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2018 NBA Season Preview Series: Utah Jazz

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz - Game Six

If you missed the 2018 debut of this blog series in which we covered the Raptors, you can find that here. They won their poll fairly convincingly, so this time around I wanted to make the choices a little harder as all of these teams are expected to be pretty good this upcoming season. For the most part things were pretty close considering each of these franchises has a decent amount of storylines, but at the end of the day the stoolies have spoken, it’s time to talk about the Utah Jazz, one of the fastest rising teams in a loaded Western Conference

2017-18 Season Highlights

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Last season, the Jazz were supposed to stink. They lost Gordon Hayward after getting bounced in the second round in 2017, and given how stacked the West was, few picked them to make the playoffs. A ton of projections heading into the season had them around 36 wins and a 13% chance of making the playoffs. The idea was that this team was going to go through a bit of an offensive rebuild, and while their defense was going to be nails, people didn’t believe in their ability to put the ball in the basket at a high enough rate to warrant a postseason spot. Well, what we ended up getting was I guess what you could call a magical season of sorts. I’m not sure even Jazz fans expected the type of season the Jazz ended up having, which in case you were living under a rock was one of the more exciting seasons of any team to not win the title. The NBA world is certainly not making the same mistake twice, as the Jazz are now projected to win 48.5 games, which just so happens to be the 5th highest total in the West. To understand that win total number, we first have to look at how their roster looks at this very moment

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I would imagine there are GMs all around the league that are somewhat jealous of what’s brewing in Utah. The Jazz have a total cap figure of $118,208,995 which may seem like a big ass number, but in reality it’s the 15th highest cap number in the entire league. That my friends is a fantastic return on their investment when you consider how good they are. Obviously they are benefitting from what every GM searches for, and that’s elite, All Star level play from a rookie/second year player that is still on their rookie scale contract. That’s what the Jazz have with Donovan Mitchell. I think we can all agree that when it comes time for his extension, Mitchell will be among the highest paid point guards in the league, but in the meantime his low cap number allow the Jazz to continue to build around him and maintain flexibility. I cannot stress enough how valuable that is. How many teams can say they get the type of production the Jazz do from their best player and he accounts for just 2.63% of their cap? For teams like UTA, that is how you get back to being competitive in your conference. In looking at their roster, there are a lot of intriguing names, especially at the guard positions. Between Mitchell/Rubio/Exum/Neto/Allen/Burks that’s a pretty deep group compared to what other teams have at those spots. It would not shock me if down the road next season we see UTA potentially move some pieces from there in order to build some frontcourt depth, because outside of Gobert/Bradley/Favors they don’t have much.

What was impressive about the Jazz’s season last year is they were still able to thrive and be competitive despite getting killed by injuries. In total they had guys miss around 225 games due to injury, and only the Pelicans had to deal with more guys out while still making the playoffs in the West. There were a bunch of East teams that had to deal with similar totals, but it’s practically a death wish for a team to be as injured as UTA was, and yet they still were able to play past April. Gobert played just 56 games, Dante Exum just 14, Sefolosha 38, and Alec Burks 64. So how were they able to pull last season off? Well, despite guys out of the lineup the Jazz were elite in a couple different areas:

Drtg – 2nd

Net Rating – 5th

Reb% – 7th

Blocks – 9th

Opponent FG% – 6th

Opponent Points – 1st

Opponent Points in Paint – 2nd

Steals – 4th

As you can see, these are all defensive metrics which continues to be the backbone of this team. And remember, they did this with the DPOY basically missing 30 games. What made the Jazz successful was not only their defense and their legit 28-13 home record, but they very rarely blew leads. When the Jazz got up by 10+ points, they were 31-19 which was the 3rd most wins in the West and 4th most in the NBA (only HOU/GS/TOR had more). Playing in the tougher conference didn’t seem to phase them all that much, as their 26 wins against teams .500 or better were also the third most in the West and more than any team in the East. Add in them going 22-8 vs teams under .500 and the Jazz check all the boxes of a good team. This isn’t like a team that feasted on shitty teams in the East, they actually had to face tough ass competition almost every night. This team lost just two games basically from January to March and had multiple long winning streaks that came out of nowhere.

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So how do the Jazz take the next step? Well the answer there is improving on the offensive end of the floor. They already have one of the best coaches in the league in Quin Snyder, but the truth is the Jazz offense has been average at best. They’re 13th in FG%, 13th in 3PM, 12th in 3P%, 21st in AST, 20th in TO, and 15th in Ortg. For things to turn around, they are going to need guys like Rubio (41/35%), Jae Crowder (38/31%), and Burks (41/33%) to be more efficient. Even a slight improvement with the addition of guys like Exum who showed promise, Grayson Allen that showed flashes this summer, and the continued development of Donovan Mitchell should have a drastic improvement in how the Jazz rank in all those offensive categories. The Jazz took a big step forward in adapting to today’s NBA with 35.7% of their FGA coming from deep (up 3% from the year before), and unlike some other teams in the West, the Jazz do not rely on isolation basketball in order to score. Just 41.4% of their FGM came unassisted, which was good for 17th in the league. This team moves the ball, is getting better at surrounding Gobert with shooters to help create space, and in today’s NBA that’s what you have to do.

But make no mistake, the Jazz and their future is only as promising as Donovan Mitchell’s development. He is on the brink of superstardom, and his 20.5/3.7/3.7/1.5 was absolutely no joke. The dude is a stud, but it’ll be interesting to see what type of adjustment he makes in his Year 2 jump. One area I’d like to see him improve is his efficiency in clutch moments. His 3.5 points in these situations is nice, but his 40/27% splits certainly leave more to be desired. He also sneaky struggled in the midrange area, a place he took the 3rd most FGA on the team. I’d like to see him keep going and attacking the rim, as he had just a .218 FTr. Usually when we see guys take that next step, it all starts with their ability to get to the line more frequently. If I had to bet on it, I’d say this is where we definitely see a chance from Mitchell in Year 2. I also found it interesting that Mitchell struggled on above the break threes, shooting just 32.2% on those shots. As a guy that LOVES to hit you with the dagger three off the dribble, I’d look here as an area to improve as well. If teams have to legit respect his ability to hit a pull up three, that’s going to open up everything else for him.

The narrative has now changed in regards to this Jazz team, as they now enter the 2018-19 season with real expectations. The basketball world wants to see if what we got last year was for real, and I’m having a hard time finding any sort of reason it wouldn’t be, especially if Exum comes back and actually contributes. I would expect their defense to still be at the top of the league, and even the slightest improvement offensively could very well have this team in the 3/4 seed conversation (if everyone stays healthy). There is the chance that they become a bit overrated simply because of how underrated they were last year, but either way I would suggest making the Jazz a regular part of your League Pass rotation. If you enjoy basketball being played the right way, some star magic from Mitchell, and a legit home court advantage, then Jazz basketball is certainly for you. Let’s see what they can do.

Official Greenie Prediction: 50 wins