By: Rossy Pasternak
The start of Summer League signals the end of the craziness that is NBA Free Agency. Most teams have their rosters filled, with mainly only depth players remaining on the market. Throughout the next few weeks, SportsNak writer Rossy Pasternak will take a look at the teams that interest him the most heading into the upcoming season.
Quietly, in the shadows, a revolution has been brewing. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a collection of misfits and ‘tweeners have come together to equal something greater than the sum of their parts.
Former Spurs assistant GM, and current Jazz GM, Dennis Lindsey has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring Utah a contending team. It was only five years ago that the Jazz dealt away then-superstar Deron Williams; only five years ago that the team and legendary coach Jerry Sloan parted ways. Lindsay took over in the aftermath of those franchise-altering moves, and was tasked with the near-impossible feat of re-tooling the team around Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap.
Not long after taking over, Lindsey had to deal with the losses of Milsap (2012) and Jefferson (2013) in free-agency. Even with all of these losses, both in games and on the roster, the Jazz have only picked in the top-3 once since 2010 – the time frame being explored in this article. Lindsay was tasked with rebuilding without losing – one of the hardest things to do in sports.
The re-tooling process actually started in 2010, when the Jazz, at 9th overall, picked a 6’9 lanky, nerdy shooter from Butler who had come so close to winning the National Championship for his team just a couple months prior. Little did the Jazz know at that time, but Gordon Hayward would become their newest franchise cornerstone.
The Jazz followed that up with a great draft in 2011, picking Enes Kanter (#3) and Alec Burks (#12). They also nailed the 2013 draft, stealing Rudy Gobert at pick #27. They have since added to the core, with the picks of Dante Exum (#5, 2014), Rodney Hood (#23, 2014) and Trey Lyles (#12, 2015). Utah has shown the exceptional ability of finding diamonds in the rough in the middle and late first round. That formula – surrounding core pieces with great mid-first-round picks – has worked for teams like the Warriors and the Thunder, and it is working for the Jazz as well.
PG – George Hill
SG – Gordon Hayward
SF – Joe Johnson
PF – Derrick Favors
C – Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz pulled off one of the biggest trade coups in recent history, in my opinion. Utah managed to acquire George Hill, the long, 3-and-D point guard that they have been looking for. All they had to give up was the #12 pick (Taurean Prince), and they solved their point guard problems. They had tried filling this need via the draft, with the picks of Trey Burke and Dante Exum (more on him later). Hill solidifies the position, and is a perfect fit, as his size and defence, and ability to run the offence, will blend perfectly with the position-less and dynamic Jazz lineup.
Gordon Hayward is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Hayward is a confessed nerd, who loves video games, even penning a Players’ Tribune piece about the sport of gaming. Video game or not, Hayward can play. He averaged 19.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game last season, and that was without a point guard who can create easy shots for Hayward. He spaces the floor very well, a 36% 3-point shooter on his career, and also gets to the rim, averaging 6 free-throw attempts per game last season. Hayward is another tall, lanky guard who can switch on screens, which is a common trait among most Jazz guards.
Joe Johnson, or “Iso-Joe”, is nearing the end of his career. He struggled from outside the arc during the playoffs with Miami, and has been on an obvious decline since his glory days in Atlanta. On a two-year, $22M deal, Johnson exemplifies the type of low-risk, high-reward move that has become rare in the ridiculous NBA free-agency market. Johnson can even play some power-forward in small ball lineups, adding to the versatility of the team.
Derrick Favors was the centrepiece of the Deron Williams deal with the then New Jersey Nets. Since coming over to the Jazz, Favors has improved every season. He has likely peaked as a player now, averaging 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, but provides more than just statistics. Although he struggles moving his feet on defence, which will be a major problem when switching onto guards, Favors is an able rebounder and is a fearsome rim-protector. On offence, Favors provides a very decent mid-range option, as well as a force on the offensive boards, averaging 2.7 a game last season.
