2018 Preview — Utah Jazz

2018-19 Utah Jazz


Projected Record: 51-31 (4th in West)

Over/Under: 48.5

2016: 48-34 (5th in West)


Key Additions:

  • Grayson Allen (Pick #21)
  • Naz Mitrou-Long (Free Agency)
  • Jairus Lyles (Free Agency)

Key Subtractions:

  • Jonas Jerebko

Summary

Strengths:

  • One of the deepest rosters in basketball
  • Quin Snyder is a top-five coach
  • Mitchell is a superstar

Weaknesses:

  • Can be too dependent on Mitchell for scoring punch
  • Crowder and Burks never really returned to form

With the exception of the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz might have the most unimpeachable roster in the entire NBA. Seriously.

It’s a cliche to say “it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” for a team that found success after the departure of its franchise player, but this team seems to thrive on such things. They’re a walking “nobody ever believed in us” trope. The roster is loaded with seemingly unwanted players, from cast-offs like Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder to free agent finds like Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh. Their two stars were drafted only 13th and 27th overall. They’ve eschewed modern offensive conventions, and instead bully teams to death with physical defense and Quin Snyder’s measured, egalitarian offense.

These Jazz do things their own way.

Last year, I ticketed the Jazz for the eighth seed in the West, praising their defensive upside but expressing concerns about their ability to score the basketball. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Although Mitchell blossomed into the go-to scorer I didn’t believe the Jazz really had (“He isn’t going to step in and immediately replace Gordon Hayward,” is a sentence that aged particularly poorly), they managed a pedestrian 106.2 offensive rating for the season, compared to a 101.6 mark on the other end that virtually tied the Celtics for the best defensive rating in the league.

The Jazz have a number of very useful offensive pieces, but secondary shot-creation is something they still seem to lack. Outside of Mitchell, there aren’t many players here who can go get their own shot. Their second-best offensive player, Joe Ingles, is a tremendous weapon, but over 65% of his made baskets came off of assists last season — including 84% of the three-pointers that provided much of his value. Similar things can be said about three-and-D wings like Crowder and Sefolosha, and while Rubio and then-rookie Royce O’Neal showed significant growth in their first seasons under Snyder, they’re both closer to “fill-in-the-gaps” type offensive players than major focal points. When plays break down, it’s once again going to come down to Mitchell to make something happen more often than not.

Then there’s Rudy Gobert, a transformative defensive player who managed only 56 games in the regular season last year. Gobert is the player who takes Utah’s defense from great to transcendent — their 97.7 defensive rating with him on the court would have led the league by a country mile. Concerns about Gobert’s usefulness in a playoff environment were not entirely quieted this past April, however. Though Gobert was crucial to Utah’s six-game smothering of Oklahoma City in the first round, he struggled to adapt to Houston’s spread-out attack in the second, with the Rockets pulling him out the paint in pick-and-roll situations and allowing Clint Capela to cause problems in the interior. The list of teams who can exploit Gobert inside remains thin, though — it’s practically only Houston, Golden State, and Boston.

Though I have the Jazz finishing with “only” the seventh-best record in the NBA right now, I expect they’ll make a strong case for being one of the league’s five best teams. I would not be at all shocked to see them bully their way to the Western Conference’s second seed — especially with the Rockets seemingly sitting on ever-shakier ground and the Thunder starting the year without Andre Roberson.

In other words, don’t sleep on the Jazz — though, they’d probably be perfectly happy if you did.


Most Valuable Player: Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell’s ascension to NBA superstardom has been dizzying… corny award campaigning notwithstanding, he’s gone from “intriguing late-lottery pick” to one of the most exciting young stars in the entire league. He’s exceptionally cool, and his arrival has eased the pain of Gordon Hayward’s departure in Utah.

Mitchell’s next steps will involve maturation. While he was a prolific scorer as a rookie, he wasn’t an efficient one; his 50.6% effective field goal percentage was slightly below average last year. Some of this is a product of shot selection. Like many young scoring guards, Mitchell loved his pull-up jumpers last year; they made up 43% of his shot attempts, but he made only 35% of them. He gravitates towards the elbows a little too much, and tends to cut his drives short by settling for the pull-up.

For how athletic and crafty Mitchell is, you’d expect him to be more impactful at the rim and free throw line than he is. His 3.8 free throw attempts per game ranked only 53rd in the NBA, and he shot a respectable-but-not-spectacular 63% at the rim. He doesn’t always finish as assertively as you’d like; no doubt the Jazz would like to see a little more James Harden from him and a little less DeMar DeRozan.

