The Jazz are in a strong division. They'll be led by a rookie point guard who is just one-fifth of a generally inexperienced group of starters. And they really don't have much depth behind the youngsters.
While some teams looked to add a number of players this offseason in an effort to leap their own hurdles, Utah basically just let everyone go. Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the ones left to carry the baton (I guess this race just turned into a relay).
If they outperform low expectations, great. If not, that's okay too. The more ping-pong balls the team can collect for the 2014 lottery, the better. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and others are potential franchise-altering talents and will make any metaphorical hurdles looming in 2015 seem much shorter.
But the future is just that. And although the brightness of Utah's future makes it fun to gaze off at times, the present demands our attention here.
Playing in the Northwest Division
Each division in the NBA features five teams, and the Jazz might be the only squad in theirs without a strong shot at the playoffs in 2014.
Portland's biggest weakness was lack of depth. Hoopsstats.com lists its bench as the worst in the league last season, averaging 17.7 points fewer than its opponents' reserves. That was nearly twice as bad as the second-worst team (Indiana was minus-9.4).
The chances those backups will be that bad again are extremely slim. Portland acquired players at all five positions—Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez—and lost only one starter.
The Timberwolves will be better too—assuming they're healthy of course. After all, that's what derailed their playoff hopes last year.
If Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love can stay on the floor, Minnesota will have an offensively dynamic lineup. Those two are flanked by rangy wings (Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger) and anchored by a man who may be the second coming of Zed from Zardoz (Nikola Pekovic) will be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Utah looks to be behind each of those teams, and they're the two who missed the playoffs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets were the West's first and third seeds in 2013. And while they lost some key pieces (Martin for Oklahoma City, Andre Iguodala and George Karl for Denver), both will be shooting for 50-win seasons again.
For a statistical point of view on how the Jazz stack up against these four teams, look at each starting unit, along with its average Player Efficiency Rating, compared to Utah's.
Obviously, PER isn't a perfect number. It does almost nothing to measure defense, and if I based a prediction on this, the Timberwolves would project better than the Thunder.
Having said that, the table still illustrates that Utah's division rivals represent a very tough hurdle.
But again, this might not necessarily be a bad thing. Playing against stiff competition can potentially accelerate the growth process for this young Jazz core.
Trey Burke's Learning Curve
In a word: steep.
At least that's how it looks after Burke's dismal summer league showing.
In four games, he had all kinds of problems against longer defenders and averaged 8.8 points while shooting 24 percent from the field (including 1-of-19 from three-point range).
Burke had trouble finishing at the rim when NBA-size bigs collapsed on him. And his jump shots were almost always off-balance because he couldn't separate from his defender the way he did in college.
It looked like he was using the same moves that created open looks at Michigan. But when those moves didn't achieve the same results this summer, Burke shot it anyway.
To avoid this problem in the regular season, he needs to slow down and let the game come to him. He needs to stop forcing his own offense so much and trust his teammates.
Allow me to quote myself on the matter:
During the summer and in college, Burke was able to get to the rim easily. The difference was once he found himself surrounded by NBA size inside, scoring became much more difficult than it was against college bigs.
When he learns to drop it off to Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter or kick it out to Gordon Hayward or Alec Burks in those situations, the game will come much easier. That will force defenses to respect the pass more and they won't be able to collapse on him at the end of his drives.
John Lucas III is the only other point guard on the roster, and he is a shoot-first player who's never hit better than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts during a season.
So Burke is in line for a ton of minutes in his rookie season.
Again, running full-steam through the hurdle. Utah could have brought in a veteran point guard to mentor Burke, but the Jazz opted instead for trial by fire. It's usually a make-or-break proposition. The team is obviously hoping for the former.
And Speaking of Young
The point guard isn't the only starter who lacks experience. The average age of the starting five is less than 22. Take Gordon Hayward out of the mix, and the other four guys haven't even started a full season's worth of games. Our starting five my senior year of college was older than these guys.
For some perspective, the two youngest Western Conference playoff teams last year were the Nuggets and Rockets. Both had starting lineups that were older than Utah's, and both lost to more experienced teams in the first round.
Since the 1998-99 season, the Western Conference has been represented in the NBA Finals by only four different teams: the Lakers (seven times), Spurs (five times), Mavericks (twice) and Thunder (once). Experience wins in the NBA. The lone exception in this example is the Thunder, and they were trampled by the Heat in 2012.
Even Miami needed some seasoning. The first year the "Big Three" came together, they were topped by the more experienced Dallas Mavericks.
So the bad news is, the Jazz probably aren't going to win an NBA title this year. I hate to break it to you guys.
But the good news? Getting some experience early on should pay dividends in the long run.
Look at the model the Thunder followed. In Kevin Durant's rookie year (they were still the Sonics then), the team won just 20 games. But they stuck with the young guys and grew a core from within, selecting Russell Westbrook and James Harden the next two years.
The Jazz have five lottery picks starting for them next year and will likely add another from the star-studded 2014 class. If even three of them reach their full potential, Utah could have a contender in just a few short years.
But enough about the future. This is a look at the hurdles the team will be facing this year, and lack of depth is a big one.
The backups at each position read: John Lucas III, Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams and Andris Biedrins. Actually, I'm going to go ahead and call the battle for backup center between Biedrins and newcomer Rudy Gobert. The job will be the rookie's before long.
Lucas's shortcomings were touched on earlier (not a distributor, but also doesn't shoot well). Jefferson and Biedrins' combined numbers with the Warriors last year were 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 points a game. And Williams started at small forward in his first season with the Jazz but ended up having his worst NBA campaign. He posted career lows in points and rebounds per game, field-goal percentage and PER.
The potential bright spots are Rush and Gobert.
The former missed all but two games of the 2012-13 season, but the year before he looked like he was on the verge of breaking out. He's a tough perimeter defender and has a career three-point percentage of 41 percent.
Gobert can provide defense off the bench as well. In fact, that might be all he can provide right off the bat.
He's 7'2" with a 7'9" wingspan and has already shown his value around the rim. He tallied three blocks in three different games this summer and had a couple big putbacks on the other end.
If the giant Frenchman develops more quickly than expected, Rush stays healthy (and doesn't get traded) and Jefferson rediscovers the 2007 version of himself, this obstacle might not be terribly difficult to get over.
The Jazz have some pretty significant hurdles in front of them this year. But if they charge through, and get up each time they fall, they'll be able to soar gracefully over whatever they face in the future.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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