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Middle Management: Utah’s Playoff Push Lays a Groundwork

The groundwork has been laid for the Utah Jazz to begin realizing their long-term goals.

Ben Dowsett

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For the most analytically inclined, the NBA’s “middle” is the least attractive ground to occupy. If you aren’t contending for the title, the thinking goes, it’s much more desirable to be at the very bottom with a chance to re-stock on the blue-chip talent at the top of the draft.

NBA basketball doesn’t exist in a quantifiable vacuum, though, and this season’s Utah Jazz are the perfect representation of why. To the coldest analytical mind, Utah’s passionate pursuit of a playoff spot that likely only earns them the right to face a behemoth as huge underdogs in the first round might seem counterproductive; with no realistic title aspirations this season, why not strategically “tank,” get out of the race and take the tiny chance that a late lottery slot could land them in the top three in the draft?

The Jazz aren’t thinking that way at any level of the organization. The minuscule odds of landing a transformational player aren’t worth the trade-off, especially not for a franchise already thoroughly stocked up with young talent at every position. It’s a personal thing, too: Anything but an all-out effort to succeed and grow as a group would be borderline offensive to the guys in the locker room.

“It’s huge for us,” Gordon Hayward said. “That’s what we’re striving for.”

The implied reasoning here isn’t too scientific: pride and confidence are just as real for NBA players as anyone else in the world, perhaps more so. No stat can chart the benefits of fighting tooth and nail for a seed or battling a juggernaut in a playoff environment, even just for a few games. No metric can track the sort of impact it might have on guys like Hayward or Derrick Favors, legitimate burgeoning stars who may face a choice whether to stick it out in Utah or bolt town within the next couple years.

There are empirical benefits as well, though. Coach Quin Snyder, not exactly the philosophical type (football metaphors aside), can see an observable benefit for the future.

“I think it’s a different experience for us right now, whether we make [the playoffs] or not,” Snyder said. “The way that you succeed in a situation like this is being focused, not just every game, but every minute of every game. That level of focus is something that we’re learning how to do, and maybe a situation like this will help us grow in that respect as well.”

Whether it’s due to the increased focus Snyder referenced or a more tangible development like the team’s return to (mostly) full health, the results are showing through of late.

Utah’s defense, the bedrock of a group that surprised everyone down the stretch last season with a 50-plus-win pace after the All-Star break, is finally rounding back into form after an up and down year. Snyder values continuity within his defensive scheme as much as any coach in the league, and it’s been tough to find with several of the team’s most integral pieces in and out of the lineup.

“The pieces of our defense that made us unique – one was the ball in Dante Exum, one was the rim in Rudy [Gobert], and also Derrick [Favors] is a unique defensive player,” Snyder said. “You take Dante out of the equation, and then you have Rudy and Derrick less than half the games together… what that did is it put a lot of pressure on some of our other guys.”

The Jazz went 11-16 from the start of December through January 22, the dates where at least one of Gobert or Favors remained sidelined (they only overlapped for six full games, where Utah went 3-3). That’s no death knell, but the damage in this case extended beyond just the specific time both guys missed.

“Doing something for a period of time, for one or two months, you do establish habits,” Snyder said. “And whether those habits last over six months is a different situation.”

The Jazz were missing two of their defensive anchors for just long enough to become comfortable without them, only to then have to re-integrate them at separate times.

“For us, we didn’t have an opportunity to be together long enough to find a groove in that sense, as a collective unit defensively,” Snyder said. “I think that’s started to happen, [and] we’ve gotten a little better.”

Even though the historic defensive level his group attained in the final 30 games of the 2014-15 season set a ridiculously high baseline from which to judge, Snyder is probably understating things here. The Jazz have been the league’s third-best per-possession defense since Favors returned in late January, just decimals behind the vaunted San Antonio Spurs for second overall, and are threatening to finish the year in the league’s overall top five.

“We’ve been hitting a stride,” swingman Rodney Hood said. “We’ve been defending, we’ve been helping each other, we’ve been really taking pride in it. We’ve been showing a lot of emotion on that end. And it’s carrying over.”

A few points of emphasis have supplemented the return to health, mostly in discipline- and effort-related areas.

For a team whose defensive aggression didn’t translate into ultra-high foul totals down the stretch last year, the first few months of the current campaign were a bit surprising. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves fouled their opponents more often on a per-possession basis (used to account for Utah’s snail-like pace) through Favors’ return date. The Jazz appeared to be struggling with the right levels of intensity and contact, elements made worse by a worrying tendency to foul jump-shooters and a surprising amount of difficulty grasping Snyder’s emphasis on the “Euro foul” to stop transition chances – something they’re still not fully comfortable with.

They’ve toned it down since returning their defensive anchors, which Snyder has credited as “a larger shift than anything” while trying to account for the team’s improved defensive performance overall. Two fewer fouls for every 100 possessions may not seem like much, but the margins here are minuscule – the Jazz allowed among the 10 highest number of per-possession free throws before returning Favors and Gobert, but concede a borderline bottom-five figure since. They’ve grown more and more disciplined since February, a fact reflected in the numbers.

“I think it’s emphasis,” Snyder opined. “It’s something that we’ve talked a lot about – it’s actually helped our defense that we fouled a lot at the beginning of the year.”

Team rebounding has ticked up a few notches back into the league’s elite, another important element. Whether due to personnel, waning focus or some other major factor(s), the Jazz were strangely lacking on the defensive glass – after closing the previous year as an elite team here, Utah was just 19th by percentage prior to returning both starting big men. They’re back into the top five league-wide since, and are sacrificing nearly two fewer points a night to second-chance opportunities as a result.

Put it all together, and the Jazz are quickly drawing the sort of “no one wants to see this team in round one” buzz typically reserved for a team like the Memphis Grizzlies this time of year – so long as they get in, that is, not yet a certainty by any stretch. Even if they likely wouldn’t have the horses to offer more than a token challenge to the Spurs, Warriors or Thunder, those groups will feel this Jazz team, another frequent Snyder point of emphasis.

“Teams may have some hot spurts, but at the end of the day we make them take tough shots,” says Hood.

The aches and bruises will almost certainly last longer for any potential first-round opponent than the series itself.

Gauging just how much they’ll benefit long term from the chase and a few actual playoff games is impossible for now, but all the signs point in the right direction. Utah’s is an engaged and like-minded locker room, with guys learning more about themselves and their capabilities on the fly. Snyder has their full trust, a plain benefit of such a player-friendly coaching style, even when it includes moves like leaving one of Gobert or Favors on the bench to close games here or there.

“We all trust Coach [Snyder] with what he decides and who he decides to play,” said Hayward. “A team is a good team when people aren’t complaining. They realize what’s important, and that’s getting a win.”

If buy-in and skill development continue at the current rate, a first-round exit feels like this team’s baseline moving forward. They have plenty of space to continue growing, with an embedded coach quickly and emphatically earning his pre-NBA reputation for player development. Hayward and Favors might be the only two true core pieces who don’t have some degree of significant development still to come.

The groundwork has been laid for a franchise beginning to realize their long-term goals. The Jazz have survived a stiff health test and come out the other side better for it; their presence in the league’s middle looks likely to be short-lived.

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: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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