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NBA PM: Utah Jazz Could Exceed Expectations

The Utah Jazz could exceed expectations this season, much like the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats did last year.

Alex Kennedy

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Utah Jazz Could Exceed Expectations

Entering last season, the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats were projected to finish at the bottom of the standings. Both teams were extremely young and had first-time head coaches, so expectations were understandably low. However, Phoenix and Charlotte exceeded all projections, with the Suns winning 48 games and nearly earning the eighth seed in the competitive Western Conference and the Bobcats winning 43 games and making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.

The NBA can be unpredictable and there are a few of these overachieving teams every season. This year, the Utah Jazz could emerge as one of those squads that seemingly comes out of nowhere to turn heads. With a young roster and first-time head coach in Quin Synder, they have a lot in common with last year’s surprise teams.

Their talented young core includes Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood. Hayward is the oldest of the bunch at 24 years old, with all of the others currently 23 or younger. They also have several veteran contributors to round out the roster such as Trevor Booker, Steve Novak and Dahntay Jones.

Through three preseason games, Utah has been very impressive, as they are undefeated with two wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and one win over the L.A. Clippers. While it’s just the preseason, it’s how the team has been winning that’s raising some eyebrows around the league. Their average margin of victory is 12 points and they’re thriving in Snyder’s up-tempo system, which is very different from what they ran under Ty Corbin in recent years. The Jazz are feeling confident entering the 2014-15 campaign and they believe their preseason success is an early indicator that they’ll be a much better team this year.

“It’s a great start for us,” Burke said after the 3-0 start. “We played two really good teams so far and we just have to keep it up. We’ll watch film, learn from mistakes and just move forward. We’re a young team, but we have a lot of talent and we can play with some of the best teams in the league.

“It’s the preseason, but at the same time these are still games and we’re competing. Guys aren’t going out there and playing 80 percent. Every time guys step out on the court, they’re giving it their all. Although it’s preseason, we just have to continue to play the way we have and allow it to carry over to the regular season when it starts.”

Utah will continue to get better as their new additions get acclimated and the players get more comfortable in Snyder’s system, which preaches ball movement and a fast pace.

“It’s definitely something new compared to last year when we were more of a half-court team,” Favors said. “This year, we’re turning into an up-tempo team, so it’s something new and something I had to get used to. As the season goes on, we’ll all have to get used to it and build a chemistry. As the season goes on, it’ll get better. … I’m most impressed with the passing that we’re doing. Everyone is touching the ball, from the guards to the bigs. We’re looking for the open man on offense, and that’s something that’s hopefully going to carry over to the season.”

“The chemistry is growing each and every day,” Burke said. “This is a new team, with the exception of six or seven players from last year, with a whole new coaching staff so we just have to continue to find our identity. I think we’re starting to [find it]. We’re playing much faster than we were in the past and I think we’re playing to our strengths. And we trust each other out there, so the chemistry should continue to grow from here on out.”

“I like the effort, guys have been trying to do what we want them to do,” Snyder said. “We’re a little bit confused at times because there’s just so many new things. We could try to prepare for the short run or we could prepare for a process and have a foundation and that’s what we’re doing. … It’s not realistic to expect too much right now to be honest with you, but I think there’s a real focus on trying to play the way we want to play.”

Favors says that the entire team is playing unselfishly and nobody is caring about touches or statistics. As a result, Utah’s attack has been balanced, with six players averaging in double figures so far in the preseason.

“It just shows how versatile everyone is,” Favors said. “Anyone on the team can score points.”

Burke seems much more comfortable in his second year, which is an excellent sign for Utah. He’s currently the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points along with 6.3 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals. More importantly, Burke’s shooting percentages are significantly better than last year: 51.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range in this preseason compared to 38 percent from the field and 33 percent from three last season. This is something that Burke worked hard on over the offseason and he’s seeing results early.

Favors pointed out that Burke has seemed much more confident and that he’s making better decisions and being more aggressive through these first three games, which the point guard agreed with.

“The game slowed down for me a lot,” Burke said. “I think I’m making the right decisions and getting in the paint more. I’m just trying to make plays for my teammates.”

Last season, Utah won just 25 games, which was the worst record in the West. While it’s unrealistic to expect this young team to make the playoffs in such a ridiculously competitive conference, crazier things have happened. Around this time last year, Phoenix was being accused of tanking after trading away veterans such as Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat and Caron Butler for young players and first-round picks, and Charlotte was considered a laughingstock after losing 120 of 148 games in the previous two seasons.

While the Jazz likely won’t be a playoff squad, they should make progress this season since their young players are starting to take the next step in their development and Synder seems to be getting more out of the group and playing to their strengths. Then, a few years from now when this young group is nearing its collective prime, don’t be surprised if this team makes some serious noise.

Hawks Shopped Al Horford Last Year?

The Atlanta Hawks reportedly shopped Al Horford “in stealth mode” last season prior to his injury and may put him on the block once again, according to Zach Lowe of Grantland.

Lowe reports that the Hawks had let it be known to several teams that Horford was available for the right price, including an unprotected 2014 first-round pick, and he predicts that Horford will be shopped again this season prior to February’s trade deadline.

Last season, Horford was averaging 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks through 29 games when he went down with a torn pectoral muscle that ended his season.

The 28-year-old is a two-time All-Star and has proven that he’s an elite player when healthy, so teams will certainly express interest if Atlanta is fielding offers for Horford.

Mike Budenholzer is currently making the personnel decisions for the Hawks while Danny Ferry is on a leave of absence following his racist comments about Luol Deng, and Lowe says that Budenholzer is “unlikely to make any trade that represents a present-day step back.”

However, if a new owner and general manager take over and start calling the shots, Lowe says that Horford and everyone else on Atlanta’s roster could be up for grabs, especially if they are once again just a middle of the pack team.

Last season, with Horford sidelined, the Hawks managed to win 38 games and take the Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

NBA Experimenting With 44-Minute Game

The NBA announced today that it will play a 44-minute game during the 2014 NBA preseason when the Brooklyn Nets host the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on Oct. 19.  The league is utilizing the preseason contest to examine the flow of a shorter game as compared to the standard 48-minute game.

“At our recent coaches’ meeting, we had a discussion about the length of our games, and it was suggested that we consider experimenting with a shorter format,” NBA President, Basketball Operations Rod Thorn said.  “After consulting with our Competition Committee, we agreed to allow the Nets and Celtics to play a 44-minute preseason game in order to give us some preliminary data that will help us to further analyze game-time lengths.”

Application of the experimental 44-minute game will involve quarters being reduced from their typical 12 minutes each to 11 and a reduction in mandatory timeouts in the second and fourth quarters.   During this 44-minute game, each quarter will feature two mandatory timeouts per quarter, with the first triggered at the first dead ball under 6:59 of the period if neither team has taken a timeout prior, and the second mandatory timeout will be triggered by the first dead ball under 2:59 if neither team has taken a timeout subsequent to the first mandatory timeout.   In the NBA’s 48-minute game, the second and fourth quarters have three mandatory timeouts.

“When this idea came up at the coaches’ meeting, I thought it was a unique experiment that was worth participating in,” Nets head coach Lionel Hollins said.  “I’m looking forward to gauging its impact on the flow of the game.   Since there is a shorter clock, it affects playing time, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays into substitution patterns.”

“I appreciate the NBA’s long history of forward thinking and willingness to try new ideas,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said.   “We told the NBA that we’d be happy to participate in this trial during a preseason game.  I look forward to experiencing it and continuing the dialogue after October 19.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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