Utah Jazz: Contenders or Pretenders?

Ben Parker Contributor IMarch 30, 2008

The Utah Jazz are one of the most improved teams over the last few years.

They lose John Stockton and Karl Malone, and within a few years, they have Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer to replace them, with a deep bench, and a 7 foot Turk named Mehmet Okur who can shoot the rock from 3-point range.

That's what I call a quick recovery.

But what everybody wants to know is how serious of a team this is. People across the nation seem to ask me and others, since this Utah team gets such little Nationwide coverage, "Who are these guys?".  Thanks to teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks, Heat, Pistons, Cavs, Spurs, Wizards, Warriors, Nuggets, and Suns. Those are pretty much the rotation of teams the NBA likes to sift through on TNT NBA Thursdays and NBA Wednesdays and Fridays on ESPN. Not to mention those Sunday ABC games. Seeing the Jazz in one of these games is a rare occurrence for a Jazz fan like myself, and even more sweet since I live in California. 

But to answer the question of who the Utah Jazz are, they are as a deep team as any of those above and loaded with versatile weapons. The main strength that the Jazz have is that they go 8 guys deep. Let me introduce you to this team.
PG Deron Williams
PF Carlos Boozer
C Mehmet Okur
SG Ronnie Brewer
SF Andrei Kirilenko
Off the Bench:
PF Paul Millsap
SF Kyle Korver
SF Matt Harpring
This is a team loaded with talent that balances itself out quite nicely.

What makes this depth so good, and the team overall good, is that they have a great PG in Deron Williams.  He's the most important player to this team without a doubt. Some will say Carlos Boozer, but the reality is that Carlos has more help at what he does than Deron Williams. If Boozer has a bad night, Okur, Millsap, and Harpring can fill in for the night and still make noise down inside. But if Deron has an off night (which is exceedingly rare), you will find the Jazz by 20 points almost every time.
The reason for this is that Deron is the only good true point guard on the team. Jason Hart and Ronnie Price are the only other PG's on the team, and they average 6 points and 2 assists a game combined. That's not much help for Deron is it? Williams has to carry the load with a 20 point 10 assist a night average. That's a lot to expect from a 3rd year player. So, that should settle the dispute of who's the most valuable player on this team.

Now second to having a monster PG, they have a great all around scoring attack.
Williams scores 20 points per game, Boozer scores 22, and Okur chucks in 14 a night. Brewer gets 12 a game, and Kirilenko somehow puts up 11. Off the bench, Korver gives them 10 nightly, and then Millsap and Harpring each chip in 8 points each. That's depth in the scoring department if you ask me.
That's a total of 105 points a game from those 8 guys, with 6 guys averaging in double figures. To break it down further, that's 13 points per player, with relative balance all around. There is no doubt in my mind, that as far as winning a championship is concerned, they are offensively sound.

The defense is a little more shaky, but with Andrei Kirilenko in there averaging 1.54 blocks per game, you can't attack the rim at will. The only real problem I see is interior defense, and you might think to yourself, "Isn't Kirilenko interior?"  The answer is not entirely. The reality is that what makes Kirilenko so good; he's omnipresent. Or in other words, he's everywhere. He can shut down a great SG like Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, or get physical at times with a Stoudemire or Duncan. But his real specialty is that he's a speedy defender with spider-like reach.
As I like to say, "If AK-47 is in your face, you ain't got a shot!" That's really true, but AK can't post up against a Duncan or a Shaq very well, since he's too skinny to do that. The only guys with real interior bodies on that team are Okur, Millsap, and Boozer, who don't block many shots (Okur and Boozer average for less than 1 block a game combined, while Millsap nearly gets 1 block a game).
They get rebounds (Boozer gets 10.8, Okur gets 7.2, and Millsap gets 5.6 boards a game), which is good, with most of them coming on the defensive end. Your best Offensive Rebounder by ratio, is Millsap who's at around 2 out of 5 boards are offensive compared to 1 out of 4 for Boozer. So, rebounding isn't an issue. The issue is interior ferocity. They've got no real mammoth wall in there like a Mark Eaton from back in the day that can shut down a Tim Duncan or a Shaq. That's the weak spot that this team has.
The exterior defense is fine. Deron Williams has a great body to defend any PG in the NBA. He'll make it difficult for any scoring PG like Chris Paul or Baron Davis to get shots. Steve Nash might as well not even try to score points against Utah, since Deron Williams has a 6'3 205 pound body. Chris Paul is 6'0 175 pounds and Nash is 6'3 178 pounds. The only point guard out west that rivals him in bulkness is Baron Davis, who's actually a little bigger, with a man-sized 6'3 215 pounds.

That means that the only PG in the West who won't be affected by Deron's size is Baron Davis. Eveybody else will have to play extra hard to get their shots. You combine that with Kirilenko crabbing around out there, and you got a tough defensive presence on hte perimiter. This leads me into the next segment, which is, who do they match up well with. I'll go through some teams, and briefly explain why this team is or isn't a good matchup for Utah.