The Jazz are a team who can withstand a lot of injuries, thanks to their extreme depth. They were an excellent defense even without Rudy Gobert (though that defense was only otherworldly when Gobert played). Mitchell is likely the only player they can’t afford to lose — they have no real route to creating good offense without him. This team’s upside is significant, but much of it will hinge on just what kind of Mitchell the Jazz get this year.

X Factor: Grayson Allen

It’s really easy to dislike Grayson Allen. Really, really easy. A four-year player at Duke who just can’t stop tripping people? Come on. The guy even looks like Ted Cruz.

I have to be objective here, though, and if Allen can keep his head on straight, there’s definitely room for him to help the Jazz this season. He’s an athletic combo guard who can do a little bit of everything, and his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble is something Utah doesn’t have much of. As I mentioned before, Utah’s offense is a little lacking in secondary shot creation, and Allen can be a spark plug — he might only play 15 minutes or so a night, but he’ll play with energy, be an all-around pest, and, most importantly, put up a lot of shots.

Despite his athleticism, Allen isn’t really a standout defender; he’s a slim 6’5″ and has merely average length, and he’ll most likely struggle with larger guards and wings. This will also make his “position” a little hard to define at times, as he’s not big enough to play on the wings but he’s also not really a point guard (despite lining up there at Duke). He’s a essentially just a two-guard, and not the most versatile one.

Luckily, the Jazz don’t need him to be.

Don’t Forget About: Dante Exum

You’d be perfectly justified for questioning a $33 million price tag on a guy who has played 80 total games in the past three seasons, and indeed, the Jazz are taking a fairly sizable financial risk on 23-year-old Dante Exum. While it teeters on the side of being an overpay, I find it pretty easy to understand why they’re willing to chance it.

The Jazz are betting on upside here. While it feels like Exum has been around forever — this will be his fifth year in the NBA — he’s still somehow just 23 years old. If he can stay on the court, his ceiling remains pretty high. Every team has a use for long, athletic guards who can guard multiple positions — just ask the Celtics how they feel about Marcus Smart. Exum has struggled to find an offensive game in his limited reps, but his defense is already quite good. Just check out this highlight real of his defense on James Harden last April.

Right now, $11 million per year for Exum seems like a lot. If he continues to mature as a defender, finds some kind of offensive game (a three-point shot would be nice), and most importantly, stays healthy, it could end up looking like a bargain. For the Jazz, that’s a bet worth taking.


Second Opinion

Andy Bailey, Bleacher Report + SLC Dunk (@AndrewDBailey)

With almost no significant changes over the last few months, the Utah Jazz are banking on continuity in 2018-19.

And that play should make sense. From January 24 to the end of the season, Utah went 29-6 and outscored opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions. The second-best Net Rating over that span was the plus-9.6 that belonged to the Philadelphia 76ers.

A convergence of a few events led to the ridiculous close to the season. First, and probably most important, Rudy Gobert got healthy. Gobert has basically been a defense unto himself for four years now. When he’s on the floor, the Jazz are among the toughest defenses in the league. Simple as that. And in 2017-18, specifically, they allowed just 97.7 points per possession during his 1,816 minutes. They surrendered 105 points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor.

Next, there was Ricky Rubio’s adaptation to a new role and system. Amazingly enough, we can split his season with the same date used above for the whole team. Pre-January 24, Rubio averaged 11.1 points, with a .497 TS%. Post-January 24, Rubio averaged 16 points with a .588 TS%. In Utah’s offense, there’s really no such thing as a ball-dominant, traditional point guard who orchestrates every aspect of a possession. Generally, there are three or four players on the floor who are empowered to create, pass and shoot. It’s that last one that Rubio’s struggled with most over the course of his career, but he’s expected to be a more complete player with the Jazz, and he eventually grew into that.

Then, finally, there’s Donovan Mitchell. Gobert’s injuries forced him into a leadership role few rookies are expected to even sniff. Prior to Gobert’s first extended absence, Mitchell averaged 12.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists, with a .443 TS%. Over the rest of the season, he put up 21.8 points, four rebounds and four assists, with a .554 TS%.

This theme of before-and-afters is unavoidable when analyzing the 2017-18 Jazz. The hope now is that Utah can avoid the before phase in 2018-19. Everyone’s had a full season in roles that were brand new 12 months ago. Rubio should be more used to being a scoring guard. Mitchell should be more used to being a No. 1 option in the NBA. Joe Ingles should be more comfortable as a starting small forward. Derrick Favors should feel better about getting the bulk of his minutes as a backup 5. And hopefully, Gobert can just stay healthy.

That, in addition to being one of the deepest teams in the league for the third year in a row, should make Utah a strong contender for homecourt advantage in the Western Conference playoffs. If Dante Exum takes a leap or Grayson Allen is better than expected, that ceiling could be even higher.


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