what you’re going to have to do to break through.’ We challenged Gordon Hayward, for example, to be like Steve Nash and have a mid-to-late-20s improvement… It’s been very consistent, and we expect him to be a better player.”

With the veterans in tow, incumbents on the grind and both Exum and Alec Burks set to return to the full-time rotation, depth and how to manage it become vital elements of Utah’s desired leap. Snyder readily admitted there’d be a feeling out process with his rotations, an expected outcome given all the new pieces and his own propensity for tinkering. The Jazz went from one of the thinnest benches in the league to perhaps the most robust in just a couple short months, and an optimal outcome would see the entire group find enough collective chemistry to allow Snyder to mix and match to his heart’s extent.

There are other potential benefits to depth as well, namely health and on-court freshness. The Jazz were besieged by injuries last year, and a much deeper bench kills two related birds with one stone: More talent to plug holes if guys do happen to go down, but also enough to limit overall workloads on the top guys and help lower the risk of injury in the first place.

The Jazz can run at least 10 players deep, probably more like 11 or 12 when everyone is healthy, and so many are quality two-way pieces who typically aren’t limited by circumstances or matchups. Snyder even took things a step further at the team’s first practice, indicating he planned to emphasize a quicker offensive tempo to really leverage his depth (among other potential benefits). A faster pace means more possessions in a given game, and a 12-deep squad is better prepared to handle a more rigorous 48 minutes than teams who only run eight- or nine-man rotations.

When discussing the Jazz and potential jumps, though, note one important fact: A team leap is entirely possible even if no individual leap is visible by our traditional forms of evaluation. For those missing the rub here, let a smarter man explain it:

“Let’s just take Rodney [Hood] for example,” Lindsey said. “He could be a better player, but we have more depth, so therefore he has to do less. That’s a good thing. And I think that’s a legitimate thing. Could we increase Rodney’s usage, and have him be an 18- to 20-point a game scorer? Yeah, that’s within the possibility, if those teams going forward need those points. I’m not sure his usage will go up a whole lot, just because of the nature of the team. But it has nothing to do with his individual growth.”

There’s only one ball, and the Jazz have a lot more talented hands available to touch it than the last couple years. Hood should improve in his third NBA season, but will he really improve so much that he deserves an even further increase in touches with so many other good options now alongside him? It’s certainly possible, both for him or a couple other young guys on the roster, but probably not likely.

Through that lens, a big leap in a volume statistic like points per game for a player like Hood could actually be a decidedly negative outcome; it could easily be a lower-efficiency move necessitated by failings elsewhere on the roster. On the flip side, Hood could become a much better player and help the team make real strides without making waves on his stat sheet.

That sort of potential organic improvement will require individual sacrifice, and that’s what makes Lindsey’s approach to team-building – and Snyder’s last couple years hammering home a collective concept – so worthwhile.

“I’ve been on different teams – some teams that won a lot of games during the season and some teams that have not,” Diaw said in his first Jazz press conference. “And you see that culture is something that’s being built, but once it’s there, it’s something you can sustain at a high level. I wouldn’t say very easily, but the toughest part is to build it up. Once you get that culture, it’s easier.”

The guys in this locker room believe they already have that culture, and they’re ready to do what’s necessary for the greater good. The Jazz are more prepared than ever for the challenges of making their biggest leap yet.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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