The NBA season begins tonight, and the Jazz season begins tomorrow. I won’t waste any more than this sentence telling you all how excited I am: I’m excited. Without further ado, here are 10 of my predictions for the Jazz this upcoming year, with my larger season-long predictions at the very end. Enjoy, and welcome back to the fun part, folks.
1. The Jazz will go from a bottom-five pace team last year to a top-10 one.
Utah was the league’s fifth-slowest team last year, and Quin Snyder has made no secret of his desire to reverse this trend going forward. The Jazz looked to push the pace in the preseason, finishing right on this bubble as the 10th-speediest team.
Everyone will be involved, but Jazz bigs may headline the party. A young roster may have its detriments in other areas, but a deep rotation and spry legs all around can be a real advantage on the break. Trevor Booker, for instance, will nearly always boast a quickness advantage on opposing 4’s, and this combined with his solid ball-handling skills will make him a real weapon in transition, something he’s well aware of:
Rudy Gobert doesn’t look like any sort of burner at first glance, but the speed he derives from his alien legs has been well-documented. He’s capable of beating his man down the floor regularly, and teams have to be wary of even slight lapses in transition defense given his obvious prowess around the hoop:
The team is working well as a unit when such opportunities arise as well, finding the gaps they’re allowed and utilizing even slightly less obvious numbers advantages in the name of good, early looks:
It’s important to remember, though, that transition play is just one element of a team’s pace. Another point of emphasis from Snyder, one I’m particularly bullish on, is earlier entry into offensive sets, including transition and pseudo-transition but also more traditional halfcourt sets. In some cases, it involves a simple exploitation of a lagging opposing defender, like this collection of quick passes to get Enes Kanter great position down low against a defender still not fully set:
A coach’s job, in a very general sense, is to maximize the talent on their roster, and this is a prime example. These sorts of easier points will be huge for a team likely to give up a talent/experience advantage regularly, and won’t hurt the team’s entertainment value one bit, either.
2. Enes Kanter will make fewer than 25 3’s this season.
Kanter, along with Booker, has been given the green light from distance as Snyder looks to improve offensive spacing that was at times horrendous last year. This prediction isn’t an attempt to discount the validity of such claims, but rather a nod to just how few bigs are ever able to eclipse this threshold. Just 10 centers connected on 25 or more deep balls last year, per NBA.com (only 15 even reached double figures). Of the 10 who got to that benchmark, several – Byron Mullins, Matt Bonner, Channing Frye – are specialists at the position who have carved the majority of their NBA identities from such roles.
Kanter isn’t such a player, and in an admittedly small sample size has appeared somewhat erratic in his preseason attempts from beyond the arc. Even some more well-rounded bigs who’ve expanded their ranges like Serge Ibaka and Donatas Motiejunas couldn’t crack 25 last year on much better offenses, and I doubt Kanter gets there.
3. The Jazz will collect over 51 percent of all available rebounds, and will move up at least 10 places league-wide here from last year.
Utah was 21st in the NBA last year for total rebounding percentage, grabbing 49.2 percent. This was actually something of a positive when one considers that their most heavily used lineup, the eventual starting unit of Burke-Hayward-Jefferson-Williams-Favors, contained just one traditional big while playing predominantly against opposing starting groups. The closest they’ll get to that this year is occasional Steve Novak sightings at the 4 – Booker may be slightly undersized, but he’s a fine, physical rebounder. Novak seems unlikely to play much, as the team’s defense craters spectacularly when he does.
51 percent isn’t an easy figure to attain, and this has a chance to be one of my more variable predictions – nine teams topped the mark last year, in all. But it’s one informed by more than simple size additions, as well. Gobert eats rebounds like French baguettes, and both he and Favors (3rd and 16th, respectively) were in the league’s top 20 for per-minute rebounding in the preseason, per RealGM1. Throw in Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, both strong rebounders at their positions, and I think they’re among the league’s better rebounding teams. They were second in rebounding percentage for the preseason, so the groundwork is certainly there.
4. Trey Burke’s assist-to-turnover ratio (3.02) will decrease, but his efficiency, both shooting and overall, will improve markedly.
Yes, the back half of this prediction is vague. But without placing any arbitrary thresholds on Burke’s likely improvement, it seems apparent one will be present. He’s shooting the ball with confidence and accuracy, making quicker and stronger decisions, and simply looks better physically. He’s put up a PER of 22.45 in seven preseason games, nearly a 10-point jump from his regular season figure last year. And before you yell yourself hoarse about samples and preseason, keep in mind that his PER last preseason was 2.77 – yep, you’re reading that correctly.
