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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

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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