NBA

Utah Jazz 2016-17 Season Preview

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After a strange and ultimately disappointing regular season followed by a definitively successful offseason, the Utah Jazz enter perhaps the toughest leap spot for an up-and-coming team. Now, it’s time to make the jump from “next up” to actual contention.

Besieged by injuries and depth concerns for much of the 2015-16 season, the Jazz could be in for a stark contrast during the upcoming campaign. Trades for George Hill and Boris Diaw plus the free agent signing of Joe Johnson suddenly add three players to their rotation without subtracting anyone of consequence. Also, Alec Burks and Dante Exum are set to return after missing most or all of last season, respectively. A team stuck relying on fringe NBA talent for important minutes last year could turn around and find themselves with more quality rotation options than they know what to do with in a big hurry.

While it’s pretty safe to assume an overall improvement from the Jazz – possibly a large one – precisely forecasting this team involves more variables than nearly any other group in the NBA. So many of Utah’s projected rotation pieces are still young enough to have some level of development left in them, and even guys squarely in their primes like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors will be playing alongside real veteran savvy and depth elsewhere on the roster for the first time since they emerged as team leaders. The baseline is higher for this group, but exactly how high it can get will depend in large part on how each detail shakes out.

With that in mind, let’s preview the 2016-17 season for the Jazz.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Jazz missed the playoffs last season, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about this team. The Jazz already feature a strong core of young players that has grown together for a few seasons and is now more familiar with head coach Quin Snyder’s offensive and defensive systems. I really like the additions of solid veterans like George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, all of whom address a specific need and should help take this team to another level. Let’s hope the Jazz have better luck with injuries this year and can display just how much talent and versatility they have. The Northwest Division is up for grabs, but I think the Jazz have as good a shot as anyone at taking one of the top two spots this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s difficult to imagine the Jazz not improving this season after adding a nice trio of veterans in Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw. Individually, none of the three are going to be competing for an All-Star berth, but with them added to a core that features a ton of nice players, the present seems fairly bright in Utah. With Kevin Durant gone to Oakland, I really believe that the Northwest Division will be a three-horse race. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will battle for supremacy at the top, while the Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves engage in an exciting battle of the new teams on the block. I think the Jazz finish up third in the division and will have a legitimate shot of qualifying for the playoffs. The other reason these guys will be worth watching this season? Dante Exum. I have long been enamored with his potential and am interested to see how he bounces back after missing the entire 2015-16 season.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The time is now in Utah. Period. Now, we’re not talking title contention, but this is the year where a playoff appearance should be viewed as the bare minimum when it comes to evaluating this team’s success. The Jazz bolstered their roster with veterans such as Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw this summer in order to navigate the rough patches that typically ail younger teams (which led to the Jazz missing out on a playoff trip by one game last season). Utah is led by promising forwards Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, with an emerging center in Rudy Gobert anchoring the interior defensively. All aboard the Jazz playoff train!

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

Many of Utah’s young players have already have established themselves as talented NBA players, which isn’t always the case with up-and-coming teams. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles and Dante Exum represent an incredibly exciting core that is now being supplemented with veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. That’s an insanely deep and experienced team that mixes youth with experience about as beautifully as any team in the NBA. These guys are going to be a pain in the tail for every team they play, and while they may be ranked here behind Portland and Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see those deficits being particularly large ones.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Northwest Division is one of the tougher to predict in the NBA. I believe that the Jazz, Thunder and Blazers will finish within a few games of each other, which means unpredictable factors (such as injuries) may ultimately determine the order of the top three teams. I love Utah’s core and they had a very strong offseason that wasn’t talked about enough. With that said, I have the Jazz ranked third behind Oklahoma City and Portland. But, like I said, I believe all three teams will make the playoffs and finish very close in terms of win total.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Gordon Hayward

The team’s unquestioned face and leader, Hayward is among the most versatile offensive wings in the league. He runs frequent pick-and-rolls, can isolate any defender in the game and is an above-average jump shooter both off the bounce and in spot-up situations. He easily led yearlong Jazz rotation players in percentage of possessions used while on the floor last season, even within a Quin Snyder system that calls for lots of ball sharing.

