Last Season: 40-42, 9th in the West
Off-season Gains: PG George Hill (trade), SF Joe Johnson (free agent), PF Boris Diaw (trade),
Off-season Losses: PF Trevor Booker (free agent/Brooklyn), PG Trey Burke (trade/Washington)
Off-season Stock: They were everyone's stock tip to the point where now they're overvalued.
League Pass Team?: Not at first. I'll wait until Hayward comes back and they gel a bit.
The Jazz are just about everybody's pick to be the club that takes the big leap forward in the Western Conference. They just missed out on the postseason derby last season and added three notable veterans with winning pedigrees to patch up some of their holes. It's not like they needed too much fixing to begin with. Health --or lack thereof-- was their main problem last season, as Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert missed 20 games apiece, Alec Burks was limited to just 31 appearances and Dante Exum missed the whole year with a torn ACL. The prevailing wisdom is that a little injury luck plus the expected help from the newcomers will make them division favorites, with a decent shot to crack 50 wins.
Hey man, I get it. It's easy to be seduced by George Hill's charms.
Pop's former favorite player is better than the randoms the Jazz have made do with at point guard the past few seasons, but I'm not sure he's a good fit for this roster. Hill is a defensive specialist whose jumper comes and goes and he doesn't have the best playmaking skills for a point guard. He just doesn't create many easy looks for people. That's one thing when you're playing for the Spurs or Warriors, where plenty of dudes can pass it, but another thing when you've got guys like Favors and Gobert, who don't create for themselves or others. It still puts the playmaking burden on Gordon Hayward, when he should be their secondary creator. The last thing the Jazz need is a defense-first point guard. That's what Exum was supposed to be, right?
One thought is that perhaps fellow newcomer Joe Johnson can ease the burden. Surely a fellow nicknamed "Iso Joe" shouldn't require much help to score, right? A sound theory for most of the past 15 years, but Johnson's 35 now. He was a lot more efficient for the Heat, playing meaningful games alongside talented teammates after being mired in Brooklyn's morass for four months, but his best chance to help them is as a 20-minutes-a-night reserve. More than that and you're getting diminishing returns.
Then there's our old friend Boris Diaw, who has taken his espresso machine to Utah. I'll never forget his contributions for the 2014 Spurs and he was a delightful character to cover, but I think it's fair to admit that Diaw lost a little something last season. Maybe he just couldn't find chemistry with David West or LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe he simply had a down year. But Diaw is 34 and he's been a professional since his early teens in France. He's another one who can help in small doses, as long as he's not overstretched.
Our final cause for concern is Hayward, who already laid waste to the franchise's hopes for a healthy campaign by breaking a finger early in camp. He'll miss the first month of the season. Hayward hasn't quite developed into a star --he's a rung below that-- but he's still Utah's indispensable player, a jack-of-all-trades type who can provide whatever's lacking, like another No. 20 we're fond of. I'd like to see what he could do with a real point guard, but alas we may never know.
The good news for the Jazz is they're otherwise loaded, with a bunch of guys returning, presumably, to full health. Favors has settled in as a 16-point scorer, and he can fill it up from a variety of ways, with range out to 17 feet or so, good enough hands and explosiveness to be a dive man, or as someone you can dump it into when you're out of ideas. What's held Favors back is his defense hasn't developed at the same pace as his offense. He blocks a decent amount of shots, but still gets lost too much in space and relies on Gobert to clean up his mistakes. The Jazz were still better with him off the floor than on. Meanwhile, "The Stifle Tower" missed a quarter of the season with a bad knee and wasn't himself for another month after that, but he was a monster during the stretch run. Gobert should be good for a double-double this season and beyond and having more scorers around him should make his job cleaning around the rim even easier. He's got a couple more clubs in his bag than somebody like DeAndre Jordan, but I would think the organization mainly wants him to focus on defense and rebounding. Rodney Hood rounds out the starting lineup. He benefited from the extra playing time due to the injuries to Burks and Exum, but his per-36 minute numbers didn't really improve much in his second year. I have no idea what to expect from him with everyone coming back. Does he look over his shoulder and put undue pressure on himself or get off to a fast start in Hayward's absence?
There's plenty of depth on the second unit besides Johnson and Diaw. Trey Lyles had a promising rookie year, and he's a nice change-of-pace from Favors with his ability to shoot threes. He and Diaw can confuse opponents playing inside and out from one possession to the next. Joe Ingles is the typical Aussie wing, a hustle-and-energy guy with a decent outside shot. He's probably going to get a lot of DNP-CD's, but he's someone you throw out there to change momentum if the team is flat. Shelvin Mack is probably the best passer on the club and he was a revelation for them after coming over from Atlanta in a mid-season trade. Still, Hill's acquisition bumps him down to a backup role, and that's his appropriate level. .
The wild cards are Burke and Exum, both of them coming off serious injuries. The Jazz desperately need Burks' outside shooting, but he hasn't been healthy in two years and he's still recovering from off-season surgeries. If he can ever get right, it would ease the pressure on the others and create more spacing on the floor for everybody, while sparing Johnson and Hood from playing too many minutes. I have no idea what to expect from Exum. He's only 21 and has miles to develop, but whatever he gives them is a bonus. He might be a starter they're counting on by the end of the year, or someone they dangle in a trade, or out of the rotation completely. Nothing would surprise me.
Bottom line, the Jazz probably have the most balanced ensemble cast of any team in the league. It's a squad full of players ranging from "B+" to "C-." In the East, that'd get you a two or three seed. I'm not sure how well it plays in the West. I'm just not convinced they'll be able to create easy, efficient offense. They won't necessarily have to score more than 95 points to win most nights, but it limits their ceiling. I'm not quite as high on them as some others. I've got the Blazers holding them off in the Northwest division and the Jazz winning around 45 games and earning a sixth seed, which means they'll get to make life hell for the Clippers for a couple weeks.