Today, with just one week until NBA regular season play begins and eight short days until the Jazz kick things off for real, it’s time to stick my neck out even further on the line. No more ceilings, no more floors, no more projections. It’s time to make 10 concrete season predictions. Like last year, some will be bolder than others — I have to give myself a few gimmes for appearance’s sake. Also like last year, I’ll review these near the end of the season to see where I was close, lukewarm, or off the mark altogether.
1. Rudy Gobert will block fewer total shots in 2015-16 than he did in 2014-15
Might as well come out firing, right? This sort of prediction might seem preposterous to many — Gobert was languishing in the teens and low 20s for nightly minutes prior to January last season, only reaching the 30-plus per game most expect for him this year by March. If Rudy could block 189 shots in 2,158 minutes last year, it should stand to reason that he’ll well exceed that if he can approach 2,500 minutes.
There are a few issues with the basic math, though. For one, it’s far from a guarantee that Gobert actually reaches that sort of threshold — in fact, it’s kind of difficult. Only 29 players in the NBA hit 2,500 minutes last season, and Gobert’s total actually ranked inside the top 80 despite him spending more time on the bench earlier in the year than he should have. Gobert didn’t miss a single game to injury, and while his style and fluidity don’t make him prone to maladies by any stretch, it’s a physical league and things happen.
More importantly, the way teams are viewing Gobert (both individually and as part of a tandem with Derrick Favors) is changing. Where last season he was often seen as an upstart, to be probed and tested for weaknesses, the results of that process have turned him into an obstacle to mostly avoid. Teams are game-planning for him more specifically than ever.
It’s a very small sample, but early returns in the preseason showcase the degree to which teams are tip-toeing around the Stifle Tower. Rudy averaged 3.2 blocks per-36-minutes last year — he’s all the way down to 1.4 in his four appearances thus far this fall. That figure will rise, but even if Gobert doubles it and plays all 82 games once again, he’ll have an uphill climb to 190 or more swats.
2. Trey Lyles will attempt, and make, more 3-pointers than Tibor Pleiss
Much of what’s made Pleiss an intriguing Jazz prospect this summer even at 26 years old is the promise of things to come: Pleiss has very little track record as a shooter, but came into Jazz camp with glowing reviews from team brass about his range and ability to space the floor.
Though he’s got plenty of time left to realize this potential, the prognosis so far isn’t good. Pleiss has attempted just two triples in his five appearances and missed badly on both, and more importantly hasn’t looked remotely like a guy comfortable shooting at this level. Opposing bigs are sagging miles away from him anytime he trots out to 3-point range, daring him to prove he can shoot. Look how little attention Portland paid him Sunday night:
If Pleiss isn’t closer than the free-throw line, he’s not drawing a shred of interest:
Lyles has only attempted three of his own triples this preseason, but he’s already drawing much more respect from defenders and seems more willing to make plays on his own. He has great form, good instincts and the ball skills to both make shots off the dribble and punish defenders who close out to him too hard.
Additionally, while nothing is set in stone, my gut feel is that Lyles plays more than Pleiss this year. Tibor is quickly falling behind Jeff Withey on the center depth chart, and while Lyles is behind a couple guys himself, he’s more versatile and will fit with smaller lineups. This one could look dumb in a hurry if Lyles is a bit player for a season or Pleiss discovers his comfort from range, but I’m sticking with it.
3. The Jazz up their pace from last season, but still aren’t in the league’s faster half
Quin Snyder has made it clear that his group will look to increase the pace on the floor, both in terms of advancing the ball up court and initiating plays more quickly. Sunday’s first half offensive explosion in Portland was touched off by the way the Jazz simply flowed directly into sets after hurrying the ball up the floor, even if the final numbers were in large part due to some streaky shooting.
These are good signs, but this team probably lacks the personnel to get further than roughly league average speed-wise. There will still be too many late shot-clock possessions, and the fact that Utah’s defense was in the league’s bottom third (21st) for turnovers forced on a per-possession basis means their quick transition chances may remain limited. Don’t expect them to once again be the league’s slowest outfit, but they won’t become one of its fastest overnight.
4. The Jazz will more than quadruple their minute total in “small” lineups with just one traditional big on the floor.
The Jazz played 3,941 minutes of regular season basketball last year, and according to my tabulations using nbawowy.com, just 176 of these — 4.5 percent — came with a single big man on the floor.
That will jump this year, and no more analysis is really needed than this: Quin Snyder wants to do it more. He’s been trotting out all sorts of smaller variations during the preseason, and while some of this is missing personnel and simple experimentation, it’s also preparation for something the Jazz will do a lot more of. Teams are scheming ways to slow the Favors-Gobert duo and take the Jazz out of their primary identity, and it’s vital Utah has a few counters of their own available.
5. Quin Snyder places in the top three for Coach of the Year voting if the Jazz finish seventh or better in the West
Those in tune with the entire NBA landscape took notice of Snyder and all he did to turn around Utah’s culture in his rookie season, and he’ll turn some heads on an even larger scale as the Jazz prep for more national exposure and a potential playoff appearance. He finished a distant eighth last season despite his team’s vast departure from their previous struggles; typical voter bias toward coaches of playoff teams should work more in his favor this season.
