Early Predictions for Utah Jazz Starting Lineup Next Season
Predicting who will start for the Utah Jazz this season may be more difficult than you think.
The young core Utah had in place last season is a year older and more experienced. And logically, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors fit together.
We don’t want to define positions. We think basketball should be position-less. We want to have great shots each time down the floor. There have been times this week where the ball has moved extremely well. We aren’t perfect, we probably will never be. But I’m pleased with what I’ve seen this week.
The quote came in response to the most common question facing the Jazz during the 2014 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas: Can Burke coexist with incoming rookie Dante Exum?
Exum plays the same position as Burke, but because of his size (6'6" with a 6'10" wingspan), he could move over to shooting guard. Or, if we take Snyder at his word, neither will even have a position. As long as they can defend opposing backcourts, it doesn't matter what they're called.
The same can be said of the forwards, bigs, frontcourts, or whatever you call the other three players in "position-less" basketball.
So, trying to predict Utah's starters is about picking the five who'll give the team the best chance to win, without necessarily worrying about specific positions.
Whether the opening-night lineup remains the same throughout the season remains to be seen, but this is likely what it will look like coming out of the gate.
Backcourt: Trey Burke
Fresh off a decent first campaign, in which he started 68 games and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.02 (fourth among rookies), Burke will enter training camp as an incumbent candidate for one of the starting backcourt spots.
To go from a solid player in a bad draft class—second worst of all time according to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required)—to a legitimate NBA starter, Burke has to become an even halfway reliable shooter.
Last season, he wasn't.
In 2013-14, 53 players averaged at least as many field-goal attempts as Burke (12.8). In that group, his field-goal percentage of 38 was 52nd. Thirty-one players averaged as many three-point attempts (4.8). His 33 percent from long range was dead last in that group.
Salt City Hoops' Ben Dowsett pointed to Burke's shot selection as one of the problems, saying, "Burke was chucking from everywhere, despite being efficient compared with his peers in only a few areas of the court..."
The poor shot selection is a byproduct of Burke's inability to create good shots for himself. He lacks the burst of players like Russell Westbrook or John Wall, the creativity of Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving and the quick release of Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard.
To an extent, the physical gifts are things you either have or don't. So Burke's best bet for improvement is the creativity angle. If he can figure out how to change pace like Paul, and add a floater like Tony Parker, he has a chance to become an effective point guard.
In the meantime, focusing on passing first, last and always will be his best bet while running Utah's offense.
Backcourt: Alec Burks
In his first three seasons, Alec Burks averaged 21.2 minutes and started just 12 times, but Utah's most naturally gifted scorer should finally get his shot at a starter's role in 2014-15.
Now that Ty Corbin favorite Richard Jefferson is in Dallas with the Mavericks, 23-year-old Burks is one of the "veteran" options on the wing or in the backcourt.
As such, he should be allowed to unleash his explosive scoring ability on opponents from the opening tip, potentially as a No. 1 option on offense.
I definitely feel like I can. I’ve got the talent to be. I’ve got the competitiveness to be. I feel like I can become a great player in this league with my athletic ability and potential. I think I can be real good in this league.
He may already be there, at least within the context of his own team.
According to NBA.com, Burks led the Jazz in "player points per game on drives" at 4.7 and "team points per game on drives" at 6.8. Hayward was second in both categories at 2.8 and 6.1.
What makes Burks Utah's best driver is his explosive first step and ability to finish at the rim, often in acrobatic fashion.
As he gets into the lane early in games, defenses will have to pack the paint to try to slow him down. That will create spot-up shooting opportunities for Hayward, Burke, Rodney Hood and others.
Wing/Point Forward: Gordon Hayward
This season will be Hayward's first opportunity to prove he's worth the four-year, $63 million max deal he signed this summer with the Jazz.
According to a post on his blog entitled, "Back Where I Began," Hayward sounds like he's ready for that challenge:
I’m really happy that the Jazz believed in me, and were able to match the offer. It really means a lot to me because they didn’t have to do that, but they chose to...
... I think the commitment shows how much the Jazz believe in me, and what they think I mean to their franchise. That’s a really good feeling for me, knowing that they stand behind me. To be able to play there at least another three or four years and be one of their centerpieces is something I’m looking forward to...
One way Hayward could reward the team for standing behind him would be to bounce back from the worst shooting season of his career. He shot career lows of 41.3 and 30.4 percent from the field and long range as the first option in 2013-14.
The defensive attention Hayward received in lineups typically devoid of hot-handed scorers took its toll on his shooting numbers. If Burke, Burks, Kanter and Favors take steps forward offensively, Hayward will get better shots, and his percentages should trend back up.
If he can manage that while maintaining his status as one of the league's only legitimate point forwards (he was one of just five players over 6'8" who averaged at least five rebounds and five assists in 2013-14), Utah won't have any buyer's remorse over signing Hayward's extension.
Big: Enes Kanter
Last season was supposed to be the one in which Kanter finally became a full-time starter. Of course, that was short-lived as Kanter struggled defensively and was replaced by Marvin Williams in the lineup.
With Williams gone, it looks like Kanter will get another shot at the job. But it won't come without competition.
The Jazz just signed 6'8" forward Trevor Booker to a hefty two-year deal worth $10 million. He's five years older and three inches shorter than Kanter, but his efficiency numbers from last season were similar.
A $10 million contract seems like a lot of money to pay a guy to just push the starter as a backup, so don't be surprised if Booker's given a shot to replace Kanter much like Williams did last season.
Big: Derrick Favors
In terms of the catch-all "player efficiency rating," Favors quietly had the best season of any Jazz player.
His raw numbers of 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds won't blow anyone away, but Favors is clearly the best big man on Utah's roster and arguably the best player overall.
In Snyder's uptempo offense, he could finally have what media outside Utah would consider a breakout season. He'll get plenty of opportunities around the rim as the big man in pick-and-roll sets and as a finisher on the break.
Players Who Could Steal a Spot
The Jazz basically have three options to start at the two backcourt positions.
Dante Exum is only 19 years old, and showed plenty of inexperience for Utah's summer league squad in Las Vegas. Burke started for all of his rookie season. Burks has waited his turn for three years.
Even with those factors, it's not hard to imagine Exum snagging one of the two starting spots.
Judging potential is an inherently subjective process, but there's reason to believe Exum is the only potential franchise player on this roster.
He's a 6'6" point guard with Westbrook-ian lateral explosiveness, and the fastest way to develop Exum may be playing him against starters right away.
Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune shared the team's desire to play Exum big minutes right out of the gate:
They feel that the best way for Exum to develop is to throw him to the wolves.— Tony Jones (@Tjonessltrib) July 19, 2014
The luxury of Exum is that Snyder can conceivably play him at the 1 or the 2 if he wants him to start. Slotting him in at shooting guard alongside Burke would be the more conventional option. Pairing him with a fellow 6'6" athlete in Burks would fit the "position-less" narrative.
Other players who could crack the first five include Rudy Gobert and Booker.
Last season, Gobert was one of just two players to post a rebounding percentage above 20 and a block percentage above seven. Cole Aldrich was the other.
He looked like a bona fide defensive juggernaut but struggled to stay on the floor thanks to his lack of ability on the other end.
Fast forward to this summer, when it's a lot easier to see Gobert getting regular rotation minutes after a stellar showing in the summer league. He looks stronger, more confident and ready to be a finisher around the rim.
Booker's shot at the starting five is also tied to his defense. He may be smaller than Kanter, but he plays with a ton of energy and doesn't concede much inside without a fight.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.
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