Jazz Are Hungry for Success
It’s been three seasons since the Utah Jazz last made the playoffs. Back then, the team was led in scoring by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Gordon Hayward was in just his second NBA season.
Jefferson is now in Charlotte and Millsap is in Atlanta. Hayward remains on the roster, as does Derrick Favors and Alec Burks, but each has a much different job. With veteran leaders in Jefferson and Millsap on that playoff team, Hayward, Favors and Burks played a much smaller role. Now, the torch has been passed down to them to lead this young Jazz team back to glory.
Last summer, the Jazz made Hayward the highest-paid player on the team after matching a four-year, $63 million offer sheet that will pay him $15,409,570 next season. Hayward performed to expectations as he turned in the best season of his five-year career, averaging a team-high 19.3 points per game.
Burks was on pace for a career year as well, but was shut down for the remainder of the season in December after suffering a shoulder injury. He figures to be ready by the start of the training camp, but still hasn’t been cleared for action as of a week ago. Despite playing in only 27 games last season, he and Hayward have still made an impact on some of the team’s younger players.
“[I’ve] really learned a lot from those guys,” guard Rodney Hood told Basketball Insiders. “They really helped when I was going through injuries [and] going through tough times. They really brought me along and I was able to play good at the end of the year because of their knowledge and the things they taught me.”
It wasn’t just Hood that played well at the end of the season, the entire Jazz team thrived. Once the calendar flipped over to 2015, they became one of the best teams in the league.
Prior to January 1, the Jazz were ranked 27th in the league with a 108 defensive rating, but climbed all the way up to the second-best defensive rating at 98.3 after January 1. They posted the best record among non-playoff teams in the new year, and were 12th overall at 27-23. Unfortunately their 11-21 start to the season contributed to them missing the playoffs, but their strong play down the stretch has the team hungry for more success.
“We are a hungry team,” Hood said. “Everybody that comes to play us, whether it’s in Utah or wherever, it’s always a tough battle against us. We always come. We play hard, we play together and it’s fun to watch. We pretty much got the same core. We know each other that much more and I think it’ll be a fun year. I don’t want to put any big expectations on it but I think we’ll have a fun year.”
Perhaps one of the biggest keys to the Jazz’s late-season success was the rise of Rudy Gobert. The improvement he showed from his first year to second year was remarkable. In his rookie season, he saw limited action and averaged just 2.3 points in 45 total games. Once Gobert found his way into playing meaningful minutes, he took off.
He averaged 6.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 45 games off of the bench last season, but increased those numbers to 10.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 37 games as a starter. The team posted a 98.8 defensive rating with Gobert on the floor and a 106 defensive rating when he was out of the game. He proved himself to be a dominant rim protector.
With Gobert next to Favors, Utah could have one of the best frontcourt duos in the league. Favors has improved from the seventh scoring option on that playoff team in 2012 to the second-best scoring option behind Hayward. He’s solidified his place on the defensive end and finished second on the team to Gobert in blocks with 1.66 per game.
The team is among the youngest in the league and still has plenty of room to grow, especially in the backcourt. Trey Burke, Dante Exum and Hood are all young and could benefit from more development and work in the gym. Exum earned the starting job from Burke midway through the season, but still has much to improve upon. They’ve all shown flashes of what they can become and are all said to be working hard this offseason. Shooting has become the top area for Exum to improve upon after hitting just 31 percent of his shots from behind the arc last season.
“Just getting a wider stance, tightening up my core and just [getting] consistency in the shot,” Exum told Basketball Insiders on how he’s working to improve his shot. “I think just the consistency of it [is most important]. … Even if I’m not making them it’s still a good looking shot and it feels good. I think that’s the most important thing. The consistency of it once it gets into the game.”
Once the team assembles for training camp in a couple of months, there will be a lot of the same faces coming back. With much of the roster under contract for this upcoming season, the front office has opted to keep their core together and has been fairly quiet in free agency. They re-signed Joe Ingles and decided to let free agent Jeremy Evans go. They added Trey Lyles and Olivier Hanlan through the draft and signed Tibor Pleiss and Raul Neto in free agency.
The team has also been really close off of the court. Several players joined together in Las Vegas to train and to be with the younger players during Summer League last week. Trevor Booker, Exum, Burks, Favors, Gobert, Elijah Millsap and Neto were all on hand to watch the Jazz in Summer League.
“We’ve been working hard in Salt Lake before Summer League just to work on finishing at the basket and being a leader – having a presence on the court,” Hood said.
A large part of a team’s success involves chemistry. With many players returning next season, the Jazz should pick up right where they left off last season. The problem for the Jazz is playing in the Western Conference, where the race for all eight playoff spots will be very competitive. The case can be made for as many as 11 teams to be a playoff contender next season, so the room for error will be extremely small.
With so many young players on the team they could be at a disadvantage next season as they continue to learn from their mistakes. But with a few more seasons under their belts, the Jazz could be among the West’s best for several years to come.
DeAndre Jordan Explains His Decision to Return to Los Angeles
DeAndre Jordan was one of many players to hit free agency this summer, and perhaps one of the biggest names available. His play on the court with the Clippers for the past several seasons ensured he’d be one of the top paid players this summer.
After meeting with several teams once free agency began on July 1, Jordan settled on moving to Dallas. Because his agreement with the Mavericks happened so early in free agency, many already had him off of the radar and locked in as a Maverick.
Rumors surfaced that supported Jordan’s decision to move to Dallas. Jordan wanted a bigger role in the offense, one rumor stated. He didn’t get along with Chris Paul, another said. He was also said to be unhappy with Doc Rivers.
It turned out, Jordan was just really unsure of where he wanted to play.
“Deciding what your future is going to be like is mostly a headache,” Jordan told the Players’ Tribune on Monday. “For a second, the attention felt good, but after you think about everything and get out all the glitz and glamour from the process, you kind of start to think about what’s really best for you as a player and as a person — on and off the floor.”
The Clippers have been the only organization that Jordan has known. He’s the longest-active player of the team, and has signed on for another three years. So leaving some of his best friends on the team and the city he’s been comfortable living in proved to be harder than he initially thought.
As for the beef with Paul?
“I love Chris,” Jordan wrote. “Chris is a big brother to me. When you play sports, you’re competitive — especially when you play them at as high a level as we have these last few years. And of course, yeah, we all bump heads during the course of the game. But we know that whatever criticisms or arguments we have on the floor, they’re about one thing: winning.”
Keeping Jordan around for the next several seasons will mean the Clippers will be able to do just that: win.
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