The Utah Jazz have Enes Kanter to thank for Gobert’s emergence. Gobert got his first opportunity in the 2014-2015 season due to Kanter’s trade to the Thunder, and he hasn’t looked back since. The “Stifle-Tower” ranked 9th in defensive win shares that season, even though he played half the minutes as most other players. Gobert will continuously be in the running for defensive player of the year, and with him anchoring the defence, it is nearly impossible to foresee the Jazz outside of the top ten in defensive rankings.
PG – Dante Exum
PG – Shelvin Mack
PG – Raul Neto
SG – Alec Burks
SG – Rodney Hood
SF – Joe Ingles
SF – Chris Johnson
PF – Trey Liles
PF – Boris Diaw
C – Jeff Withey
C – Tibor Pleiss
The point-guard position has historically been Utah’s strongest position with names like Stockton and Williams. Now, it is a committee approach to the position. Exum is a George Hill clone minus the shooting, and will be able to fill in adequately on both ends of the court. Mack is a gunner, but not much of a passer. He will find himself playing in lineups that include lesser shooters, being used as a spacer. Neto started for much of last season due to injuries to Exum and the now departed Trey Burke. Neto is an able backup, and will definitely see a lot of time on the court. Coach Quin Snyder will have to be creative with his rotation in order to have all four of his point guards see substantial court time.
At the shooting guard position, you could make an argument for both Burks and Hood to start along Hayward instead of Johnson. Both of these players will provide exceptional scoring off of the bench. From beyond the arc, both of these players shoot above 36%, a fantastic mark for players who excel in many other areas. Burks has been slowed by injuries, but has shown the promise of becoming more than just a bench scorer. Hood has shown his clutch gene with game winners. Both of these players will play huge roles in the success the Jazz have this season.
Backing up Joe Johnson this year is Australian forward Joe Ingles. Ingles, going into his third year in the League, defines what a league average backup is. He averaged 4.2 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.2 assists last season, and will likely hover around there again this year. I would expect Coach Snyder to use a combination of Hayward, Burks, Exum, and Hood at the 2 and 3 spots when Iso-Joe leaves the floor.
Trey Lyles is Utah’s best hope at a Draymond Green type player – at least defensively. Lyles averaged 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds last season in limited playing time as a rookie. In his second year, he and the vet Boris Diaw will share time backing up Favors. Lyles actually shot pretty well from deep last season, with a mark of 38.3%. What is even more encouraging is his activity on defence. If Lyles maximizes his potential, he could be a huge matchup solution for the Jazz when playing teams like the Warriors who go really small. Lyles is able to keep up with quicker guards and forwards, and has the size to bang in the post with the bigs. Diaw, although slow, is capable of staying in front of most stretch four’s. The Frenchman will provide veteran leadership on and off the court, something that cannot be undervalued.
Jeff Withey went on a stretch last season, when Favors and Gobert were injured, where he posted a 19 PER (Player Efficiency Rating), and blocked over 3 shots per 36 minutes. Withey is a very capable defender at the rim, which will be very important when Gobert comes off the floor. Pleiss will likely not give anything of value to this team on the court other than 6 fouls.
The Jazz, other than the obvious (Warriors), have had the best offseason in the NBA in my opinion. They upgraded substantially at the point guard position – arguably the most important position – while giving up nearly nothing. They also brought in veterans like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, who have both been deep in the playoffs and know what it takes to succeed in the NBA.
The Jazz have a core that is a mix of guys on their first and second contracts, which is considered the breakout period for players. Hayward already had his breakout year, and I expect one of Burks, Hood, or Exum to follow him. Gobert and Favors have found their niche, and you know what you will get out of them.
Utah is such an exciting and interesting team because they are the embodiment of modern basketball. They have size at every position, allowing them to switch on nearly every screen. They have shooting at every position other than centre, which makes it very easy for Snyder – who worked in a pace-and-space system under Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta – to coach the offence.
The Jazz have one of the best defensive teams in the NBA – although, Kobe seems to disagree – and that alone will propel them to a playoff appearance this season. Utah seems finally ready to make the jump from pretender to contender. Doing most of their work in a small city market, playing late at night and not on local TV, the Jazz have been in the shadows far too long.
Now, it is time they step into the spotlight.
What are your thoughts on the Jazz? Comment below!
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