The excitement emanating from Utah Jazz fans before the 2013-14 season is almost palpable—which is unusual since most of them realize the team has almost no chance of making the playoffs.
Count that as a product of the brilliant rebuilding plan laid out by general manager Dennis Lindsey—step 1 of which was bidding adieu to a solid team that nearly made the postseason this past April.
Jazz 2012-13 Results
- 43-39 record (.524)
- 3rd in Northwest Division
- 9th in Western Conference
Offensively, Utah was dominant inside last season. It averaged a league-leading 46.4 points in the paint according to HoopsStats.com. But that attack was spearheaded by two guys who are now in the Eastern Conference—Al Jefferson with the Charlotte Bobcats and Paul Millsap with the Atlanta Hawks.
There might actually be a silver lining to their departures, though.
While they were largely responsible for one of Utah's biggest strengths last season, they were also the culprits for a critical weakness—interior defense. Utah gave up 9.8 fewer points per 100 possessions while Jefferson sat. For Millsap, that number is 2.5. And when they were on the floor together, Utah was 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse than its opponents.
That isn't the reason they're gone, though. This is a full-fledged rebuild. The fact that the up-and-coming big men are better defensively is a fringe benefit and something Lindsey wants to roll with. It will be a team-wide focus for all the young players (of which there are plenty).
A New Era
This roster was flipped upside-down over the summer. Four starters—Jefferson, Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye—were shown the door. Three reserves from 2012-13—Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward—and first-round draft pick Trey Burke have stepped into their roles.
The development of those four lottery picks, as well as one more from the 2011 class by the name of Alec Burks, will be the biggest story following the Jazz all year.
Out of those five, only Burke is a true addition to the roster. But the fact that the other four are stepping into roles that are so much bigger makes their presences feel pretty fresh as well.
And the commitment of the organization to them seems pretty clear when you look at what it did this offseason.
Key Additions: Trey Burke, PG (four years, $11 million remaining); Richard Jefferson, SF (one year, $11 million remaining); Brandon Rush, SG/SF (one year, $4 million remaining); John Lucas III, PG (two years, $3.2 million remaining)
Key Losses: Al Jefferson, C/PF (three years, $40.5 million remaining with CHA); Paul Millsap, PF (two years, $19 million remaining with ATL); Mo Williams, PG (two years/$5.4 million remaining with POR); Randy Foye, SG (three years, $9.1 million remaining with DEN)
It's tempting to count the recently promoted Kanter, Burks, Favors and Hayward as additions—especially those last two, whose contract negotiations have been front and center throughout the preseason.
Whether or not those two live up to the money Utah shells out to keep them is going to be a major story this season.
According to multiple sources, including ESPN, Favors' extension is already done. How much confidence does Utah have in Favors breaking out? Four years' and $49 million worth. That's an awful lot of money for a player who averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in 23.2 minutes in his most recent season.
But like I said, Lindsey wants to focus on defense, and Favors has the potential to be a game-changing big in that regard. Last season, he was fifth in the league in block percentage at 5.7, and he did that largely on athleticism. As he gains experience against first-team pick-and-rolls and post-ups, he'll get even better.
Much of the defensive load will be on Favors' shoulders, but he won't be alone. Fellow 2010 draftee Hayward is probably Utah's best perimeter defender. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, his extension might be worth even more than Favors'.
This should come as no surprise to those of you who read my column last week on why I think Hayward is more important for the future of the franchise.
That's not a slight to the big man but rather praise for Hayward. With the ability to shoot, make plays for others, defend and rebound, he's the most complete player on the Jazz.
Still, a contract north of what Favors signed is going to be difficult to live up to. If I were a gambling man, I'd wager Hayward will make good on the investment.
No disrespect to Rudy Gobert, but the draft picks who will impact this organization in the immediate future are Burke (ninth overall in 2013) and whomever is taken with Utah's first-round selection in the 2014 draft.
For Burke, the story has started off with a lot of adversity. His struggles during summer league play were well-chronicled. Things weren't much better during the preseason before he went down with a broken finger.
According to RealGM.com, Burke averaged seven points and four assists while shooting 30 percent from the field in three preseason games. Somehow, that was still more efficient than his summer league showing, so I guess that's promising. But it does appear Burke's NBA learning curve is going to be very steep, and that was before surgery on his finger sidelined him for eight to 12 weeks.
Burke has a long way to go to adjust to the size and speed at this level. Sitting on the bench in a suit isn't going to help with that as much as playing would.
Regardless of how many games he plays, Utah's almost certain to be in the lottery again in 2014.
That's why prospects like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Dante Exum will be topics for conversation among Jazz fans all season.
If Burke lives up to his status as a top-10 pick, Utah will probably go for a wing next summer. Right now, the only starter on the team over 23 is small forward Richard Jefferson. Parker or Wiggins could step into that role; Jefferson's contract expires before the draft.
Point guards aren't out of the question though—especially if Burke continues to struggle after returning from injury.
Right now, there are at least three players in the 2014 class who can play the 1 and are considered cant-miss prospects. Exum, Andrew Harrison and Marcus Smart all project to have higher upside than Burke, and the 6'6" Exum and 6'5" Harrison are big enough to spend time at the 2 as well.
