The 2016-17 Utah Jazz are one of the most-hyped teams in the NBA.
That’s strange, perhaps, for the casual NBA fan, who knows the Jazz as a team that’s missed the postseason in each of the last four seasons. A team without a “superstar.” A team that’s too young.
But after a deceptively good 2015-16 and the second-best offseason in the NBA, hyped is precisely what Utah is.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe predicted the Jazz would win 50 games. SB Nation’s Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller wrote, “The Jazz have the kind of roster that can make the Warriors uncomfortable.” CBS Sports ranked Utah’s starting lineup fifth and its bench first. And ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected them to finish third in the West.
So, why so much optimism? The answers lie in what Utah did over the last 12 months.
2015-16 AND OFFSEASON REVIEW
The Jazz may have finished 40-42 and missed the playoffs in 2016, but their record wasn’t indicative of how good they were.
Utah had the fifth-best point differential in the West, ahead of playoff teams Portland, Houston, Dallas and Memphis. And they did that despite Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum missing a combined 174 games.
Then, over the offseason, the Jazz added added three veterans to their already exciting young core. The Warriors were the obvious winner this summer, adding 17.55 Wins Over Replacement Player (WORP), despite losing two starters and multiple key bench players. But the 6.21 WORP the Jazz added by swapping Trey Burke and Trevor Booker for George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw came in second.
Those additions, in concert with Utah’s ability to hang onto every key piece it had last season, has made the Jazz arguably the deepest team in the NBA. Stick with me for a second here. If you average the individual preseason player ranks from Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, FiveThirtyEight, Today’s Fastbreak and BBALLBREAKDOWN, then average the average rank of each team’s top 10 players, the Jazz come in first.
The average average rank (I know, I’m sorry) of Utah’s top 10 players is 109.71. The Warriors come in second at 111.2:
2016-17’S BIG QUESTION
Health is what derailed the Jazz last season, and it looks like it could be causing problems again.
In the preseason alone, the Jazz have lost Gordon Hayward to a broken finger that could cost him a quarter of the season. Derrick Favors has sat most of the team’s games with knee issues after back problems cost him 20 games in 2015-16. Alec Burks is still rehabbing from last season’s injuries. And Rodney Hood has missed time with a sprained hand.
The optimistic view for a Jazz fan is that the team is being overly cautious with little injuries because it’s the preseason. Hayward’s broken finger won’t require surgery. And the team has performed well in spite of the injuries (that’s where that new depth comes in).
But obviously, you’d prefer these injuries not be creeping up. If this persists through the season, Utah could be looking back on another “what could have been” year.
If Gordon Hayward only misses 10-15 games and the rest of the roster stays relatively healthy, it’s hard to imagine this team finishing with much fewer than 50 wins.
The one missing piece over the last three years has been solid point-guard play. The addition of Hill addresses that. ESPN has been calculating Real Plus-Minus since the 2013-14 season, and Hill has finished 16th, seventh and 17th among point guards over the last three years.
And the way he fits stylistically is perfect. Hill doesn’t dominate the ball, which will allow Hood and Hayward to continue to create from the wing. He can space the floor as a shooter on offense, and his length on defense will be critical against the Western Conference’s dynamic 1s.
What might drive Utah into the mid- to high-50s, though, is accelerated development from youngsters Exum and Trey Lyles. Both have looked strong in the preseason.
Exum, who’s averaging 14.7 points and 5.0 assists per 36 minutes, has shown the same kind of defense that made him an important contributor during the 2014-15 season. And Lyles looks like the kind of playmaking 4 every team covets right now. He’s averaging 17.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per 36, while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
The wheels totally coming off for the Jazz probably looks something like this:
- Injury problems similar to last season’s
- Stalled development from Exum and Lyles
- An age-related fall off the cliff from Johnson and Diaw
- A stagnant offense that struggles to shoot enough threes
But even then, it’s hard to imagine finishing worse than .500. General manager Dennis Lindsey seems to have planned for every contingency. Utah’s third unit will be led by Jeff Withey and Joe Ingles. Those two rank 187th and 194th, respectively, in FiveThirtyEight‘s Wins Above Replacement Projections. Several teams have starters in that range.
If they can weather the early injuries, Utah should be very much in the playoff hunt. In fact, they have the talent and depth to go a step further. All that hype is warranted. And if Utah lives up to it, it might even have home-court advantage in the first round.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.