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The Utah Jazz Are Poised For An Upset

James Blancarte looks at the Utah Jazz and how they could make some noise in the playoffs.

James Blancarte

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The NBA Playoffs are quickly approaching. Individual team seedings have been somewhat volatile in both conferences. When Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury, the Warriors lost a number of games amidst a tough stretch of their schedule. In that time, the San Antonio Spurs temporarily wrested the No.1 seed from the Warriors, which did not seem at all likely to occur before the injury. With the Cleveland Cavaliers recent free fall amidst lackluster play and poor defensive effort, the Boston Celtics have overtaken the number one spot. Amidst all of this movement, the Utah Jazz are fighting to hold onto home court advantage in the first round.

This Jazz team is somewhat of a newcomer to the Western Conference playoff picture, as they have not been to the playoffs since getting swept in the first round in 2012, where they qualified as the eighth seed. The team’s current core has been improving for years and only narrowly missed making the playoffs last season. This year, though, a number of factors have the Jazz in a position to not only qualify for the postseason, but to possibly make some noise, as well.

What is working in Utah’s favor?

Working in the Jazz’s favor is continuity of the roster. The Jazz drafted franchise cornerstones Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert years ago and each has developed into star-level contributors. The two are in their seventh and fourth season with the franchise, respectively. Luckily for the Jazz, both are hitting new peaks in their careers at just the right time, as the team is returning to the postseason.

Gobert has been recognized as a top-level defender for years, culminating in his candidacy for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He provides the team with a strong backline defender, shot blocker and rebounder. Gobert’s defensive impact has been especially crucial this season, as teammate Derrick Favors has been hampered with injuries all season. Furthermore, Gobert has been on a tear recently. Since March 1, Gobert is averaging 17.4 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks—elite numbers that still, somehow, don’t fully encapsulate how good he has been recently.

In addition to Gobert’s individual brilliance, the team simply plays great defense. Entering play on March 29, the Jazz were ranked third in the league in defensive rating, falling behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. Although the offense isn’t ranked quite as high (13), the team possesses a +4.5 net rating, good enough for fifth in the league. The Jazz have talented scorers but aren’t designed to be an offensive juggernaut. But after years of playing together, the team has achieved a level of defensive impact that makes them a threat to any team on any given night.

This season, voters selected Gordon Hayward to play in the NBA All-Star game for the first time in his career. In his best season yet, Hayward is averaging 21.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Hayward will be relied upon as the game slows down in the playoffs and every possession becomes critical. The Jazz are primarily powered by their defense, but Hayward will be relied on to make plays for others, orchestrate Utah’s offense and make big plays in high-pressure situations. So far this season, Hayward is shooting 47.5 percent overall and 40.8 percent three point shooting in fourth quarters this year. Those trends will need to continue throughout the postseason.

Another thing potentially working in Utah’s favor is the style of play that permeates NBA playoff basketball. As we so often here, the game slows down, each play becomes crucial and it becomes more difficult to get out in transition and play free-flowing basketball. However, this shouldn’t particularly concern Utah as the Jazz are not as reliant on fast break opportunities and prefer a slower pace of basketball. For the season, Utah is last in terms of pace. This means that teams can’t try to disrupt Utah by slowing the game down or mucking up each possession. Utah is used to this style of play and would welcome other teams engaging them with that strategy.

The franchise also made great moves this past offseason in acquiring experienced veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. In addition to their individual talents, these three players bring significant playoff experience. Hill has 75 playoff games under his belt, while Johnson and Diaw have 101 and 108, respectively. This includes championship experience for Diaw with the Spurs. These three have played well this season and will be a steadying presence for a young roster that lacks the playoff experience that their likely opponents have.

Utah has also utilized Johnson as a small ball power forward recently, giving the team another option to help boost the offense when necessary. Head coach Quin Snyder recently stated that using Johnson in this way has been an effective change for the team, and is something he could have implemented earlier in the season.

“I should have figured it out sooner,” Snyder admitted.

The change has been met with not only a slightly improved defense, but vastly improved offense. This may prove useful in the playoffs.

What is not in Utah’s favor?

Key players, such as Gobert, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and Trey Lyles have never played in a single playoff game. Hayward, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors have very limited playoff experience, as well. Simply put, much of this team has never been in a playoff atmosphere and a handful of their players were a part of the sweep Utah suffered at the hands of the Spurs in 2012. With limited playoff experience, the Jazz may struggle to maintain their collective composure, endure major shifts in momentum and not lose focus after bad calls or other challenging situations.

In addition, the team has not been playing particularly well lately. They have won just five of their last 10 games and in that stretch, their stellar defensive rating has slipped to 12th in the league. Over these 10 games, the Jazz lost in deflating fashion to the Los Angeles Clippers—the Jazz’s likely first round opponent. Following that loss, Gobert vented to the media about the team’s effort.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring,” Gobert was quoted as saying by ESPN.

Soon after, the Jazz held a player’s only meeting. Veteran guard Hill instructed Gobert to keep any discord away from the media and to apologize.

“”I [Hill] told him no matter whoever you’re talking about, you can’t let the dirty laundry out. We’ve got to stay close together. He [Gobert] apologized to the whole team and everyone accepted it. I think [Gobert] learned from it,” Hill told the media.

Further complicating matters are the actual matchup histories this season. The Jazz have lost three of their four contests with the Clippers, two against the Warriors (who they would likely face in the second round) and all three of their matchups with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder currently who have an outside chance of bumping the Clippers out of the fifth seed, which means, in theory, the Jazz could see them, as well. Not ideal.

An additional wrinkle to the pressure of the playoffs, this current team may hold the weight of the franchise on their backs. If the Jazz play poorly and fall flat in the playoffs, that could diminish the prospect of re-signing cornerstone players who are set to be free agents, such as Hayward and Hill.

What do the Jazz need to do?

With two weeks remaining in the season, the Jazz need to finish the season strong and keep home court advantage in the first round. The Clippers have been struggling themselves lately and recent reports indicate that key reserve Austin Rivers may be sidelined until the playoffs with a hamstring injury. Considering the franchise’s notable failures in the postseason, they could be vulnerable in the first round.

Assuming they beat the Clippers (which is no guarantee), the Jazz will have their hands full with the Warriors. Golden State has adjusted to the absence of Durant and has won nine of its last 10 games. Still, the Warriors showed last season that anything can happen in the postseason—including untimely injuries. Between Durant’s uncertain status, Curry’s up-and-down play and the possibility that injuries could come up at any time, Golden State has its vulnerabilities, even if they are massive favorites in a seven-game series against Utah.

Utah is designed to have a puncher’s chance against any team, including the Warriors. With star talents in Hayward and Gobert, an elite defense, quality coaching, roster continuity, playoff-tested veterans and a style of play conducive to playoff basketball, Utah is a team that no one should be eager to meet in the postseason. With this in mind, don’t be too surprised if Utah is the team that blows away our expectations in the upcoming postseason.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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