The Utah Jazz's rebuilding project, though it began in earnest last season, should truly kick into high gear in 2014-15.
Gone is Tyrone Corbin, who was perhaps the NBA's worst coach. In his place is Quin Snyder, the once-disgraced Missouri head coach who revived his career in professional basketball. Snyder became one of the league's most respected assistants in stints with the Lakers, CSKA Moscow in Russia and, most recently, the Hawks.
The 47-year-old takes over a roster that continues adding to an already promising core. Utah selected Australian point guard Dante Exum with the No. 5 pick in June's draft and added swingman Rodney Hood when he surprisingly fell to the No. 23 pick. Exum and Hood make up arguably the best first-round haul of any team.
Utah also made its first major decision about the previously existing core, matching the Charlotte Hornets' four-year maximum offer sheet to Gordon Hayward. The former Butler star struggled mightily in an expanded role last season, but the Jazz stayed consistent in their claim that they would match any Hayward offer. The result wound up being $10 million or so more than they would have had to pay in October 2013.
With Enes Kanter and Alec Burks each up for extensions, it'll be interesting to see how the Jazz choose to handle them. Neither Kanter nor Burks has consistently shown he can be a long-term NBA starter. But the market taught the Jazz a valuable lesson about the dangers of inertia this summer. Perhaps Kanter or Burks will be the beneficiary of a preventative contract extension.
Either way, Utah is getting dangerously close to locking itself into a long-term core. The front office hopes Snyder will provide the level of competency necessary to assess whether that's a worthwhile investment. With that in mind, here's a quick look at Utah's 2014-15 schedule and an early prediction of how it will all play out. Click here for the full schedule.
Most Intriguing Matchups
Utah Jazz vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
When: at Utah Nov. 5 (9 p.m. ET)/ at Cleveland Jan. 21 (7 p.m. ET)
Utah-Cleveland is not a rivalry. It's probably not a game anyone will talk about within minutes of its conclusion. There is no overarching theme that could unspool itself into a narrative yarn that will last through the All-Star break.
There is honestly nothing exciting about this game. Except it's going to be exciting and noteworthy every single time LeBron James laces up his shoes against a new team back in his old city. James' return to Cleveland—his unprecedented, brilliant and still somewhat befuddling return—is the story of the 2014-15 NBA season.
Even if a team has zero connection to the situation, there is going to be an extra bristle of excitement when going head-to-head with Cleveland and James. I'm surprised there hasn't been an entire network created to follow around his every move. That's how much people have come to care about this story.
In terms of actual basketball, I'm hopeful we'll get an Exum vs. Andrew Wiggins head-to-head battle at some point. That would assume Wiggins is still on the Cavaliers, which we'll do despite rumors to the contrary. Exum's defensive potential will also be tested against Kyrie Irving, one of the league's best ball-handlers and someone the young Aussie will be guarding years into the future.
It remains to be seen how much run Exum will get once the regular season begins. His play wildly fluctuated at times during the Las Vegas Summer League, a reminder of how far the international mystery man still has to go. Snyder is going to have a difficult time juggling the minutes of Exum and Trey Burke, the team's 2013 first-round pick.
Assuming Exum still gets out there for a significant run, though, seeing him defend Irving should be a fun test.
Milwaukee Bucks at Utah Jazz
When: at Milwaukee Jan. 22 (8 p.m. ET)/ at Utah Feb 28 (9 p.m. ET)
No matter how excited the Jazz were when Exum fell, he was always their second choice. Utah's obsession with Duke forward Jabari Parker was as understandable as it was transparent. Derrick Favors, the No. 5 overall pick and the No. 23 pick were all on the table for Cleveland, a move some suggested the pre-LeBron Cavs should have acted on.
Nothing ultimately came of it and both sides wound up satisfied with their draft haul. But that shouldn't do anything to eliminate the intrigue when the Bucks visit Salt Lake City.
It should be nothing short of a warm welcome when Parker's Bucks come to town. There will probably always be a little "what if" lingering around Salt Lake throughout his career, and showing their appreciation with a few raucous cheers has never hurt anything.
