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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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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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