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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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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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NBA

Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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