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Detroit Pistons 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Detroit Pistons.

Basketball Insiders

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The Detroit Pistons ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference in the early to mid 2000s, but have been largely irrelevant in recent years. Detroit’s drama has ranged from poor free agency signings to constant head coach shuffling, which essentially throttled any forward momentum the franchise could occasionally muster.

But for the first time in nearly a decade, the Pistons will head into training camp under the pressure of heightened expectations. Detroit is coming off their lone winning season since the 2007-08 campaign, posting a 44-38 record and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009. While the team was ultimately swept in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit’s brass is hoping the taste of success is enough to inspire the team’s young core to push even harder.

Rather than rest on their laurels, president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy was extremely aggressive in free agency by bringing in intriguing veterans Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer. The Pistons also locked up All-Star center Andre Drummond to a five-year max deal, following guard Reggie Jackson’s lucrative deal last summer.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has continued to publicly speak about returning the franchise back to prominence. If the old adage “put your money where your mouth is” proves to be true, then he has been passing with flying colors as of late. This unit has the potential to flirt with 50 victories and there’s no question that Van Gundy’s squad is making progress in Motown.

Basketball Insiders previews the Detroit Pistons’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It’s hard not to love where the Detroit Pistons are after another successful offseason that brought in even more talent to a team that was already one of the better young groups in the league. Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith were two of the more underrated acquisitions of the summer, but what really matters is another year of watching Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson grow together and having Tobias Harris for a full offseason and training camp to find his way with this core. The Pistons are deep, well-coached and primed for a breakout campaign. I have them ranked fourth in the Central here, but they shouldn’t end the season too far behind Chicago and Indiana, if at all. Those three teams could easily be separated by a small handful of games, though Detroit admittedly has a much higher ceiling than at least Chicago – both this season and beyond.

4th Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

I’m a huge Stan Van Gundy fan and believe he’s one of the best coaches in the NBA. I’ve felt this way for quite some time and my stance isn’t changing anytime soon. He’s terrific with Xs and Os and in-game adjustments. He knows how to motivate his players and instill a winning culture (which is why it’s relatively common to hear Van Gundy’s former players reminisce about the good old days when they suited up for him). Also, he has a ridiculous wealth of knowledge when it comes to the game’s history (down to even the most random, obscure things). All of this is to say that Detroit’s future is in extremely good hands with their president of basketball operations and head coach. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Henry Ellenson is an amazing young core, and Van Gundy is just the guy to maximize their potential. Last year, we saw this group get their first taste of the playoffs. If all goes as expected, it’ll be the first of many appearances for this squad.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Pistons returned to the playoffs last season after a six-year drought, driven by president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy’s aggressive roster reshuffling since taking control. The Pistons will be an intriguing club this season because it’s always entertaining to watch how young teams deal with any sort of success. Will Detroit sit back and admire their work from last season and struggle out of the gate? Or will the Pistons ride their momentum from this past season and use it to catapult themselves higher into the Eastern Conference’s hierarchy? The team was extremely active this summer, locking in All-Star center Andre Drummond to a long-term deal and reinforcing their overall depth in free agency. Let’s see how this young core handles success.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

It’s not every day that you see a team opt to pay a fringe All-Star talent to walk away. Stan Van Gundy did that and, since then, the results have been impossible to argue with. Since taking over in Detroit in May 2014, Van Gundy has outdone most of what Joe Dumars did in term of roster assembly. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe were among those who were shown the door, and now, the team appears to be on the right path led by Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a player I have fallen in love with as well, so I really like the pieces that the franchise is building around. My only concern is that sometimes, when we see a glimpse of potential, we begin to expect too much, too quickly. Look no further than the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. In other words, just because the Pistons won 44 games last year doesn’t mean they’re going to win 50 this year. The conference around them has gotten tougher and I expect the Pacers to rise up as the second-best team in the Central. After the Cavaliers and Pacers, though, I think the Pistons will be right there. They’re a rising, middle-of-the-pack team in the East, and I am happy for Van Gundy and for the fans of the proud franchise.

3rd Place – Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

Stan Van Gundy has rebuilt the Pistons over the last few years, with an emphasis on young talent headed by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. How the Pistons do this upcoming season will largely depend on internal development since none of their offseason additions are necessarily game-changers. Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, Ray McCallum and Ish Smith are all capable of filling a role and contributing, but this team’s success will be determined by players like Jackson, Drummond, Harris, Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris. Van Gundy is a top-notch head coach, so I expect this team to be more comfortable playing his system as the season goes along. Assuming that happens, I think the Pistons take a significant step forward.

2nd Place – Central Division

–  Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Reggie Jackson

When Jackson was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, most balked at the notion that the former Boston College standout could be the primary offensive option on a playoff team. But Jackson had a strong belief in his skill set and became rather vocal in his desire to be a full-time starter. That wasn’t happening in Oklahoma City with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in the mix, which is understandable, but he hasn’t disappointed since arriving to Detroit. Last season, the guard averaged 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists in 79 appearances. Jackson has now improved his scoring every season he’s been in the league and the 2016-17 campaign may see him break the 20-points-per-game barrier for the first time.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond

Drummond isn’t the strongest one-on-one defender and his shot blocking production isn’t elite, but the first-time All-Star led the Pistons in defensive rating and defensive box score plus-minus last season. Plus, Drummond led the league in rebounding (14.8 boards per game) this past season, which led to the Pistons allowing the least amount of offensive rebounds to opposing units in 2016.

