Top 10 Realistic Expectations for the Utah Jazz in 2012-2013
Like any Jazz fan, I'd love to predict a sparkling 2012-13 campaign for Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and company.
Unfortunately, silly little details like "being realistic" and "objectivity" prevent me from christening the Utah Jazz as the team to beat in the West.
Still, there are a number of sources of optimism for Utah Jazz fans and players this season. The team that surprised many by making it into the playoffs in 2011-2012 when expectations were in the basement is now a year older and more experienced, and has plenty of new blood that should fill some very noticeable holes.
For your enjoyment, I've created a list of ten realistic expectations to have for the Utah Jazz. Admittedly, some of these may appear to be slightly tinged with optimism, but the list overall should be a very good representation of what to reasonably expect from the Jazz in 2012-2013, barring any huge roster shake-ups or catastrophic injuries.
Another Trip to the Playoffs
It's highly doubtful that any professional athlete would admit to subscribing to the "just happy to be there" mentality, but the 2011-2012 iteration of the Utah Jazz couldn't be blamed for feeling that way.
Utah overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to nab the final playoff spot in the West, a feat that was quite unexpected in the first full season after legendary Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan resigned and franchise player Deron Williams was traded.
Despite the two key departures, despite being under the tutelage of a first-year head coach with no prior head coaching experience and despite a practically nonexistent offseason program to coordinate their lineup, the Jazz clinched a playoff spot by triumphing over the Phoenix Suns in the penultimate regular season game.
The 2012-2013 western conference playoff picture is still very much in flux, especially at the bottom. With the parity in the middle of the western conference, it seems unfortunate injuries and pure chance may be the final determining factors in who makes it to the postseason.
Utah has several things in their favor that point to a return to the postseason. They're a relatively young squad that should be more resistant to injury than older rosters. They've also made additions that should all be noticeable improvements in key areas.
Finally, Utah has added by subtraction. Josh Howard, C.J. Miles and Raja Bell were less than stellar statistically for the Jazz last year, and all three are either definitely not or most likely not returning.
The downside to having such a balanced team is that there's no one single player that jumps off the page and screams "All-Star!"
Despite the impressive playoff run, Utah went unrepresented at the 2012 NBA All-Star Game. Ironically, big men Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, Utah's two most logical candidates to be on the All-Star team, cancelled each other out.
Utah's odds at landing a player on the All-Star team in 2013 look much better at the moment.
Millsap and Jefferson are solid, consistent low-post players who can put up All-Star-caliber numbers when operating at maximum efficiency. Newcomer Mo Williams has one All-Star game under his belt, and could conceivably return with the combination of a monster effort and instant synchronization with his new teammates. Gordon Hayward has a remote shot of making the squad if he can increase at an exponential rate rather than a linear one.
My pick, however, for Utah's 2013 All-Star representative is Derrick Favors.
Favors really came on at the end of last season. His defensive low-post presence in the west is second only to Dwight Howard's. His commitment to improve his basketball IQ was very noticeable last season. Combining his newly-acquired basketball knowledge with his world-class athleticism, he could spell doom for opposing power forwards and centers.
Favors' offensive game is also coming along nicely. The still-young Favors would be borderline All-Star caliber if he developed a few reliable low-post moves and an outside shot. If he becomes an above-average offensive player, then he could give Dwight Howard legitimate competition for the starting center spot on the All-Star team.
Utah finished the 2011-2012 campaign with a record of 36-30, which is a win percentage of .545. Translated to a full 82 game slate, that winning percentage would equate to just over 44.5 games.
Using the revised win total as a starting point, a projected win increase of 3-6 games is more than reasonable for a team full of youngsters. Logic dictates that these players will only get better.
While it's true that division rival Minnesota, on paper, has improved their roster, that team has more question marks than the Riddler's favorite suit.
Utah was also plagued last year by not taking care of business against basement-dwellers such as Sacramento, whom Utah had an inexplicably difficult time putting away last year.
Logic would dictate that this problem will be at least in part resolved by the addition of three veterans from playoff teams: Marvin Williams, Mo Williams and Randy Foye.
The combination of these factors makes a 50-win season in 2013 well within the realm of possibility for the Utah Jazz.
At Least One Vocally Unhappy Player
I'm not all lollipops and rainbows, kids.
With the litany of positive expectations for Utah comes a negative one.
The bizarro silver lining of having such a deep roster is the fact that minutes are at more of a premium. Simply stated, the more quality players there are on a given roster, the fewer minutes there are to go around.
If I had to guess, I'd say the level of acrimony will be relatively low and relatively brief, and will most likely emanate from the wing positions.
On one hand, you have young players like Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, whose budding careers rely heavily on NBA minutes to help nurture their games. If they're not getting minutes, they're sure to be upset to some degree about it, as the coaches could be interfering with their growth.
