The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.
1st Place – Northwest Division
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell
As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?
The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.
Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell
However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.
That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.
The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles
As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.
Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.
Best New Addition: Grayson Allen
Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Quin Snyder
Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.
2. Derrick Favors
Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.
3. Dante Exum
Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.
4. The 4s
The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.
The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.
5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.
The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.
What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.
The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.
Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.
The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?
One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?
We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.
This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.
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