Whether or not it factors into voters’ decisions, an element to watch in Quin’s sophomore season will be the Jazz’s performance on diagrammed sets. Utah was roughly league average on plays following timeouts last year, per Synergy Sports, and in the NBA’s bottom 10 for all out-of-bounds sets. Some of this is personnel, but a tactically savvy coach like Snyder can improve things here with a year under his belt.
6. The Jazz will collect a lower percentage of available rebounds than they did last season
Remember how I get a few gimmes? Good. The Jazz grabbed 52.8 percent of all available missed shots last year, the top mark in the league and one that ballooned even further when Gobert became a full-time starter.
They should still remain near the top of the league, particularly if their defense continues to provide so many rebounding opportunities, but maintaining such a figure is legitimately difficult. Teams are more cognizant now of how much the offensive glass helped keep Utah’s offense afloat last year, and should be expected to place more emphasis on keeping the likes of Favors and Gobert far away. The addition of more small-ball surely won’t help things, either, even if that’s a trade-off Snyder will often gladly take in the name of increased proficiency elsewhere.
7. The Jazz will not have the league’s best per-possession defense, but will finish in the top five
I’m really just playing the percentages here. The Jazz have a fantastic defensive core and an ace defensive coach, but picking one single team to beat out 29 others all trying very hard seems like a risky proposition.
In seriousness, while some major regression from their historic post-All-Star showing last season is virtually guaranteed, there’s no reason to expect the Jazz to slide too far from the league’s defensive elite. We can hem and haw at exactly how much of that pace Gobert was responsible for, but it’s tough to argue more Stifle Tower will do any noticeable damage to a team’s defense. Utah has length for days, the versatility to combat all sorts of looks from opponents and a coach who knows how to put these elements to good use.
The move to more small-ball could have an adverse effect, but Elijah Millsap’s play spanning from the end of last year into the preseason provides several encouraging nuggets. The Jazz have tried Eli out in all sorts of defensive matchups, from jitterbug point guards to bulky small forwards and even a few power forwards, and the results have been universally positive. In the preseason, Snyder has been able to make small lineups work so often because of how versatile Millsap makes these units defensively. He’s been just dangerous enough with the added space available on the other end to keep the Jazz from stalling out offensively, and trails only Joe Ingles as Utah’s best per-possession players thus far in the fall. If this sort of thing carries over to the regular season, Snyder should be able to lean on smaller groups for longer periods without worrying too much about the team’s defensive integrity.
8. Lineups featuring no traditional point guard will close the majority of moderately close games2
Gleaning too much from the preseason is a big no-no, but there are always a few elements so glaringly obvious that it’s tough to imagine them reversing course by the time the real games start. The Jazz have proven such a reality already the last few weeks: Their best five-man combination in a vacuum is very clearly Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.
Yes, there’s lots of context. There might be situations where a tweak is optimal, and there will definitely be issues with rotational integrity if Snyder is forced to go to these units too often throughout games. You want your five best players on the floor whenever humanly possible if the game is tight, though, and those five are it.
There are just so few weaknesses, particularly if Burks continues the fantastic play we’ve seen on both sides of the ball this preseason. The Jazz have their three best on-ball creators on the floor, three guys who also double as their best spot-up shooters. They pair these with the team’s defensive foundation, guys who double as far and away the team’s most effective pick-and-roll big men. They can switch everything on the perimeter and even certain inside stuff with Favors, and should control the boards and passing lanes against virtually anyone with no one under 6’6” on the floor.
If things get cramped spacing-wise or the Jazz need to recover from a deficit, they can slot a guy like Joe Ingles in for one of the bigs. If they’re protecting a lead down the stretch, they can sub in Millsap for Burks or Hood and sic Eli on the opponent’s best perimeter player. There are several options at Snyder’s disposal.
9. Alec Burks leads the Jazz in total points scored
Whoa now! What was that??
Look, this is a long shot to some degree. It’s also probably an overreaction based on a few excellent preseason games, and could easily represent entirely too much confidence in Burks’ fitness over a long 82-game schedule coming off a long absence from the court and major surgery.
It’s also something of a gut feeling, both about Burks’ ability to keep this up all year and about the team’s presumed leading scorer in Hayward. Note that I’m going with “total points scored” and not points per game — it defies most logic given Burks’ injury and how healthy Gordon has been his entire career, but an early-season back tweak on top of signs of fatigue last season have the slightest bit of doubt creeping into my mind about Hayward’s durability in March and April. A few missed games here or there, even for rest, could open the door.
Burks seems to have spent his time on the sideline chomping at the bit. He looks as springy as ever, creating instant separation at will and drawing panicked rotations from defenses that have still been too late most of the time. He’s been focused on things like his ball movement and his off-ball defense, elements that will make Snyder comfortable playing him at consistently high volume if he stays vigilant.
Whether he’ll have a chance at making my most outlandish prediction come true could hinge on his distance shooting. Burks has been a good 3-point shooter for his career at just over 35 percent, but a few additional ticks up into the high 30s could really push him over the top if he’s willing to fire away more often. He says this is the best his shoulder has felt since his college days; if a strange-looking shooting motion isn’t too much of a hindrance and the rest of his game continues to burgeon, I look forward to appearing very smart.
10. Official Big Picture Predictions
Jazz Record: 46-36, 8th in the West, 2nd in the Northwest Division3
Jazz Offensive Ranking (tied for 15th last year): 14th
Jazz Defensive Ranking (tied for 12th last year): 3rd
Bonus Prediction: The Jazz win a playoff game in front of their home fans during the 2015-16 postseason.