Whomever they take will be the sixth lottery pick from the last five drafts on the roster. So it's not hard to understand why so many people are keen on this group's future.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
|PG||Trey Burke (Out)||John Lucas III||Scott Machado|
|SG||Gordon Hayward||Alec Burks||Ian Clark|
|SF||Richard Jefferson||Brandon Rush||Dominic McGuire|
|PF||Derrick Favors||Jeremy Evans||Marvin Williams|
|C||Enes Kanter||Andris Biedrins||Rudy Gobert|
This position has been a problem for the Jazz since the 2011 trade of Deron Williams to the then-New Jersey Nets. And this season is the fourth straight in which Utah will be led by a different starting point guard.
John Lucas III will get the first crack at it in 2013-14 because of the injury to Burke. Lucas is a journeyman who's appeared in 174 NBA games dating back to 2005 with only two starts. His career high for assists per 36 minutes is 5.4, and he's never shot 40 percent or higher from the field.
And yet, he still might be more effective than the player he's replacing.
I've already detailed Burke's struggles with NBA competition, and his broken finger may prolong that adjustment period even further. This season, he may end up being most effective as a spot-up shooter playing off the point forward Hayward.
I'm not saying Burke will be a bust, but it looks like his rookie campaign could be real rough. That, in combination with the fact that Utah is rebuilding and not in the market for a ton of wins, makes this the perfect time to take a calculated risk like trading for Jimmer Fredette.
It's something I've already discussed. But to sum up the argument quickly: Jimmer is a certain upgrade over Lucas and an acquisition about which fans would be deliriously excited.
If this is where Hayward stays all year, it will be Utah's position of greatest strength. First, because Hayward is the team's most complete player. And second, because Burks figures to be the sixth man and leading scorer of the second unit.
For Hayward, the responsibility is going to be huge. He'll likely lead the team in scoring and may even do the same with assists. We've already seen the offense being initiated by him during the preseason, and he appears to have the best combination of playmaking skills of anyone on the roster. He handles and passes the ball well, and he has solid court vision.
As a scorer, his biggest strength in 2012-13 was three-point range. His 41.5 percent from there made it more difficult for opposing defenses to send help from the perimeter down to the bigs.
This season, we'll see an evolved and more balanced repertoire of moves and shots. According to the Deseret News' Jody Genessy, Hayward is "continuing to work on a mid-range game that will allow him to add Jeff Hornacek-like floaters and short-range fade shots to his ever-increasing arsenal."
If he has a weakness, it's on defense—where he's not bad, but merely solid. He has the physical tools to be a top-tier defender in the mold of Paul George or Danny Green, but he sometimes lacks the focus. He just needs to stay locked in mentally on that end—especially when his man doesn't have the ball.
As for Burks, he'll be called upon to do a lot of the ball-handling and scoring for the bench. Working on his guard skills with John Stockton this summer should help him be a more effective combo guard.
For now, Jefferson is the starter at this position. It makes sense for a couple reasons: He'll be a veteran presence among the youngsters, and the move relegates Burks to the bench, where he can have the ball in his hands more often.
You'll notice neither of those reasons relates to what Jefferson can actually do as a basketball player.
At this point in his career, there might not be much left. Last season, he averaged 3.1 points in 10.1 minutes a game and shot just 31.1 percent from three-point range. If he wants to keep his starting spot, Jefferson needs to pull that percentage back up to around 40, where it was when he was with the San Antonio Spurs.
If he doesn't, coach Tyrone Corbin could make a change. Things certainly aren't set in stone when it comes to Utah's depth chart—especially here.
Two other players who figure to log minutes here are Brandon Rush and Marvin Williams. Both are injured now, but they should be key rotation pieces when healthy.
Rush is a career 41.3 percent three-point shooter who also plays solid D on the perimeter, and Williams is an eight-year veteran who can also back up Derrick Favors at the 4 (I'll explain later why I think he makes more sense there than here).
Earning that big extension he just signed isn't going to be easy for Favors. And he may not fully do so this season—at least not offensively.
To this point in his career, Favors has shown very little skill on that end of the floor beyond dunks and layups. He has no reliable post moves and an erratic jump shot. That doesn't mean he won't score, though. Athleticism and energy alone should get him enough easy baskets to average in double figures.
And that would be a bonus for Utah, because Favors' offensive skills have very little to do with why he was extended on such a lucrative deal.
Defensively, he's the monster around which Utah can build an entire scheme.
There could be an interesting battle to see who his backup will be. Neither Jeremy Evans nor Marvin Williams can have the impact Favors will have as a defender, but both offer some other unique abilities.
Evans is an energy guy who plays above the rim and causes all kinds of havoc as an offensive rebounder. Among Jazz players in 2012-13, Evans was second to Kanter in both offensive rebounds per 36 minutes and offensive rebounding percentage.
Williams should be an option here too. As a small forward, he lacks the explosiveness to compete with others at the position. But as a 4, he can stretch the floor and draw bigs away from the rim and whoever is at center.