We also might get to see Parker go up against Hood, the Duke swingman the Jazz were actually able to land. Hood spent much of his sophomore season in Durham in Parker's shadow despite a sterling campaign of his own. It's arguable that playing second fiddle is what caused Hood to descend from late-lottery consideration—where I had him graded—to all the way outside the top 20.
By all accounts, Hood and Parker are good friends and like each other. But past teammates can oftentimes become the best head-to-head matchups. Parker and Hood know each other's games perhaps better than anyone else currently in the league. Hood will have to work his way into the swing rotation to make it happen, but we shouldn't be shocked to see him take it to Parker every chance he gets.
And as an aside: Look for Hood to be one of the best steals of Round 1. He's a ridiculously talented offensive player.
Boston Celtics vs. Utah Jazz
When: at Utah Jan. 26 (9 p.m. ET)/ at Boston March 4 (7:30 p.m. ET)
We don't know how competitive Parker and Hood will be when they go up against one another. What we do know is that Marcus Smart is probably the single most competitive player of the entire 2014 draft. When he and Exum play each other, it's going to be theatrical.
From Smart's perspective, it's easy to sit back and wonder why he wasn't the first point guard off the board. It was the kid from Flower Mound, Texas—not the one from Melbourne, Australia—who has a Big 12 Player of the Year trophy on his mantle. It was Smart—not Exum—dominating Big 12 defenses and suffocating opposing ball-handlers on the other end each of the last two years.
As the draft approached, there was a groundswell in the advanced stats community advocating for Smart as the best player in the class. The pair went just one pick apart—and Smart to an organization with the richest history in basketball—but there has to be part of him that wants to prove his worth. He showed it last season when he made it abundantly clear he wasn't buying the Wiggins hype.
Though Smart has not publicly made any proclamations on Exum's status, that level of competition doesn't suddenly go away in the pros. Smart is a gamer, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve on every possession—sometimes to his detriment. Having a player who did not prove himself on the collegiate stage and, in fact, took months off from competitive basketball before the draft go in front of him was a tough pill to swallow.
Guys like Smart know the names of every player who went before them. He might never say it, but there will always be something special for him getting one over on Exum. I can't wait to see them go against one another for the first time and see how it plays out.
2014-15 Season Projection
The Jazz have no plans on being good next season. They're still building the base of a full-scale rebuild, which has already gone through some fits and starts. Paying Favors and Hayward $27-28 million a season is not ideal. Having to make decisions about Kanter and Burks this fall instead of next also is not ideal.
Burke had a fine 2013-14 campaign—much better than a majority of his contemporaries—but he may be a third guard. Utah is both building something it hopes is special and having to make decisions about unproven commodities, all in real time. These are deals that would have been easier to hammer out had the Jazz moved away from the Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap era a year earlier.
Instead, it's possible they might over-invest in a core that's headed nowhere in particular. Hayward proved last season he's better off as a third banana on a contending team. Favors hasn't developed enough as an offensive threat. Kanter might just be a league-average starting NBA center. Burks is still an enigma and is going to be fighting for his rotation spot with Exum penciled in as a budding star.
There are so many different questions to be answered—and that's without delving into the new faces. Snyder has been an excellent assistant, but can he lead his own program? His teams run an intricate motion offense that can be difficult for younger players to pick up. Exum and Burke both thrive using their creativity to attack off the bounce. How will all the pieces fit together?
It's also worth considering how good we can realistically expect Exum to be as a rookie. He's spent a vast majority of his basketball career playing what would amount to mid-level high school basketball in the States. He just turned 19 in July. Of the players taken in the top 10, only the injured Joel Embiid is a bigger 2014-15 question mark.
Seeing this play itself out will give the Jazz an extra level of intrigue. It just won't make them very good at actually, you know, playing basketball.
Record Prediction: 26-56 (250-1 NBA championship odds, per Odds Shark.)
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter