This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the Utah Jazz.
Who are they? A somewhat anonymous defensive-minded group, but that’s about to change. The Jazz led the league last year in opponent’s points per game (94.9), which is pretty amazing for a team that missed the playoffs. Of course on the other side of that coin is their lackluster offense, 26th in the league at 95.1. In order to jump into the postseason in the Brutal West™ the offense needs to make drastic strides. The good news is I believe they are poised to do that, with young guards who should improve, forwards making the leap and a certain Frenchman on a path of destruction.
How have they been built? The Jazz have been savvy in the trade market, important for a team based in Salt Lake City – not exactly an NBA destination. Rudy Gobert was acquired in a draft day trade with Denver in 2013, in exchange for an obscure pick and cash. Derrick Favors came over in the Deron Williams trade with New Jersey and the Jazz’s patience in developing him has paid off and will continue to do so. Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum were Jazz draft picks, and Trevor Booker is their most noteworthy free agent acquisition (again, not an NBA destination, beautiful country though).
Core group – Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward. Gobert is a monster. A 7’1” 23 year old that protects the rim, runs the floor, dunks on everyone and has great vision as a passer. I look for him to score more this season, perhaps stepping out his range a bit. His stoicism even after vicious blocks and his fantastic nickname – The Stifle Tower – bodes well for his rising star factor. To compete in the West with the Marc Gasols, Dwight Howards, LaMarcus Aldridges, and others, a guy like Gobert is almost a prerequisite. Combine Gobert with his frontcourt mate Derrick Favors, and the Jazz have two key legs to stand on out West. Favors averaged 16 and 8 last year, his best season, and the arrow continues to point up. He’s becoming one of the top traditional power forwards in the league, providing physicality and an efficient post game. Hayward continues to quietly produce, steadily increasing his PPG each of his NBA seasons and enjoying a bounce back campaign from behind the arc last year. A healthy Burks can be a key cog in an improving offense.
Role guys – Rodney Hood, Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles. Booker provides toughness and can break out on the offensive end occasionally. Hood can score off the bench, much needed in Utah.
Boom or bust potential – Dante Exum, Trey Burke, Trey Lyles, Raul Neto. Utah has the frontcourt problem solved, now to it’s biggest remaining challenge – developing a star point ballhandler. The Jazz need Burke or Exum to be that guy in order to truly make noise in the West. Not only are teams expected to produce points at the PG position these days, but need backcourt defense to be strong to compete with the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, even Mike Conley. Exum would seem to be the best bet, given the hype and raw ability. Burke may be destined to be at best a Jamal Crawford/sixth man scorer. Exum has already shown flashes of brilliance on defense, showcasing his length and quickness. His offense was putrid in his rookie season, so all eyes will be on the youngster’s development on that end. He is in my view the most important piece when looking at the Jazz’s 2015-16 prospects.
Optimist view – The Jazz are poised to get back into the West playoffs just two years after completely bottoming out under Tyrone Corbin and a thin roster, which speaks to the success the front office has had in quickly rebuilding. Coach Quin Snyder seems to be the perfect man for the job of developing raw talent and drawing up schemes for that talent to be successful on the court (the Anti-Ty Corbin). With a boost in Exum’s understanding of an NBA offense, the Jazz stand to benefit from more of a scoring punch, with more easy buckets for Hayward, Gobert and Favors. If the Jazz can elevate their points per game closer to 100 while maintaining their stifling defense and a real home court advantage, 50 wins is very attainable. Look for the Jazz to push for the 7th seed and even threaten to jump into the top six with a couple breaks. A truly exciting team that makes the West even more fearsome.