On the other hand, you have newly acquired veterans who would be confused and slighted by riding the pine too much. "If you're not going to play me, why did you sign/trade for me?" would certainly be the topic du jour among veteran wing players if they were cast aside in favor of the younger, homegrown Jazz players.
This organization from top to bottom is far too professional to let any vocalized frustrations become a serious issue or locker room distraction.
Relatively Good Health
In addition to giving Utah athleticism and energy, the youthful makeup of this roster should cause the players to miss less time due to injuries than the average team due to quicker recovery times incident to age.
Utah doesn't quite have the mythical training staff that Phoenix has, but new GM Dennis Lindsay made it a point to mention a top-of-the-line training staff as a point of emphasis on new things that he'd like to see implemented.
Of course, every team suffers it's fair share of freak injuries and catastrophic season-enders that appear to come out of nowhere and are completely unpredictable, but barring a rash of injuries of that ilk, the Jazz should be one of the more fortunate teams from a health standpoint.
Top 10 Team in Overall Defense
Defense was a major Achilles' heel for the Utah Jazz in the 2011-2012 season. Supposed defensive specialist Raja Bell was routinely beat. As proficient as Al Jefferson is at one-handed push shots and slick post moves, his defense is very subpar to say the least.
As previously mentioned, Bell is as good as gone (he's still technically on the roster, but Bell's relationship with Utah's front office vacillates between Bo Schembechler/Woody Hayes and Real Housewife of Orange County/other Real Housewife of Orange County in terms of warmth),and Jefferson will have three new perimeter defenders to help make it so he doesn't have to leave his man to help.
This prediction is most likely one that will be flagged as a tad too optimistic, but I truly believe with Utah's length and athleticism, they should comfortably be within the top third of the NBA in defensive prowess.
Top 10 Team in 3-Point Shooting
This prognostication is considerably easier to pin down and support with statistics than the last one.
Prior to this year, Utah's best three-point shooter statistically was Devin Harris, who was the 76th best three-point shooter in the league.
Thanks to three smart deals by Utah executive Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz went from having no three-point shooters in the top 75 to having three in the top 40.
With low-post prodigy Jefferson commanding double teams by every squad who doesn't want their power forward physically and mentally abused by Jefferson's low-post arsenal, new Jazz members Randy Foye, Marvin Williams and Mo Williams should all have great looks at threes in just about every game.
This, of course, is predicated on Jefferson continuing to improve on passing out of the post. But having that clear of a shot on a regular basis could also help Jazz regulars such as Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks see their long-range numbers improve.
Great Shot at 6th Man of the Year Award
Utah's aforementioned depth puts them squarely in prime contention for the 6th man of the year award.
The most likely candidate for the award is Jazz power forward Paul Millsap.
With the beastly emergence of Derrick Favors at power forward/center last year, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Utah Jazz Head Coach won't be able to help but start Favors. With the size of Jefferson's contract and his skill set, it doesn't make much sense to have him come off the bench.
This leaves Millsap as the odd man out in Utah's starting lineup, which may not be all bad for him.
Jefferson's effectiveness is so dependent on constantly having the ball in his hands, it limited the offensive production Millsap could have. Coming off the bench, Millsap will have his opportunities increased threefold, and the defender guarding him would be dramatically worse than if he was starting.
If Coach Corbin decides to start Millsap at small forward, which did have some noticeable success last year, then new acquisition Marvin Williams could be a 6th man of the year candidate if he has a career-year in Utah.
At Least 2 Wins in the Playoffs
Regardless of how happy the Jazz were to get into the 2012 NBA playoffs, the sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs undoubtedly left a bitter taste in their mouths.
Despite the unpleasantness of the sweep, the experience should eventually be viewed as a useful experience, as there really is no substitute for actual playoff games.
I personally believe the Jazz will be 6th or 7th in the Western Conference this year, which explains part of the prediction.
But even if Utah grabs the 8th seed again, I believe Utah could make some noise in the playoffs by being the "nothing to lose, everything to gain" team.
Trade Talk Activity
With so much depth at multiple positions, expect Utah Jazz executives to be anxiously engaged in trade talks from the moment the season starts. Frankly, I'm surprised a team such as Houston that missed out on Dwight Howard hasn't panicked yet and offered 125 cents on the dollar for Al Jefferson.
Utah's logjam at the power forward position could see Millsap or Jefferson, whose contracts will expire at the conclusion of this season, be dealt to a team without a quality low-post player
Utah's new depth at the shooting guard position could also see Utah try to swing a 2-for-1 or 3-for1 in an effort to land a star player that could push the Jazz to the upper echelon of the western conference.