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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Utah Jazz

Jordan Hicks dives into the significant upgrades the Utah Jazz made to continue Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series.

Jordan Hicks

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Another milestone during the dog days of NBA summer has come and gone. The schedule was released on Monday and to no one’s surprise, the Los Angeles Lakers lead the way with 43 nationally televised contests. Equally as unsurprising is the fact that Charlotte and Cleveland round at the bottom at a measly three games per franchise.

You didn’t click on this link to learn about the rankings of nationally televised NBA games per team, so we will turn around now and dive into the highly-productive offseason of the Utah Jazz.

But before we start, the Jazz have 25 nationally televised games – good for 10th in the league.

Overview

The Jazz had about a good a season as they could have hoped for in 2017-18. Their franchise cornerstone – Gordon Hayward – left them for Title Town over the summer before that season kicked off. Most – if not all – assumed that the Jazz were headed towards a sub .500 season. Insert Donovan Mitchell.

Utah tears their way to a five seed, defeats the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round in just six games, then endures a gentleman’s sweep from the far superior Houston Rockets. They 100 percent exceeded expectations.

Dennis Lindsay – the GM at the time – decided to stand pat during the offseason. Sure, if a blockbuster move would have shown up he may have taken it. But he rolled with chemistry, hoping that it would be enough to push the Jazz even further in 2018-19.

It’s not that he was wrong, he just wasn’t…right. Utah had great chemistry last season, but that still didn’t make them an elite team. They had a top-3 defense, a slightly-above-average offense and a highly-intuitive coaching staff. Those are all characteristics of a good playoff team. They are not all characteristics of a championship team.

They ended with another five seed and were more-or-less unlucky enough to face Houston round one in the playoffs. After another gentleman’s sweep, the FO knew that changes needed to be made.

Offseason

Lindsay got promoted to VP of Basketball Operations and Utah was able to promote the highly-sought-after Justin Zanik to general manager. Working as a tandem, they made their first major splash before the free agency period opened up by trading for Mike Conley. The trade included their 2019 first-round pick, as well as a future first-rounder, and they had to give up Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder.

That was an incredibly small price to pay for the kind of production they will be able to get with Conley on the floor accompanied by budding star Donovan Mitchell.

Mitchell, contrary to popular belief, actually improved on his rookie campaign. His numbers were higher, his efficiency didn’t drop and he was asked to take on an even bigger amount of the workload. The fact of the matter is – there were long periods of time that Mitchell was asked to shoulder *all* of the offensive burden. This made it all too easy for teams to set up productive defensive schemes in stopping Mitchell.

Conley’s presence alone will allow Mitchell’s game to open up a lot more. But Conley won’t simply be standing on the court. He has incredible court vision. He’s more than capable of creating his own shot, and likely better at providing open looks for his teammates.

Up next was the draft. Utah didn’t own a first-round pick as theirs was sent to Memphis via the Conley trade. The organization ended the night with three draft selections in the late-second round, one of them being their own, and two they got via trade from Indiana and Golden State.

They got Jarrell Brantley from the College of Charleston, Justin Wright-Foreman from Hofstra and Miye Oni from Yale. All three players would end up making the roster for Utah, Oni as a full-time member and Brantley and Wright-Foreman as two-way players.

It was reported that Utah was going to be active once the free agency period opened on July 1, but it’s likely no one knew just how active they’d be.

The marquee signing was Bojan Bogdanovic. He instantly becomes the third-best offensive option that Utah has, and having a player of his caliber as your third choice is definitely a plus. They replaced their loss of Derrick Favors with Ed Davis, a similar style player for a significantly smaller amount of money. They bolstered their bench even more with the signings of Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay. Both players signing one-year deals at the veteran’s minimum is what most economists would refer to as “low risk with potentially high reward.”

Losing Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors and even Ricky Rubio will feel strange next season, as all three of those players have played major roles for the Jazz the past two seasons. But the number of upgrades the Jazz added offensively more than makeup for what they’ll be losing defensively. And it’s not like the Jazz are losing their defensive identity. Conley is a better defender than Rubio. Bojan is more than serviceable on that end, and Ed Davis will provide at a minimum 80 percent of what Favors offered on D, if not more.

Utah added a few more players to round out their roster, they are all detailed below.

PLAYERS IN: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Ed Davis, Miye Oni, Nigel Williams-Goss, Stanton Kidd, William Howard, Jarrell Brantley (two-way), Justin Wright-Foreman (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, Raul Neto, Ekpe Udoh, Thabo Sefolosha, Tyler Cavanaugh (two-way), Naz Mitrou-Long (two-way)

What’s Next

First things first, Utah needs to figure out its rotation. The team lost starting point guard Ricky Rubio to free agency and had to trade away starting power forward Derrick Favors to bring in Bogdanovic. Jae Crowder, a major part of their rotation and usually a guy that was part of their closing lineup, was sent to Memphis as part of the Conley deal.

The most popular idea would be to have Conley and Mitchell at the guard positions, Bojan at the three, Jeff Green at the four and Gobert at the five. This would allow Joe Ingles to come off the bench, lead the second unit, then move to the four to close out games alongside the remaining starters.

Ed Davis will likely play the five exclusively as second-year player Georges Niang will play backup minutes at the four. Dante Exum and Royce O’Neal will play major minutes as backup guards with Mudiay slotted to fill in should any injuries occur.

That rounds out their likely nine-man (10 counting Mudiay) rotation. The closing lineup with Bojan at the three and Ingles at the four makes the most sense, so it will be interesting to see how Utah decides to employ their starting five. They certainly have the versatility to mix things up should a specific matchup call for it.

Utah’s biggest weakness last season, at least in the playoffs, was its inability to make open shots. The Jazz shot an abysmal 26.3 percent from three against Houston in round one, but that’s not even the bad part. They were 23.6 percent on shots considered wide-open – when the defender was six-plus feet away.

It was clear their main focus of the offseason was to upgrade their three-point shooting. Signing Conley and Bogdanovic did so in a huge way.

Bojan shot 40 percent from three two seasons ago and was 42.5 percent this past season. He’s even deadlier from the corner. Conley isn’t an elite three-point shooter, but he’s absolutely considered efficient from range and will be a pretty big upgrade to Rubio in that skillset. Teams will have to respect his presence on the floor which will help Mitchell and Gobert in the pick and roll; defenders can’t just suck into the paint as they did before.

Utah will need to reassert itself as a defensive force after losing a few critical role players on that end, but the presence of the reigning, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert will likely make it a simple and powerful assertion. There is a lot to like about Utah’s offseason, they did about as good as anyone could have imagined, and they will 100 percent be a force when it comes to the playoffs.

It isn’t a foregone conclusion, not by a longshot, but there’s a chance Utah has three players on this upcoming season’s Western Conference All-Star team.

OFFSEASON GRADE: A-

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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