It’s April and the season is over for 14 NBA teams. We have one last team to examine – the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated on the final day of the regular season. For a breakdown of the other 13 teams click on the “NBA Graveyard 2016” section.
The Utah Jazz, man, somehow, managed to die at the impotent hands of the 2016 Rockets and 2016 Kobe Bryant…
Postmortem: The Jazz were straight-up abused this year. Many jokes have been made about their role as the Washington Generals in Kobe’s 60-point explosion in the final day of the regular season. But the Jazz – who found out just before the Kobe game that they were eliminated from the playoffs – were victims of oppositional brilliance all season. In NBA Countdown’s video of the top 10 plays of the 2015-16 regular season, four of those plays came at the expense of the Jazz. In a 30-team league what are the odds that 40 percent of the best plays (admittedly subjective, but still) of a season would occur against one team?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Utah finished last season 19-10 with the top-ranked defense post-All Star break. With monster rim protector Rudy Gobert and front court partner Derrick Favors owning the paint and big, rangy guards causing havoc on the perimeter, the Jazz built a stifling defensive identity. All signs pointed to a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. But injuries would be a theme as would a lack of elite scoring on the offensive end. Gobert and Favors suffered injuries at the same time over a stretch of games in December and January. Utah could have probably weathered the storm had those injuries been staggered, but losing both in addition to 6’6″ point guard Dante Exum for the entire season made it impossible to batten down the hatches.
Gobert sprained his MCL on Dec. 2 and missed 18 straight games. Favors hurt his back, costing him 16 games. In the 27 games covering the span when Gobert went down until Favors returned to the lineup, Utah went 11-16, leaving the Jazz in ninth place in the West. Even in a weakened West, these setbacks were too much to overcome and Utah ultimately finished the season ninth. They did rally down the stretch, improving their record by two wins year over year but were eliminated on the final day of the regular season. Despite the disappointing playoff miss the future is still bright, as they’ve shown an aptitude for drafting solid players late in the Lottery and their young core will all be back next season. In what seems like a common refrain with these non-playoff teams, so much hinges on their ability to stay healthy as a group.
Low Moments: The Jazz were another unfortunate team that saw a key player’s season submarined before the first game tipped off. Fresh off his rookie season, Australian point guard Exum tore his ACL in international competition on August 4, forcing him to miss the entire 2015-16 campaign. Recent reports state that Exum is back to running sprints eight months after surgery and won’t play for Australia in the Summer Olympics unless he’s 100 percent. The Jazz should be wary of the possibility. Though Exum had a rough rookie season by the numbers, such as a paltry 5.7 PER, he showed marked improvement after the All Star break on the defensive end, pestering smaller point guards with his length.
Utah entered April 11 a game back of Houston in the loss column with a home game against a beaten-up Mavericks team and a road game at the hapless Lakers. They owned the tie-breaker over Houston. They were poised to make their move. Fate intervened, as Gobert lasted just 12 minutes before spraining an ankle. The Jazz broke under the weight of another star injury and played an uninspiring game. They dropped the game to Dallas at home 101-92, losing every quarter. The writing was on the wall for their season’s abrupt end.
To add insult to their many injuries, Utah allowed a rejuvenated Kobe to rally the Lakers back from 10 down late in the fourth to beat them two days later, punctuated by Bryant notching 60 points in his final game.
Bright Spots: Gordon Hayward continued to distinguish himself as the face of the franchise. He made highlight reels with a step-back game-winner over Zaza Pachulia to beat Dallas in overtime on Feb. 9, propelling Utah to a seventh-straight win. He put in 19.7 points per game, improving his scoring average for the fifth straight season. Hayward is the embodiment of Salt Lake City basketball.
Rodney Hood made a leap in his second season as a pro, filling in beyond expectations for injured shooting guard Alec Burks. Hood sank a buzzer-beater himself in that game against Dallas Feb. 9 to send the game to overtime.
