The Season: Utah Jazz

New Faces:Treveon Graham (R), Trey Lyles (R), Tibor Pleiss (R), Raulzinho Neto (R), Jeff Withey

2014-15 Regular Season Record: 38-44

2014-15 Regular Season Accomplishments: 1st: Points (Defense), Rebounds (Defense). 2nd: Field Goal Attempts (Defense). 3rd: Blocks. 4th: Offensive Rebounding. 5th: 3-Point Attempts (Defense). 8th: 2-Point Percentage (Defense). 11th: Total Rebounding. 13th: Free Throw Attempts. 14th: Field Goal Percentage (Defense), Defensive Rating.

Leading Scorer: Gordon Hayward, 19.3

Leading Rebounder: Rudy Gobert, 9.5

The Utah Jazz missed the playoffs for the third straight year in 2014-15. It wasn’t all bad news, though: center Rudy Gobert made great strides and is already considered among the top few at his position after just two seasons. Overall, he averaged 8.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.2 offensive boards, and 2.3 blocks. That all came during just 26.3 minutes per game because he wasn’t a starter early in the year, resulting in a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 21.60.

In the penultimate game of the season against Dallas, he had a great night: 20 points, 17 boards, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 1 steal. Gobert played opposite Derrick Favors, another big man having a strong year in the power forward spot. Favors improved upon his already strong 2013-14 stats last year by scoring 16 per game and finished with a very similar PER of 21.86.

General Manager Dennis Lindsey selected power forward Trey Lyles with the 12th overall pick. Lyles played one season at Kentucky, scoring 8.7 points and grabbing 5.2 rebounds in just 23 minutes per contest. Utah also drafted guard Olivier Hanlan from Boston College and forward Dani Diez out of Spain during the second round. However, Diez was dealt to Portland and Hanlan is not expected to join the Jazz this season. The team did suffer a setback when point guard Dante Exum tore his ACL in an exhibition for the Australian national team, as he is expected to miss the season.

Utah didn’t make a major splash in free agency, but Lindsey did agree to terms with German center Tibor Pleiss. Pleiss, who is listed at 7’3″, is expected to provide offense in a backup role. Jeff Withey, formerly of the Pelicans, should also compete for time at center. In another depth move, point guard Raul Neto was finally signed on July 9. The Jazz had originally acquired the rights to the Brazilian in a 2013 trade with Brooklyn. Two other rookies have been invited to training camp: guard Treveon Graham from Virginia Commonwealth University and forward J.J. O’Brien of San Diego State.

With Gobert the top center and Favors the main power forward, who are the other starters? All signs point to Gordon Hayward at small forward, who has become one of the most recognizable players on the team. He’s a good three-point shooter who hit on 36% last season, not to mention the 19.3 points per game. Hayward can compete at shooting guard as well, but his rebounding and passing are valuable at forward. Furthermore, it frees up Alec Burks to play 2-guard after a season in which he logged just 27 contests due to injury. Burks isn’t a great defender, but he can help the Jazz if he shoots close to 46% from the field as he did in 2013-14.

Burks is not to be confused with Trey Burke, the team’s floor general. Burke improved less than expected during his sophomore season, but he did score over 12 points per game as a rookie and there’s still potential left in him.

Despite the recent personnel changes, Utah’s roster includes several returning reserves. Exum’s injury means that second year point guard Bryce Cotton will compete for minutes behind Burke. At shooting guard, Rodney Hood will be the primary backup after a rookie year when he made 36.5% of three-pointers. Chris Johnson only appeared in 12 games for the Jazz after a short stint in Philadelphia, but he and Australian Joe Ingles will play sparingly when Hayward is resting. Elijah Millsap is another reserve guard, and his brother Paul is an Atlanta Hawk. Trevor Booker, who averaged seven points and five rebounds last season, can play behind Favors. (In a preseason game, Booker slapped Lakers center Roy Hibbert and will be suspended the first game of the regular season.)

Grant Jerrett could provide further depth at power forward although he has been bothered by a shoulder injury. Jack Cooley scored only 27 points all of last season, so Pleiss and Withey are more likely to play while Gobert sits.

Gobert has gotten a lot of hype after his big finish to 2014-15, and I’m inclined to anoint him the Most Valuable Player on this team. Supporters of Favors certainly have an argument as well, especially after the departure of Enes Kanter. In the end, I’m actually awarding Most Important Player to Hayward, whose PER of 20.24 ranks right with the big men. Hayward played his most complete basketball last season after three good but less efficient years. If he keeps it up, it could make the difference between printing playoff tickets and hitting the links early.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hood is a candidate for odd man out. He’ll certainly see some playing time, but the presence of Burks will likely make it difficult for him to score 21 points in a game as he did in an October 7 exhibition.

Head coach Quin Snyder begins his second season in Salt Lake City with heightened expectations so it helps that he has a good relationship with Lindsey. Starting in 2007, Snyder coached the Austin Toros, a D-League feeder team for the Spurs. At the same time, Lindsey was assistant GM for San Antonio. Snyder is well known for coaching the University of Missouri program for nearly a decade. He also has served as assistant coach for the Hawks and Lakers. Snyder believes in sharing the ball, creating a motion offense that can be tricky to guard. His goal is to generate easier baskets by playing at a fast tempo, although Utah had 3.5 fewer possessions than the 2014-15 league average.

Defensively, Snyder has already improved how the Jazz guard the pick-and roll and he has taught his players not to overcommit to the threat of an outside shot. The result was clear: Utah allowed the fewest points in the NBA. They’ll miss Exum’s defensive contributions, but a full season of Gobert starting is a positive. Opposing shooters saw their field goal percentages drop about 4% against Gobert compared to the rest of the league. Within six feet of the hoop they fell 11.5%, which isn’t surprising since he blocked 2.8 shots in games he started. Still, Snyder has bigger goals in mind. The offense ranked 19th in three-point percentage and 26th in points scored. With steadier play from their guards, one would expect this ranking to rise in the coming season.

Gobert has already been nicknamed the Stifle Tower; he along with Favors represent Utah’s greatest strength. Not every franchise has two reliable big men who play well on both ends of the court. Hayward is also an above-average wing, which makes up for some deficiencies in the backcourt. Losing Exum was a blow, but more in terms of long-term development than his offensive contributions last season. One positive note from last season was a 19-10 record during the final stretch. I believe that if Burks stays consistent and Burke grows into his role, the playoffs are more than a pipe dream.

Projected record: 41-41

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photo via llananba