The Utah Jazz Are Coming

New Faces: Marcus  Paige,  Joel Polomboy (R), Boris Diaw,  George Hill, Joe Johnson

2015-16 Regular Season Record: 40-42

2015-16 Accomplishments: 1st: Rebounds (Defense.) 2nd: Points (Defense). 2nd: Field Goal Attempts (Defense).  5th: 3-Point Attempts (Defense). 7th: Defensive Rating. 10th: 2-Point Percentage (Defense), Offensive Rebounding

Leading Scorer: Gordon Hayward, 19.7

Leading Rebounder: Rudy Gobert, 11.0

In April, the young Utah Jazz had an up and close personal taste of how heartbreaking the NBA can be. With their playoff destiny in their control, they squandered a golden opportunity against the Los Angeles Clippers when the Clippers didn’t dress Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Nowhere on the scouting report was it written beware of Cole Aldrich. He had a career night in the Clippers overtime win in Salt Lake. Adding insult to injury, a few days later, the Jazz lost at home to Dallas for the usual reasons. The team with the slowest pace in the NBA and the 28th ranked offense- only the 76ers and Lakers were worse- couldn’t make shots. Rodney Hood had a nightmare game and the Mavs sewed up a playoff spot while the Jazz had to hope the Rockets would lose at home. They didn’t.

The Jazz missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year in 2015-16. Center Rudy Gobert continued his trajectory as one of the top centers in the game. It hurt the Jazz that he only played in 61 games but in the games he played he averaged 9.1 points, 11.0 rebounds (a career high), 3.4 offensive boards (a career high), and 2.2 blocks, resulting in a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 17.5, a decrease of his 2014-15 PER of 21.6.

Gobert’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, a measurement of defensive impact when he was on the floor, ranked him 6th among centers, ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond.  

In a signature game of the season against Denver, a must win game after the brutal Clippers loss, on the road in Colorado, Gobert had a great night:16 points, 14 rebounds, 6 impressive blocks. Gobert’s tag team partner, Derrick Favors, is another big man who had an impressive year. Favors had a  strong 2015-16 campaign, 16.4 points per game. He ended up with a very similar PER of 2014-15, 21.6.

Rodney Hood turned a lot of heads. The second year shooting guard played 32 minutes and added 14.5 points to the Jazz’s offense. He made solid contributions guarding his position. Even though he lacks explosiveness, he has skill. He makes a variety of shots from different spots on the floor and he exhibits toughness.

In the summer, the blueprint was clear. Do what you can to improve pace and scoring. In a trade with the Pacers, the Jazz acquired George Hill. Hill is a solid point guard but not a stellar one. He has a nice shot and he can move the ball but he isn’t a traditional point. He has had one assist year of 5.1 and one of 4.7. The rest hover in the 3 and 2 assist range. He is not particularly explosive but his talent is on defense. He is a nice defender with length and his physicality is surprising. Plus, he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

Boris Diaw is one of those rare NBA players who does a variety of things well. He rebounds, he scores when it’s necessary, he is a great ball mover. But that isn’t his talent. It is what he does off the ball, his screens, his coverage, his saving balls from going out of bounds, his toughness. He is one of the smartest players in the NBA and thrives in team cultures.

It’s easy to forget that the Jazz were without second year guard Dante Exum who tore his ACL but his return will improve the Jazz pace and his defense on perimeter scorers will be a breath of fresh air.  They need Exum to dribble into the lane and dish to the perimeter. He has bigs in Gobert and Derrick Favors who can do things around the basket.

The Jazz need Dante Exum to stop point guard penetration. Last year,  Shelvin Mack was the stop the point guard bleeding veteran presence who did some things for them as did Raul Neto who made big contributions but they don’t have the athleticism or innate talent of Exum. The point guard position is four deep so how Snyder decides to handle the rotation and keep everyone happy will be an interesting subplot.

Gordon Hayward’s injury will keep him out early in the year and that is a big hole to fill considering he is their most consistent weapon. Joe Johnson has been added to the roster but he is old Joe. He can have great nights occasionally but you can’t count on him regularly to bail you out. It is the Jazz’s defense and Rodney Hood that will keep them in games.

Even as it was a disappointing year for Quinn Snyder’s group who had been working towards a playoff berth, the Jazz are right on the cusp of breaking through the West. They have the hard part figured out, how to defend. In Part 2 of their rebuilding phase they need to speed the pace and incentivize ball movement. The Jazz were next to last in the league in assists.

Overall the Jazz are where they want to be and despite  the sorrow at the end, it was a good year in 2015-16. One of the youngest teams in the league was one game away from making the playoffs. It hurt in the short term, but the Utah Jazz are coming. The NBA is on notice.

Prediction: 46-36

photo via llananba