Of course, that would be contingent upon Williams shooting the way he did in 2011-12. That was his last season with the Hawks, when he hit 38.9 percent of his three-point attempts. With the Jazz in 2012-13, that number was 32.5.
It's looking more and more like Kanter—not Favors—could be the big man who will take on Karl Malone's mantle. He might even be named the league's Most Improved Player of the Year following this season.
Kanter's top-tier away from the rim too, and not just for a big. According to HoopData.com, the league average for field-goal percentage from 16 to 23 feet is 38.4. Kanter's percentage from the same distance is 44.
He also has the potential to dominate on the boards. He didn't play enough minutes to qualify for the league leaderboard, but if he had, Kanter's offensive rebounding percentage of 14.5 would've placed him third in that category behind Reggie Evans and Roy Hibbert.
He attacks the glass on his team's possessions with an unbelievable energy level. For an example of the spins he often uses to put himself into perfect rebounding position, watch this. Or for an example of the way he follows his own shot, check this out.
Kanter will dominate plenty of games this season as a rebounder and scorer, but he can still improve as a defender. Advanced metrics suggest he and Favors are a great combo defensively, but Kanter can still improve at an individual level—particularly against the pick-and-roll.
Even if he doesn't make great strides there, Kanter will get big minutes this year. Neither one of his potential backups will likely get much burn this season.
Andris Biedrins is No. 2 on the depth chart right now, but I can't see that being the case much longer. Over his last two years with the Warriors, Biedrins averaged 3.3 rebounds and one point per game while shooting 22.7 percent from the free-throw line.
I anticipate Rudy Gobert eventually taking over as the backup center, in spite of his underdeveloped basketball skills. The fact that he can move and is 7'2" with a 7'9" wingspan makes him an asset in the paint on defense. Utah ought to send this guy to Mark Eaton for a few lessons in shot-blocking. A little skill combined with that body would be a nightmare for opposing players looking to attack the rim.
What to Watch For
Like I said before, this is going to be an exciting season for Utah Jazz fans—regardless of the inevitable mistakes that will be made as a result of inexperience.
Some will thrive in their new roles; others may flounder.
This is a pretty tough call for the Jazz, as they have at least three and maybe even four guys who are pretty much guaranteed to break out. To me, the odds-on favorites to really do so are Hayward and Kanter. And since Hayward's reputation is already pretty well-established, Kanter fits the criteria for a "breakout player" a little better.
His fundamentally sound game on offense and his ferocity on the boards could lead to him comfortably averaging a double-double.
Prediction: Enes Kanter
Hayward is the leader and the best player on this team. A couple others may have a slightly higher ceiling, but no one's as skilled right now.
And in his new role as point forward, Hayward is likely to stuff the stat sheets in a way no other Jazz player will.
Prediction: Gordon Hayward
Most Disappointing Player
I think I was about as excited as every other Utah fan when the team landed Burke in the 2013 draft. And while I still have some hope that he'll develop into a solid player in the future, I'm worried about his rookie season.
Through the summer league and three preseason games, almost all indications are pointing toward an adjustment phase that will last well beyond this year.
Prediction: Trey Burke
Player Most Likely to be Traded
Here's another category in which Utah has a handful of candidates. Veterans Jefferson, Biedrins, Williams and Rush are all on expiring contracts. None figure to be a part of the organization's rebuilding beyond 2014.
While producing might increase their value, role players like Jefferson, Williams or Rush being dealt seems less likely to happen than it is with Biedrins—who figures to be a benchwarmer.
However, I wouldn't be shocked to see any of the four flipped.
Prediction: Andris Biedrins
Utah is the only team in the Northwest Division that doesn't appear to have a good shot at the postseason. So fierce rivalries are more likely to be cultivated between the four teams above them—OKC, Denver, Portland and Minnesota.
That being the case, I'll go outside the division on this prediction and say Los Angeles. Jazz fans despise the Lakers. With their decline, the two teams could be near each other in the standings.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Predicted W-L Record
For a rebuilding team, losing really isn't a bad thing. The more losses, the more ping-pong balls in the draft lottery. And if Utah can land a top-three to top-five pick to add to the core it already has, the Jazz could be set up for a dominant run.
Individual players from the young core show signs of brilliance, but inexperience and a thin bench leads to a lot of close losses (as well as some not-so-close ones).
If they land Jabari Parker in the draft to take Jefferson's starting small forward role and extend Kanter and Burks, I can see the Jazz back in the playoff picture as early as 2015.
A second-straight ninth-place finish in the Western Conference would be disastrous. There could be six or seven franchise players in the 2014 draft, and landing at the tail end of the lottery could cost Utah a shot at one of them.
I think it will probably take them until the All-Star Break, but I see this team coming together in 2013-14 and surprising some people.
They won't have a great record, but they'll register some quality wins in the second half of the season after all the talented, young players grow into their new roles.
Prediction: 30-52, No. 13 in the Western Conference
This prediction is the exact same as the one I wrote in Bleacher Report's training camp preview for the Jazz. I haven't really seen anything during the preseason to suggest Utah will be better or worse than I thought.
And I've never been as genuinely excited to watch a team I thought would be this bad.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.