Utah’s depth infusion, particularly ball-handlers like Hill and Johnson, could easily lead to the double positive for Hayward this season: A slight reduction in overall workload, but a potential uptick in efficiency. Hayward no longer has to be the every-possession safety valve for an offense that was often helpless when he wasn’t directly involved in the play last season. He’ll see more open looks generated by others, and hopefully far fewer instances where the onus is purely on him to create a chance as the shot clock winds down.

Make no mistake, though: Hayward remains Utah’s go-to guy offensively. He’ll vie for the team lead in field goal attempts, free throw attempts, points and assists once again after leading each category comfortably last year. He and Rodney Hood form a devastating one-two punch on the wing, forcing all but the few teams with multiple high-level perimeter defenders to live with at least one of them in a plus matchup. Combine this with an overall improvement from his supporting cast, and all the groundwork is there for Hayward’s most productive season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Like many on this roster, 2015-16 was a strange year for the Stifle Tower. He logged just 14 games before being sidelined over a month with an MCL sprain, and spent several weeks or more visibly working himself back to full speed with a notoriously finicky injury (think Steph Curry in the playoffs after his own sprain, only Gobert’s was classified as a more serious Grade 2 compared to Curry’s Grade 1). His absence overlapped with Derrick Favors’ own injury, so the Jazz were without at least one of their frontcourt starters for nearly two consecutive months.

The comings and goings around him were important for a player who relies on at least adequate play from teammates to function optimally. Gobert had an uneven season offensively, with higher turnover numbers and diminishing shooting efficiency, but at least some of this can be chalked up to generally poor team spacing and even worse guard play. Athletic but with a limited offensive skill set, Gobert needs the ball in the right places – and with the right spacing and timing – to make his impact offensively, and this often wasn’t happening last year.

Just like Hayward but in different ways, Gobert could be in for a mini-resurgence with so much more talent and depth now surrounding him on the floor. His chemistry with returning point guard Exum was a real thing when both were last healthy, and Hill becomes easily the most qualified passing point guard that Gobert has ever played alongside. Improved team shooting will trickle down to improved spacing, so look for far more frequent lobs to the rim too.

On the other end, the few weak links in Utah’s defense who occasionally forced Gobert to over-extend himself and cover for mistakes are mostly gone. SportVU metrics have consistently painted him as one of the NBA’s most impactful rim protectors, and flanking him will now be more length than any other team in the league plus strong defenders at the point of attack. He’ll anchor a unit with a legitimate chance to lead the league in defensive efficiency, and he could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Top Playmaker: George Hill

Hayward could also be mentioned here, and could easily still lead the Jazz in raw creation since “playmaking” is more than just assists. Hill, though, adds a new dimension the Jazz have been without for at least a couple years (excepting brief flashes from Shelvin Mack late last season): A point guard truly capable of captaining an offensive attack, both as a threat to set up teammates and to score for himself when circumstance demands it.

He won’t need to function this way all the time, of course, which is part of the beauty of Utah’s newfound depth. Hayward and Hood will handle their share of the load, Favors will eat the occasional possession in the post and guys like Johnson, Burks, Diaw and Lyles will all be involved.

While these other guys are doing their thing, Hill will be the most capable off-ball shooter the Jazz have employed at the point in years. He sank 44.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, per SportVU figures, which was 10th in the NBA among 174 guys who attempted at least 100 of these shots. But he’s more than that, and the other stuff might be even more important. He can ease the burden on Hood and especially Hayward, function as a more talented lob feeder for Favors and Gobert, and perhaps most importantly remove any pressure whatsoever on Exum to play a huge role immediately after returning from ACL surgery. Hill really was the perfect offseason get for this Jazz team.

Top Clutch Playmaker: Rodney Hood

There could be several good answers here: Hayward makes sense for obvious reasons, Johnson has been a consistent clutch performer throughout his career and Favors was quietly Utah’s most consistent option down the stretch when healthy last season (he averaged nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds in clutch minutes on 52.4 percent shooting). One could even make a case for “team defense” as the non-traditional answer, as Utah allowed the third-most per-possession points in the league during clutch time last year (better than only the Suns and 76ers).

