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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: Decisions Loom For Thunder With Deadline Ahead

With the deadline fast approaching, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have some tough decisions to make. Quinn Davis looks at the merits of each moveable player and the best course of action.

Quinn Davis

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Entering the 2019-20 NBA season, a new-look Western Conference seemed to have extremely limited playoff space. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who had traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George away, were not expected to compete for that space.

The age and contract of Chris Paul — combined with the seemingly lackluster roster around him — made the team appear as a likely trade port for contenders in need of one more piece. Paul, as well as fellow veterans Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, were expected to be highly sought after come January and early February.

Fast forward to today: The Thunder sits safely in seventh place in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Grizzlies trail them by 5.5 games, while the sixth-seeded Rockets hold a two-game advantage in their spot. Some of the shake-up is due to injuries to previous Western Conference Finals attendees in both Portland and Golden State — but mostly the Thunder have just been playing great, sound basketball.

Paul has seemingly bought into the culture, noting in multiple interviews that he has had as much fun as ever playing basketball this season. He also just told Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated that he will not be opting out or accepting a buyout to play for a contender.

With the team on the road to the playoffs and a Paul trade becoming increasingly less likely, Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have some tough decisions to make at the deadline. Do you trade the veterans around Paul to accumulate assets? Or should you stand pat, let this roster try to reach their ceiling and move forward with the stockpile of draft picks received in the last two blockbuster trades?

There is an intangible value to giving young players experience in April. They will see first-hand the effort and attention to detail required when the games become do or die.

On the other hand, there is also value to having a veteran team around the young players that the Thunder hope will one day be the faces of the franchise. There are obvious off-the-court mentorship reasons as well as basketball benefits to this strategy. A team with a handful of capable professionals allows for rookies to play within themselves and decreases the likelihood of developing bad habits. If the team decides to sell off their veteran players, there is also the risk of losing team chemistry and the interest of others looking for a new team.

With that said, these benefits are extremely hard to quantify. There is also a fair argument on the other side of the coin, too. The guaranteed minutes and lack of expectations make for a more experimental and open environment, in which a certain skill set may be discovered that would have otherwise never been unearthed.

It would be foolish to confidently say one strategy is better than the other — moreover, there are examples on either end. The Thunder’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has developed quite nicely while spending his first season-and-a-half with two talented rosters. Meanwhile, Trae Young has become one of the league’s best offensive players in the same amount of time while being asked to do everything for an uninspiring supporting cast in Atlanta.

Even if there were more examples found on one side, using them would be a flawed exercise. There is no way to tell whether a rookie who blossomed in one scenario would flame out in the reverse.

This is the life of an NBA executive, one Presti knows all too well. If there was a clear answer to these questions, every team would have figured it out by now. The most likely answer is that every player is different and what works for some may fail for others.

For the Thunder, the player to cater to is Gilgeous-Alexander. The second-year guard has looked like a burgeoning All-Star for much of the season and will be priority number one as the team heads into this next chapter — whatever it may be.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that he has taken a second-year leap while under the tutelage of the future Hall-of-Famer in Paul. There is no telling the amount of knowledge and wisdom passed down from one of the most cerebral players to ever step foot on a court.

With that in mind, along with the contract concerns discussed earlier, it seems unlikely that the Thunder would break up that symbiotic relationship (barring any incredible offers, of course).

The next two trade pieces would be Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. The former is off the books after this season, while Adams is signed through the end of the 2020-21 season.

Gallinari is the likely candidate here as his ability to both space the floor and act as a secondary playmaker would be valuable to… well, pretty much every franchise. His expiring contract would also allow potential buyers to stay flexible for this offseason.

Adams, meanwhile, is a fan favorite in Oklahoma City and a far harder to trade with his longer contract. The burly center also fills a more niche role as a defensive anchor and screen-setter that may not be as coveted by teams at the top of the standings.

Another name popping up in trade rumors is current sixth man Dennis Schroder. The speedy ball-handler is on the books until 2021 but has a much more reasonable salary of about $15 million per year. Teams in need of leadership up top may already be inquiring about the availability of the veteran point guard.

Better, Schroder is in the midst of his best season. He is averaging 18 points per game on his best efficiency ever. His ability to finish at the rim, in the mid-range and from three-point distance are all at career-highs, per Cleaning the Glass. His steady play and the Thunder’s winning record have made him a potential candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

If teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers could shed enough salary to open up room for Schroder, a bidding war could emerge for the German guard.

Trading any of those four veterans could have significant effects on the Thunder’s results for this season. The team’s best lineup features all four of those veterans next to Gilgeous-Alexander. That foursome has a mind-boggling net rating of plus-35 in their 242 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass.

If playoffs are the goal, the Thunder should stand pat at the deadline, keep the core together and chase an exciting first-round series against one of the league’s best.

The risk of staying competitive is well-documented. Even though the Thunder have accumulated a king’s ransom of draft capital, most of these picks are from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams that will likely be competing for championships in the foreseeable future. The Thunder making the playoffs will leave them drafting consistently in the mid-to-late first round where it is much harder to predict the potential of incoming draftees.

With that said, the Thunder have the most to offer when a team is looking to trade out of a high pick, or when a disgruntled star emerges. The capital they accumulated could be simply saved up for future opportunities.

The Thunder may not win a championship this season — or even make it out of the first round — but the foundation is conducive to next-generation successes. Further, the current framework of the team has proven a perfect garden for Gilgeous-Alexander to grow.