Hood can improve his overall efficiency but is prone to go off on any given night. As he did on March 28 with 30 points on eight threes in the first half of a 123-75(!) thrashing of the Lakers.
Rookie stretch four Trey Lyles (12th overall pick) proved to be a diamond in the rough, averaging 19 and 11 rebounds per 100 possessions. His ability to shoot threes (38%) gives the Jazz much-needed spacing. Look for him to grow into a much bigger role next season.
Assets: Utah’s talented young team is almost entirely under contract, without any player or team options, through next season. A whopping 14 players from this year’s team will be back with the Jazz for sure next season, barring trades or cuts. They also get another Lottery pick to add to their roster or to barter with. Here’s how I rank their assets:
- Hayward – The team’s biggest star, Hayward continues to improve. He’s only under team control through next season but I find it hard to believe he’d leave Utah.
- Favors – A two-way workhorse on a bargain deal through 2017-18, Favors had a 21.6 PER and averaged 1.5 blocks per game.
- Gobert – The Stifle Tower needs to put together a full healthy season and add to his offensive game, but he’s a game-changer defensively protecting the rim. His dirt-cheap $2M per year contract expires next season. They will need to pay up.
- Lyles – At 20 years old, 6’10”, on a rookie deal, expect him to be a big part of Utah’s future.
- Exum – Still just 20 years old, the ACL injury is a huge setback to his development, but he carries immense potential. If he can make strides offensively this will be a dangerous team. Under team control through 2017-18.
- Hood – His rise has made the more expensive Burks expendable. His rookie deal is peanuts through 2018.
- Shelvin Mack – Performed admirably at starting point guard after being acquired at the trade deadline. He provides needed insurance behind Exum next season
- 2016 1st Round pick – Will be at the end of the Lottery, the same range that netted them Lyles, Burks and Hayward. The front office has an eye for talent in the draft. Hood was selected No. 23 in 2014.
- Burks – On this team of bargain contracts, his stands out as the only potential bad deal. Burks has the team’s largest guarantee at $41M through 2018-19. He has value as a 41 percent three-point shooter, scoring around 13 points per game. But Hood may have passed him by, thanks to his missing 51 games due to injury this season. I’m a big fan of Burks as he is one of the few Colorado Buffaloes in the NBA, but injuries have really hurt his ceiling.
- Raul Neto – Provides solid point guard depth. Was thrown into the fire after the Exum injury and did fine, but is not a starter at this point in time.
- Trey Burke – One of the few recent Jazz draft busts, Burke has never recaptured the magic he had at Michigan. He’s the fourth point guard on the depth chart, so look for the Jazz to shop him aggressively.
- Tibor Pleiss – Intriguing prospect at 7’3″ out of Germany, but he only played in 12 games his 26-year old rookie season. May be destined for the D-League.
- Joe Ingles – A nice player and a fellow Aussie for Exum to pal around with. He’s under contract for one more year and is the kind of guy you want filling out the back end of your rotation.
- Jeff Withey – Big man depth at just $1M next season. He got some time due to the team’s front court injuries, but didn’t do anything spectacular.
Free Agency prospects: Utah has never been a free agent destination and with so many players under contract it’s hard to imagine them being very active this summer. Additionally they will need every ounce of cap space next summer to re-sign Hayward and Gobert. They’ll be better off sitting free agency out, unless they can acquire a shooter on a decent contract. Exum does bring uncertainty to the point guard spot and likely will have a bumpy road ahead returning from ACL surgery, but the team is committed to developing him and they have a capable backup in Mack. Trevor Booker is the lone upcoming free agent on the roster that they may want to re-sign for the right price.
Resurrection Scale: 80% (Premature Jazz Funeral) – Despite its inability to get over the hump and into the postseason, Utah is poised for a strong 2016-17, with oodles of talent and a great young coach in Quin Snyder. I fully expect them to be in the playoffs next year and possibly make a run. Health, as always, will be the key.