By a different token, his assist-to-turnover rate, elite last year, is likely unsustainable given every factor involved. Most key among these is the new team style on display already, one heavy on ball movement. SCH’s Dan Clayton took an excellent look at passing turnovers and their tendency to be highly present in successful offenses, and this is the theme here. Burke will be expected to take more risks, push the envelope more often. As a young, developing group, the Jazz will see the resulting increase in turnovers as both a learning experience and a sign that the team is moving the ball. These sorts of plays from Trey, while certainly not ideal long term, represent a willingness to step out of the box just a little:
5. After posting the league’s 13th-highest turnover ratio last year, the Jazz will enter the top 10 this year.
See above, and then apply it to the entire offense. This team will pass the ball heaps more than previous years, and the resulting offensive improvements will come alongside more giveaways, particularly of the passing nature.
6. Alec Burks will score over 75 percent of his points through a combination of free-throws and points in the paint, with over a 50 percent share to the latter.
These don’t appear to be massive upgrades at first glance – Burks scored just over 45 percent of his points in the paint last year, and just over 25 percent from the line, per NBA.com. But the 70-percent threshold is one rarely crossed by guards, and often by utility guys like Tony Allen who don’t handle the ball much and get the vast majority of their offense from off-ball cuts to the hoop and resulting buckets and free throws. Even elite slashers like Monta Ellis and Dwyane Wade (admittedly in a down year) barely cracked 65 percent combined last year.
But my goodness, does my man Alec look lively or what? He’s going to thrive offensively under a Snyder system that fits his game like a glove, and he’s already given us glimpses – he averaged hundredths short of eleven free-throw attempts per-36-minutes in the preseason, a top five figure in the league. He looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon off opponent misses, and his role in transition is a big part of my earlier prediction there:
Burks is simply too fast for the people guarding him, especially when he builds up a head of steam crossing halfcourt. He’s going to induce rotational havoc for defenses night in and night out. Any situation in which he can get his man backpedaling is instantly advantageous:
He’s no scrub handling the ball, either, and his finishing abilities continue to amaze at times. What’s that, Kobe? You want me to show the video? I mean, sure man, whatever you say…
7. Rodney Hood will make the All-Rookie 1st or 2nd team.
Dante Exum faces a challenge here, not only in gaining enough minutes to be considered but also with names like Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton at the same position and likely to be playing more minutes for their respective teams. But Hood is part of a wing rotation that could thin out quickly with any injuries, and has long been touted as one of the more immediately NBA-ready players in the 2014 class. He’ll add shooting, ball-handling and heady decision-making, and could even sniff the first team if the Jazz overachieve.
8. The Jazz will finish the year outside the league’s bottom five for net per-possession rating.
They were 26th last year for combined offensive and defensive rating. Nothing complex or crazy here: Utah will simply be a better team, perhaps markedly so. Book it.
9. Gordon Hayward will again lead the Jazz in steals per game, and will finish in the NBA’s top 15 here also (rotation players only).
Hayward was 36th in per-game steals last year among guys averaging at least 15 minutes a night, this while operating within a miserable defensive culture. He’s bulked up over the offseason, and looks to be navigating screens and off-ball actions much more effectively as a result. He’s doing a great job thus far of lying in wait, if you will, and baiting opponents into throwing foolish passes before pouncing at the right instant:
He’s always had good hands and reflexes, and has been flashing both in the preseason as well:
Hayward has been flying around the court in the time we’ve seen so far, and the team context should help as well – both the actual defensive culture and my above-discussed assumptions about pace will help his numbers here in the long run.
10. Official Big Picture Predictions:
These could be heard in some format on our Salt City Hoops Radio debut from last Thursday night2, but here are my official season-long big picture predictions so you can all point and laugh at me when I get them wrong:
Jazz Record: 30-52, 13th in the West, ahead of the Lakers and Timberwolves
Jazz Offensive Ranking (25th last year): 19th
Jazz Defensive Ranking (30th last year): 24th
*Bonus Prediction: If the Jazz sit within three to five games of .500 by the end of November, Quin Snyder receives very early COY buzz. If they break out like some have suggested and eclipse 35-37 wins, he finishes in the top five. If they somehow crack 40, he wins the award.