The long, hot summer is behind us, which means NBA basketball is back. And specifically, Utah Jazz basketball is back.
Media Day is in the books and training camp is officially underway in Salt Lake City as the Jazz prepare to kick off the preseason in Hawaii against the Los Angeles Lakers.
What can reasonably be expected from Utah this season? Can it build on the success found in the second half of last season? Will the young core continue to progress, or stumble under the weight of added expectations?
We answer all of those questions and more in Today’s Fastbreak’s season preview of the 2015-16 Jazz.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON
Utah enters the season with a surplus of optimism, resulting from a post-All-Star-break run that placed it among the best teams in the league during that stretch.
The Jazz’s winning percentage of 65.5 (which is a 54-win pace) after the break ranked sixth in the NBA. Over the same period, their defensive rating of 94.8 ranked first. The second-place Memphis Grizzlies weren’t even close. Their defensive rating was 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the Jazz, about the same difference between the Grizzlies and the 19th-ranked Detroit Pistons.
The surge was almost a direct result of Utah’s trading Enes Kanter over the break. That single move—even though Utah got virtually no immediate value in return—spawned an entirely different team. Kanter had an individual defensive rating of 108 in 49 games with Utah. Had the Jazz maintained that over the course of the season, they would’ve finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-worst defense in the NBA.
Jettisoning Kanter and promoting Gobert to the starting center slot turned the Jazz into a defensive juggernaut overnight.
In addition to that culture change, three Jazz players broke out to form a legitimate “Big Three.” Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert all had career seasons and posted Player Efficiency Ratings over 20. Utah joined the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks as the only teams to have three different players qualify for the minutes leaderboard and post a PER of 20 or better.
Hayward was particularly impressive, averaging 19.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 36.4 percent from three-point range. Only three other players could boast such numbers in 2014-15.
In addition to the solid campaigns of those three, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles, Trevor Booker and others showed great signs over the course of the season (particularly after the break for Hood and Ingles).
And oh, Utah was the second youngest team in the league over the course of ’14-15. The optimism surrounding the Jazz is absolutely warranted.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
The good vibes took a pretty significant turn in the wrong direction in early August, when point guard Dante Exum tore his ACL while playing for the Australian national team in a friendly against Slovenia.
In terms of basic numbers, Exum struggled as a rookie, but he was one of Utah’s starting point guard and one of its best perimeter defenders. And despite those struggles, his quickness, size and general athleticism manifested a great deal of potential. Losing him for 2015-16 hurts the Jazz in the short term and impacts his individual development curve.
Other than that, the Jazz didn’t do a whole lot organizationally during the offseason. They didn’t chase any big-name free agents, opting instead to re-sign Ingles, waive the early termination option on Booker’s contract and sign two overseas prospects they already had the draft rights to.
Utah took point guard Raul Neto during the second round of the 2013 draft, and they acquired 7’3″ Tibor Pleiss’ draft rights from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Kanter deal.
Both played in the Liga ACB last season, the best league outside the NBA in the world. Neto averaged 14.4 points and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 42.8 percent from the field. Pleiss averaged 15.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 while shooting 62.3 percent from the field.
With Neto and Pleiss being the only significant additions, the general story of the offseason was the front office’s vote of confidence in the young core that showed so much over the last few months of 2014-15.
KEY PLAYER TO WATCH: RODNEY HOOD
Exum’s injury likely opens up 25-30 minutes a night in Utah’s backcourt, and another point guard may not fill that hole.
The Jazz have a number of wings, Hayward, Hood, Ingles and Alec Burks, who possess point forward or point guard skills. Point guard-less lineups could become a very frequent occurrence in Utah, especially if Neto or Trey Burke doesn’t prove capable of running the team for significant minutes.
Spacing will become critical in those wing-heavy lineups, as Burks and Hayward are particularly adept at slashing. Having shooters to pull defenders out of the lane will make those drives a lot more comfortable.
Hood has a chance to be an excellent floor spacer, with a fully developed offensive game that will allow him to blow by defenders who try to run him off the three-point line.
It took until the All-Star break for Hood to get his feet under him and adapt to the speed of the NBA last season, but he filled this role perfectly from that moment on. He averaged 11.8 points and shot 42 percent from three-point range over that stretch.
He probably doesn’t even need to score much more as long as he maintains that level of efficiency from deep next season. Defenses have to be acutely aware of 40-plus percent three-point shooters all the time. And the attention Hood would command in that case would open things up for his teammates.
There is some concern that the loss of Exum may curtail some of the momentum Utah built at the end of last season, but the return of Burks (who only played 27 games last season due to shoulder surgery) should offset that.
Burks isn’t quite the defender Exum is, but his offensive game is significantly further along. Looking at that as a one-to-one swap is almost certainly a net positive in the short term.
It’s also reasonable to expect some progression from each member of Utah’s rotation. Men generally don’t hit their athletic primes till their late 20s. Ingles is the only player really knocking on that door, and even he should progress, as he won’t have to spend any time this season adapting to the differences between the ACB and the NBA.
With the exception of Exum, all the most important pieces of this team that finished on a 54-win pace last season are back and still on the upward portion of their development curves.
The Western Conference is brutal, but with all those factors in mind, 50 wins should almost be expected (the italicized caveat there is because youth is often unpredictable).
Assuming good health and expected growth, Utah should be a playoff team in 2016, or at the very least, competing for a berth.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.