Top Playmaker: Ish Smith

The natural instinct would be to deem starting point guard Reggie Jackson as the team’s top playmaker, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that  newcomer Ish Smith may be the better dime dropper in a very tight decision. Smith finished sixth in assist percentage (37) among players who appeared in at least 50 games last season, showing a knack for keeping teammates involved (Jackson finished 11th, LeBron James 14th). Smith will be entrusted to keep the offense flowing for the team’s second unit and it wouldn’t shock if Van Gundy plays him beside Jackson at times in order to allow the team’s leading scorer to go to work.

Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson

While Drummond is the team’s best overall player, there were times last season when Van Gundy kept the big fella on the bench during pivotal situations late in games. When the game gets tight or the team needs a quality offensive possession, the ball will undoubtedly be in the hands of Jackson and he will be entrusted to get the job done.

The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris

Morris served as one of Van Gundy’s workhorses last season, averaging a whopping 36 minutes per game, finishing fifth in the league in minutes played. The former University of Kansas standout averaged career-highs in points (14.1), rebounds (5.1) and assists (2.5). Morris proved to be one of the better glue guys in the league last season, but his minutes may be in for a decline with second-year forward Stanley Johnson looking to take on a bigger role and the further integration of swingman Tobias Harris.

Top New Addition: Boban Marjanovic

The Pistons signed Marjanovic to a three-year, $21 million deal early in free agency and the San Antonio Spurs opted not to match the offer for the restricted free agent. During Marjanovic’s lone season with the Spurs, the 7’3 center averaged 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds on 60 percent shooting – quickly becoming a fan favorite in the process. Those numbers don’t immediately grab your attention, but his per-36-minute averages of 21 points and 13.7 rebounds should make everyone curious about what the big guy could potentially do with extended minutes.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Stan Van Gundy

The arrival of Van Gundy signaled the dawn of a new era in Detroit and the executive/coach hasn’t disappointed, leading to the club back to the playoffs in year two of his reign. Van Gundy hired a strong staff of assistant coaches to implement his system and philosophy, and the talent he’s acquired during his short tenure has been impressive. The Pistons, at Van Gundy’s direction, are slowly building a team that will eventually compete for Eastern Conference supremacy. Key word: eventually.

  1. Tobias Harris

The Pistons acquired Harris at last season’s trade deadline from the Orlando Magic in exchange for veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. The Magic subsequently traded Ilyasova to Oklahoma City and allowed Jennings to walk in free agency to New York. But Harris will be a focal point of Detroit’s retooling project and he averaged 16.6 points on 48 percent shooting in 27 appearances with the Pistons last year. With a full training camp, Harris should be ready for an even larger role in Detroit’s talented rotation.

  1. Henry Ellenson

It remains to be seen if Ellenson can crack Detroit’s nightly rotation as a rookie, but the Pistons were able to get solid value with the No. 18 pick of the draft in the former Marquette University standout. During his lone collegiate season, Ellenson averaged 17 points and 9.7 rebounds on 45 percent shooting from the floor. At 6’11, Ellenson possesses the ability to put the ball on the floor and has range on his jumper out to the NBA three-point line, making him one of this year’s most intriguing rookies.

  1. Duo of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson

Drummond emerged as an All-Star last season and was named to the All-NBA Third Team after playing at a very high level. The team locked Drummond into a new five-year deal this summer and the center’s free agency process was devoid of any real drama. Jackson’s growth in his first full season as a starting floor general was promising. Now, the question is can Jackson follow Drummond’s footsteps and enter the All-Star discussion? Either way, the Pistons are anchored by their talented duo and with both guys just scratching the surface of their potential, good times are ahead in Detroit.

– Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Pistons went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign players like Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic before re-signing Andre Drummond to a five-year, $127.2 million deal. While the team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, Detroit is well over the cap with 14 guaranteed players. Lorenzo Brown, Ray McCallum and Trey Freeman (reportedly) will fight for the one remaining roster spot.

Looking ahead, the Pistons do not project to have spending power next summer, under a projected $102 million cap. That assumes the team takes Stanley Johnson’s rookie-scale option before November. The team also has until the end of October to extend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and/or Reggie Bullock.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Led by Drummond, the Pistons ranked second in the league in rebounding last season, pulling down 46.3 boards per contest. The team features plenty of wing guys who are capable of pulling down five or more rebounds on any given night such as Harris, Johnson and Morris. The addition of Marjanovic and Leuer add even more guys cable of cleaning the glass next season.

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Three-point shooting and ball distribution are two areas of weakness for the Pistons heading into the season. Detroit shot just 34.5 percent from long range last year, which put them in the bottom third of the league. The Pistons also ranked near the bottom of the league in assists (27th). The addition of Smith will help the team’s playmaking ability, but long-range marksmanship is still an area that needs to improve.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will the Detroit Pistons handle success?

The Pistons experienced some success last season by securing a playoff berth, which has heightened expectations and put pressure on this unit. The franchise won’t have the cloak of anonymity this season, as opposing teams around the league will take the club a bit more seriously. But success isn’t guaranteed moving forward. Plenty of teams over the years have seemingly experienced a breakthrough season only to crash back to earth with a resounding thud the following campaign.  Success has a way of corrupting and when teams start reading their own press clippings, disaster typically follows shortly thereafter. But the Pistons have assembled a mostly blue-collar bunch that takes pride in rolling up their sleeves to grind out victories. If the team is truly ready to take the next step in their development and avoid the trappings of success, there’s no reason why an Eastern Conference Semifinals trip shouldn’t be considered an achievable goal.

– Lang Greene

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

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

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

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

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

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

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

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

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

Ariel Pacheco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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