The Utah Jazz didn't quite match what many expected them to do in 2015-16, but the team is well positioned to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2012.
It's not a stretch to say the Jazz qualify for the playoffs last year if Rudy Gobert stays healthy for the entire year. The Frenchman missed 21 games, and during an 18-game stretch between December and January without Gobert, Utah went 7-11.
The Jazz finished the year 40-42, a game behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Not only should the team be better with the continued improvement of Gobert, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum and Trey Lyles, the arrival of George Hill gives Utah the veteran point guard it sorely lacked last year.
A top-eight seed in the Western Conference should be the Jazz's minimum goal, and they may even be able to secure home-court advantage in the first round if everything breaks right.
Below is a look at some of the more intriguing matchups ahead for Utah and a prediction for how the upcoming season will play out.
Season Opener: Tuesday, Oct. 25 at Portland Trail Blazers
Championship Odds: 100-1 (via Odds Shark)
When: Nov. 28, Jan. 7, March 1 and April 7
The Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves are arguably the two best young teams in the West.
Utah is a little further along the road to contention, but hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach should help Minnesota take massive steps forward. Playing the Jazz will be a nice measuring stick to see whether the Wolves' potential can materialize this year into actual results.
What will make Utah-Minnesota games so interesting is the matchup between Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
For a rookie big man, Towns was historically good last year. He averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a game. Those numbers put him in elite company, per Basketball-Reference.com's play index:
|Rookies with at Least 18 PPG, 10 RPG & 1.5 BPG|
Gobert is nowhere near the scorer Towns is, but his numbers (9.1 PPG, 11 RPG and 2.2 BPG) are more than respectable.
The eventual Rookie of the Year was the clear winner, though, in their three head-to-head meetings. He scored 63 total points on 56.8 percent shooting.
It's far too early to say Gobert vs. Towns could be one of the next great big-man rivalries, but, especially since they're in the same conference, watching their battles inside will be a lot of fun for basketball fans.
Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies
When (Blazers): Oct. 25, Feb. 15, April 4 and April 8
When (Grizzlies): Nov. 14, Dec. 18, Jan. 8 and Jan. 28
The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers were the top four seeds in the West last season. Barring injuries, the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers will likely remain there this year.
In July, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder attempted to downplay how far Utah can go in 2016-17, per Jody Genessy of Deseret News:
I would say my expectations have probably always—I've not tried to put a ceiling on them. At the same time, there's been some realism involved with the group. I think we surprised even ourselves last year when we had a lot of injuries and we were able to hang in there. It would've been nice to make the playoffs at the end of the year, but I don't know that our expectations would be that much different either way. It's hard to predict where the rest of the league is, but I do think with a little more continuity, with a little more balance, with a little more experience that our team will evolve and hopefully evolve in a really, really positive way.
While Snyder is smart to try and put as little pressure on his players as possible, there's no question the Thunder's decline opens the door for Utah to potentially get into the top four.
The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies will be two huge roadblocks standing in the Jazz's way.
The Trail Blazers far exceeded what anybody thought they could do in 2015-16 and finished fifth. Even if spending $70 million on Evan Turner turns out to be a mistake, Portland should improve with the continued growth of C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe in the backcourt.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, re-signed Mike Conley and addressed their poor three-point shooting by getting Chandler Parsons. Not to mention a healthy Marc Gasol is enough on its own to mean challenging for a top-four spot.
If Utah wants to genuinely be a top-four threat, then winning its season series against Memphis and Portland will go some way toward accomplishing that goal.
In July, CBSSports.com's Matt Moore wrote the Jazz are the No. 1 team on the rise for the upcoming season. He highlighted the offseason acquisitions of talented veterans—Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw—and the flexibility they'll provide to the team:
These moves also help shore up the injury concerns. If Gobert goes down, the team can look to a small-ball lineup with Favors and Diaw. If Gordon Hayward misses time, Johnson can slide into the three. And if their numerous shooting-guard options struggle, they can play two point guards with Hill and Dante Exum.
Of course, perception and reality are two different things. Many believed the Milwaukee Bucks were set to take a big jump last year, and the signing of Greg Monroe was a major statement of intent.
Fast forward to the present, and the Bucks are coming off a disappointing 33-49 season. In addition, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported on July 19 that Milwaukee is willing to deal Monroe.
Still, this year's Jazz team shouldn't meet a similar fate. Whereas the Bucks failed from a team-building perspective (starting Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe is a recipe for disaster in terms of spacing), Utah found a much more complementary piece in Hill.
Hill is a 37.6 percent shooter from three-point range over his career and a very good defender. He's also not a ball-dominant point guard, so he won't radically alter the offensive fluidity Snyder built last year.
Utah doesn't need a dynamic ball-handler who looks to create his own shot; the Jazz simply require a competent point guard who can facilitate the offense mostly through Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors.
Health will obviously be a big key for Utah, even if the team is much better prepared should a starter go down for a long stretch like Gobert did last year. Having the full squad available to Snyder will be the difference between competing for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds and making a sustained push for the top four.
Assuming the Jazz aren't hammered by injuries, a 10-plus-win improvement is in the cards.