Hood began to earn Snyder’s trust in big moments last year, though. Only Hayward appeared in more clutch minutes on the year, and Hood attempted the most per-minute shots on the team during these periods among guys who played most of a full season. He might be even more skilled than Hayward as an individual shot creator, with masterful body control and the height to get his shot off over virtually any defender. Add in the fact that Hayward typically draws the more skilled wing defender while both are on the floor and it stands to reason that Hood could be increasingly featured in the late-game offense.

The team-friendly approach will remain, to be sure, and Hood won’t boast some gaudy clutch usage rate. But he’ll be on the floor – those assuming Johnson immediately steps in and steals his crunch time spot are jumping the gun by several paces – and he could be Utah’s most reliable option to get a much-needed bucket.

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

It’s somewhat understandable with so much else going on within a small-market franchise, but Derrick Favors doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. He’s fresh off his second consecutive year averaging over 16 points and eight rebounds a night while making over half his shots, all while playing near-elite level defense. Favors’ stat sheet reads like that of a basketball robot; it’s hard to find many players in league history who have improved by such steady, similar increments every single year for their first six seasons.

It’s not just raw stats either, with team metrics consistently marking Favors as one of Utah’s most impactful on-court presences. There are few roll men in the league more lethal once you get them the ball, an element that opens up scoring opportunities all over the floor. He’s made a habit of quietly outplaying more heralded names like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin in head-to-head matchups over the last couple years. Favors spent long stretches as Utah’s flat-out best player last season, and it will shock no one if he does so again this year.

Top New Addition: George Hill

Much of Hill’s impact was covered above, and he gets the nod here despite two other smart summer pickups. Johnson is a career 37 percent three-point shooter with the size to play both forward positions, and he’ll add shot creation and marksmanship to a second unit that badly needed it while also mixing in with the starters at times. Diaw has shown signs of aging in San Antonio recently, but he’s a crafty and creative reserve big who should function both as a mentor for similarly-talented Trey Lyles and as insurance should Lyles falter in his development.

Johnson isn’t a lock for huge minutes, though, and Diaw even less so if Lyles continues what’s been a speedy pace of improvement. Both will have their moments, and could perhaps be key cogs if injury or bad play strikes, but Hill is a presumed starter who should consistently approach the 30-minute mark.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Dante Exum

Already one of the most intriguing and potentially divisive point guard prospects in the league during his rookie season, Exum’s ACL tear and resulting missed season only added to the murkiness. Exum is a lengthy athletic specimen who had surprising success as a rookie in certain areas (defense and playmaking) along with distinct struggles in others (shooting and overall offensive comfort). His ceiling remains sky high if these latter elements come together, but his floor remains scarily low coming off injury with a full year of potential development down the drain. He’ll be eased back into the rotation behind Hill at the point, with no immediate expectations. His development in the later parts of the year will be important to track, though, as he’ll become eligible for a rookie extension after this third season. Exum could raise the Jazz’s overall ceiling a notch or two if he starts checking some of his advanced boxes sooner rather than later.

  1. Quin Snyder

It’s a huge year for Utah’s bench boss, now in his third NBA season with a fresh contract extension signed. Snyder’s approach in his first two years has correctly emphasized proper habits and cohesive development of young pieces. That isn’t completely finished by any means, but the “execution” stage is clearly here now. There are real expectations on this team in the wins department. Snyder’s new depth plus familiarity and trust from his incumbent players should allow him to be more ruthless from the bench – tighter rotations if guys aren’t doing their jobs, more targeting of opponent weaknesses, better capability to match up stylistically. His command center has more buttons and levers than ever, and how well he utilizes them could go a long way to determining the team’s success.

  1. Trey Lyles/Boris Diaw

One is just creeping up on his prime while the other is leaving his, but Lyles and Diaw are relatively similar players in a broad sense. Both have the ball skills to stretch the floor from the power forward spot: Diaw the crafty veteran with superior passing and guile, Lyles the youngster with better mobility and shooting. Lyles’ next step offensively is improving as a passer, and there might not be a more perfect mentor out there for him than Diaw. If Lyles improves enough – and especially if he develops into less of a liability defensively, never a bad bet for Snyder-coached young guys – the minutes within this “playmaking four” role could tilt heavily in his direction. Lyles is more athletic and was a better shooter from deep last year than Diaw has been over his last couple seasons, which also makes him the better potential fit alongside hybrid starter units looking to inject more spacing. Diaw is a great addition who will play a real role at times, but it would be a disappointment for Lyles if the veteran finished the year with more minutes played.