Denver Nuggets: I'm starting with Utah's archrival Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are a great matchup for the Jazz, because they have only 2 major scoring threats in Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, who combine for 50+ points a game. It then really drops off with Kenyon Martin getting 12 a game, JR Smith getting 11 a game, and Linas Kleiza getting 11 a game. Marcus Camby does however get 9 a game and is a defensive force, so I won't forget him. That's 6 guys right there, with 2 guys who they really heavily depend on. Denver's problem, is that they are too dependent on Iverson (who Deron Williams can hastle), and Anthony (who doesn't play physical enough inside). They lack depth, and physicality. The only physical force they have inside is Camby, but he doesn't do enough damage offensively to worry the Jazz. So, Denver is a great matchup for the Jazz.

Golden State Warriors: Another good matchup for Utah, as seen by last year's playoffs. Baron Davis won't have much effect against Williams, who will slow him down and vice versa, so they negate each other. Stephen Jackson has to deal with the wild armed Kirilenko in his grill every night, and then Carlos Boozer has no one inside to stop him except for Al Harrington (who isn't a great defender) and Andris Biedrins, who's a poor mans version of Kirilenko since he can't shoot or hit foul shots (his FT % is a joke). The only area the Warriors can beat the Jazz in is outside shooting and quickness. Monta Ellis could pose some problems since he can attack the rack without much to go through, and don't forget that Baron Davis still hurdles himself through the air like a human pinball even with Williams on him. The guy who gives Utah the ultimate edge over the Warriors is Okur, because he hits the 3 ball and plays well inside.  Okur can do the one thing Golden State hates very effectively, that being spread their undersized big men on the floor.  Golden State doesn't know how to deal with him, since there isn't anybody great to put on him. Maybe Biedrins, but that favors Okur. So as you can see, Golden State lacks the interior to stop Utah's inside attack and they are way too erratic and reliant from 3 point range.

San Antonio Spurs: Problem for Utah, since they have Tim Duncan inside, who can have a field day against the weak Utah interior defense. Tony Parker won't do much against Utah, but that's why they have Manu Ginobli and Bruce Bowen, who can give the Jazz problems from both the outside, the inside, and defensively. Bruce Bowen may be the dirtiest player in the NBA, but he's arguably the best man-to-man defender in the league. If you put him on Ronnie Brewer or Kyle Korver, Utah's scoring could plummet.  Plus, Ginobli attacks the rack from the outside, so he can attack the vulnerable defensive middle of Utah, in addition to Tim Duncan who's already giving Boozer and Okur a Handful. So, the nut of it is that San Antonio has the best defensive line up to slow down Utah's hot scoring abilities and one of the best offenses to attack and puncture the vulnerable Utah interior defense.

Los Angeles Lakers: Problems (potentially serious problems) for Utah, if their in sync with each other. Kobe Bryant has the ability to attack Utah from every angle, since he can shoot from 3 point range, or attack the rim. Deron is too short to guard Kobe, and Kirilenko is a bit to light to guard Kobe. Your best option, however is still Kirilenko since he has those octopus-like arms. Kobe is the most explosive player and Gasol is the most useful player to beat Utah. The reason is that Kobe has 50 points in him on any given night. That's just scary. Then you get yourself Gasol, who goes at the heart of Utah's weakspot, which is inerior defense. In addition to that, you got Lamar Odom who can play Utah from anywhere on the court, and also attack the middle. They also have Andrew Bynum, who is a 13 point/10 rebound a game guy, who can do even more damage inside in addition to Gasol. Derek Fisher will keep Wiliams worried enough as it is, and then with Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic roaming around with loaded shots, you could have a potential over-load for Utah's defense to handle. I don't want to make it sound like the Jazz are doomed against the Lakers, because they are not. The Jazz have a more balanced offensive attack that can trump the Lakers if Kobe has a bad night. The key to stopping the Lakers is stopping Kobe. It's doable, but not an easy task, since Kobe is the most dangerous offensive threat in the NBA today. The nut of it is, as hard as this is to admit since I hate the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, if the Jazz face the Lakers without home court advantage, they are likely to not win that series simply because the Lakers have too many offensive threats that can puncture Utah's interior.

Houston Rockets: Favors Utah BIG TIME without Yao Ming, since Utah won that series without homecourt, with Yao Ming on the Floor. Tracy McGrady can pose some potenial Kobe Bryant-like problems for Utah, and Shane Battier is a nasty defender who can play some O, but ultimately with Utah having way more offensive, and even defensive weapons than Houston, the Jazz would walk right through Houston, and into the next round. I really hope this is who Utah gets in the opening round.