There may be tougher decisions down the line and a time at which those assets need to be cashed in — but for now, the risk of losing this foundation outweighs the reward of a potential return.

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The Flimsiness of Narratives

It doesn’t take much for a player’s narrative to take a drastic turn. That’s certainly been the case for Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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To begin this segment on narratives, let’s travel back to the 2016 NBA Draft. Remember what the narrative was for that particular class around that time?

It was labeled as top-heavy. Very top-heavy. It was supposed to be a two-man draft. Only two prospects in that draft were projected to be potentially special talents in the NBA: Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. While the prospects below them were labeled as more of a crapshoot, Simmons and Ingram were believed to be a cut above the rest.

Simmons was deemed a future superstar the second he hit the national stage in Australia, while Ingram garnered attention during an impressive freshman campaign at Duke. Needless to say: Whichever franchise got those two were getting a marquee building block.

Almost four years later, the narrative on the draft has definitely changed.

Let’s get back to Simmons and Ingram. Because these two were selected nos. 1 and 2 in the same draft, they will never be able to avoid comparisons to one another. Even if their skillsets have some very obvious differences, as far as overall talent goes, there are some striking similarities between the two.

Besides their same class designation and a relatively-similar height, both are oversized for the positions they play. However, those physical gifts mean that they not only outside of their regular position but instead thrive in those spots as well. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, it makes both of them two of the most versatile and unique young talents in the league.

Comparing their careers as a whole, Simmons gets the edge for now. The Aussie hit the ground running from the first moment he entered the league. Simmons has had more success both as a player and with the teams he’s played on. Today, he’s even on a team that currently has a better record than Ingram’s — by a fair margin too.

So why is it that their career trajectories appear to be going in opposite directions? At the present time, Ingram is looked at as a promising starlet whose efforts this season should be enough to, at the very least, make a case for the All-Star game. Simmons, on the other hand, seems to be everyone’s favorite scapegoat, despite making a solid case to make the All-Star Game, too.

One simple word: Progress.

With a fresh start on a new team and a clean slate of health — fingers crossed that those blood clots were a one-time thing — Brandon Ingram is living up to the billing of the second overall pick. He’s using his slender physique to abuse mismatches, his jumper is more on-point and his play-making abilities are now on full display.

Until Zion Williamson makes his debut on Wednesday, he has been the indisputable face of the suddenly-scary New Orleans Pelicans. The player that we see from Ingram today did show himself at times when he was in Los Angeles — but only in small doses. His injury issues were not on the Lakers, but with LeBron James on the team, he was thrust into a role that he wasn’t ready for. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and for Ingram, it looks like he’s just about reached it.

As for Simmons, well, he has made progress from a technical standpoint. This season, he’s been able to use his physical advantages to become a much better defender. A 6-foot-10 player with his agility and great vision has all the tools to be an elite defender. Simmons was never a slouch on that end, but he’s elevated his defense well enough to get him All-NBA consideration in that department.

But, somehow, that’s also where the progress stops. Despite summer workout videos suggesting to the contrary, Simmons’ jumper is still a non-factor. Because of that, he faces more questions about his ceiling both as a player and as a pairing with Joel Embiid. Offensively, Simmons is still basically the same player he was when he first entered the league. There’s still so much to like about what he does on that end — and yet the complete lack of spacing leaves so much to be desired.

So, Simmons has improved as a player since coming into the league. He just hasn’t made the improvements that we have wanted to see from him.

The same can’t be said for Ingram

The point is: It doesn’t take all that long for a narrative to change. In this case, to many, Ingram is now the can’t-miss-blossoming-star while Simmons has stagnated — even if only just a little.

Simmons had the future-superstar label slapped on him since he entered the league — with one simple caveated-asterisk, his jumper. This was a well-dissected flaw as a prospect and, with no noticeable progress in that category, critics are on his case now more than ever.

Meanwhile, Ingram’s critics have all but disappeared. His potential has always been there, but his injury history made his future murky. For the time being, he has potential to be a perennial All-Star — most in part thanks to his clean bill of health — and he’s producing better than ever.

Still, there’s also the atmosphere that both of these players are in.

Since the 76ers don’t revolve around him primarily, nor put the best shooters around him, Simmons’ Achilles heel nearly overshadows all the beauty of his game. At this point, it’s gotten fair to wonder if Philadelphia is the right situation for him as a developing player.

That said, Ingram certainly has found the right situation for him.

Simmons was supposed to be a key cog on a title contender; Ingram was supposed to be the new face of a rebuild. There’s so much more pressure on Simmons to produce at an elite level because of the franchise’s long-term goals. New Orleans definitely has lofty expectations for the future, but not in the current year. Given Philadelphia’s shortcomings in 2019-20 thus far, someone has to be the fall guy. There’s some blame to go around, but a fair amount of it is going to Simmons.

With Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram as the latest examples, many factors in this league shape the narrative behind a player. Because the NBA always seems to live in a land of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-isms, most forget past narratives that were once completely legitimate.

Years ago, the narrative surrounding Tracy McGrady was that he was just as good as Kobe Bryant. Not too long after, Bryant’s narrative was that he could never win without Shaquille O’Neal. Better, it wasn’t too long ago that LeBron James was perceived as a fourth quarter disappointment. In short, the story is ever-changing.

If the 76ers win the title and the Pelicans miss the playoffs, what will the narrative be for those two then? Is it going to be the same as it is now?

For now, only one thing is for sure: Narratives are — and always will be — flimsy as hell.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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