  1. Joe Johnson

Johnson comes to Salt Lake City after a brief run in Miami where he looked great as a complementary piece plugged into various lineups, which is exactly the role he’ll be asked to play in Utah. He can create his own look out of the two-man game, the post or via simple isolation, all of which he’ll do while combining with Alec Burks to captain primary bench units. He also shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, a skill that will allow him to mix in with starter-heavy lineups and play off the ball as needed. His defense could become a concern at 35 years old and his presence in clutch lineups is nowhere near as guaranteed as many are assuming, but Johnson brings veteran know-how and several much-needed skills to the table.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz are still significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, at roughly $79.4 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in, with Jeff Withey, Chris Johnson, Marcus Paige and Quincy Ford fighting for one spot. Heading into training camp, Withey would appear to be the favorite to stick. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season – any shortfall will be paid out to Utah’s rostered players at the end of the year.

This is a crucial time for the Jazz. Derrick Favors is eligible to have his contract restructured and extended, which would take about $11.1 million of the team’s available cap space. George Hill is also eligible for a similar deal, although he may prefer to hit free agency next summer instead. Rudy Gobert is eligible for an extension before November, otherwise he will become a restricted free agent when Utah extends a qualifying offer in July.

Also, the Jazz still have their $2.9 million Room Exception, should they get closer to NBA’s salary cap. Looking ahead to next summer, the team could near $54 million in spending power under a $102 million projected cap, but that assumes Gordon Hayward opts out and neither Favors nor Gobert are extended. It also presumes the team takes the rookie-scale options on Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Rodney Hood by the end of October.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Jazz under Snyder have built their identity on team defense, and nothing is changing this year. A starting lineup featuring an average wingspan of over seven feet sets the baseline, and the Jazz are looking to get back to the historic defensive pace they displayed with a fully healthy group down the stretch of the 2014-15 season. The Jazz have similarly been a top rebounding team each of the last two seasons, and should be again. Depth is also now certainly a strength. Utah has gone from one of the thinnest benches in the league to one of the deepest, which in turn raises their overall margin for error. Spacing and playmaking may not yet be outright strengths, but they’re far from weaknesses either after major improvements.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

This team has plugged nearly all its major holes on paper, but the potential for struggles in a few areas remain. The Jazz were among the worst teams in the league at pursuing and converting transition chances last year, and while they should theoretically improve with more comfort and a couple more ball-handlers, team personnel doesn’t suggest a rapid change. The Jazz have more shooting now, but certain lineups – particularly those featuring both Gobert and Favors, and especially during minutes they play alongside Exum – will still struggle with offensive spacing and bits of shot creation. Additionally, all this new depth and veteran savvy doesn’t come without risks: All the options available to Snyder leave at least a theoretical possibility that he makes the wrong decisions and costs the team wins or vital development, though his track record suggests nothing of the sort. Players must also be willing to make sacrifices when it comes to touches and minutes.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this team a whole greater than the sum of its parts?

It’s impossible to look at this Jazz roster and miss the outlines of a very good team, if not a great one. Utah has above-average starters at all five positions, one of the deepest benches in the league, a highly respected coach who connects with his players and multiple young guys who could still have developmental leaps left in them.

We’ve seen countless examples through history of on-paper quality failing to translate fully on the court, though. Utah’s quest is to avoid adding themselves to this list. The new additions will need to develop chemistry with mainstays, and previously injured players will need to re-integrate. Ironing out roles and rotations could take some time. There’s a ton of talent on this roster, but they’re still without that ultimate superstar who changes the calculus (Hayward is close), meaning every duty – big or small – is that much more important for each guy.

If this group gels, gets solid coaching from Snyder and perhaps finds one or two small leaps from young guys, a home playoff series isn’t the least bit crazy this season. If they struggle with details and can’t channel their talent into consistency, however, they could find the climb from outside the playoffs to be steeper than expected. Optimism is rampant for the Jazz this year; only the guys in that locker room can determine how much of it is deserved.

– Ben Dowsett

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