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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.

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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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