New Orleans Hornets: Favors the home team slightly, but in a netural site, Utah. Here's the deal I need to adress this right now. Utah is 32-4 at home, which is the best home record in the NBA right now. They, however, are currently 16-21 on the road, which sucks. The reason I am bringing this up in this series, is that this is the hardest series to forecast. Homecourt could simply decide it, and if Utah is on the road, that does't favor them, but if they're at home, it really favors them. The Chris Paul/David West combo for New Orleans is as good as the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer combo for Utah. The Hornets have their own pure shooter in Peja Stojakovic and Utah has Kyle Korver. Neither one of those two guys is known for their defense, so they basically are just shooting off agaisnt each other. Tyson Chandler plays good solid D, with 1 block a game, in addition to West, who also blocks more than 1 per game. Both Paul and West have similar averages to that of Boozer and Williams, and Peja scores the same amount on the average as Okur. Chandler also scores in double figures with 11 a game, so he contributes to the inside scoring which can hurt Utah. But then to fight that off, Utah has Okur on the other end, who spreads the floor out more than Chandler, and actually scores more. They seem to be in a deadlock eh? Where is the difference. I think, once again, that it possibly could be in home court, but if I had to give a team the edge, it would be Utah, since I think that Williams slows Paul down better than Paul slows down him for one reason, which is size. Williams is bigger than Paul, and can thus push Paul around, and really attack the rim on him. Boozer is slightly better than West by the numbers, by averaging 2 more points and 1 more rebound a game, on a deeper team. But that's really a hard call though overall.  At the end of the day, this series goes seven, with the Jazz winning by 3 (maybe in OT).

Phoenix Suns: Utah would love the old Suns, but the new Suns (who are ironically older, haha) have Shaq, who could really be a blow to Utah's middle. Steve Nash and Deron Williams would make a great show down, and Carlos Boozer on Amare Stoudemire is another killer matchup. Here's where it gets icky. Shaq can dominate Utah's interior, but Utah can tire him out by spreading the floor with Okur. Mehmet Okur would force Shaq to come out, since you can't leave Okur open oustide. That would then open the doors for Boozer to post up on Amare, or to kick it out to Korver. I think for Phoenix, while they do have the Big Aristotle, losing Shawn Marion was still a tough thing to give up, since it would have the wing problem against Utah solved, instead of having Marion on Korver or Kirilenko, they have to put Bell on those guys. Utah can't pack it in on Phoenix, which Phoenix is learning how to do, but Utah can run it on Phoenix, which Phoenix is trying to get off of. If Utah runs it up and down on Phoenix, then they could get Phoenix out there playing fast because they have done it for so long, with a tired Shaq who can't keep up. That's the secret to beating Phoenix: tire out Shaq, and spread the court out to bring Shaq away from the rim. In a 7 game series, I say Utah wins 4-2.

Dallas Mavericks: If Utah gets these guys in the playoffs, Jazz fans should rejoice and maybe even wet their pants with excitement, since it can't get any better than this!! Here's why. Jason Kidd does pose problems for Utah, but so does Deron Williams, who's a more reliable scorer with better weapons around him. Williams in locked into a system, while JK is still figuring out how to play in a system which is being altered without a Dirk Nowitzki. Utah wins the PG matchup easily. Secondly, without Dirk, Dallas has no middle at all to stop Okur, Millsap, Harpring, and BOOZER. They also have no interior to attack that middle either, since the biggest guy they had DeSagana Diop was traded to New Jersey to get Jason Kidd. That's where the flaw in that trade lies. They gave up a middle and a potentially great point guard. Even with Dirk, they still don't have enough of a middle, and Dirk is like Okur in that he can't play physical D. So Boozer would have a field day on Dirk even if Dirk was playing. Without Dirk, forget about it, Utah would sweep the Mavs 4-0. No contest here.

That's my analysis of all potential Western Opponents for Utah to worry about in the post season. I'd like to talk about the Eastern teams that could pose problems for Utah, but I'll adress that when Utah reaches the NBA Finals.

The Jazz are great as long as they are at home and can control the paint. If they have control of the paint, that enables weapons like Kyle Korver and Mehmet Okur to dominate beyond the arch. They'll always have the best point guard on the floor in Williams in every matchup, and second to Bowen, they'll have the best defender on the floor in Andrei Kirilenko. It all comes down to interior defense primarily, since Boozer and Okur are pretty reliable inside on the offensive side of the ball.
The defense is more shaky like I said, and a guy like Tim Duncan or Pao Gasol could knock them out of the playoffs. They also have problems against great 1 on 1 guys at times, but if a team is too one dimentional like Denver or Houston, just throw that Elastic-European Kirilenko on that players behind, and he will shut them down. Overall, it's all about who Utah draws. If they have to go through San Antonio and Los Angeles, it's gonna be really hard. If they have to go through Houston and New Orleans, it favors them to get to the Conference finals. If they step up and get a top 2 seed, they are in great shape till the conference finals. They won't lose a series in the post-season where they are at home, period. I can gurantee that. The only concern, is whether Home Court Advantage in a Confernce Semifinal or Final is real possiblity or not with that lousy road record.
I'm calling NBA title for this team, but if they're forced to be road warriors, that pick will look pretty grim.


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