Whatever happens in the next 12 months, we’ll know a lot more about the Utah Jazz’s future when 2014 is over.
When was the last calendar year in which Jazz fans knew on January 1 that the trajectory of the franchise would be defined right before our eyes? This could be entertaining.
Here are the 14 storylines we’ll all be talking about in 2014 that could have the most lasting impact on the franchise.
14. Attendance/Fan Support
This probably has the least long-term impact of anything on the list, but I’m curious: will fans continue to support a project? Back in the summer, we said all the right things about our allegiance to and patience with the young squad, but it didn’t take long for some to begin voicing frustration as the early losses piled up. Home attendance is already down to 89.6% of capacity (from 93.8% last year). Will fan interest in the young core help steady that figure, or will it continue to drop for a team almost surely headed to the lottery?
13. Does Utah do anything with its remaining cap space?
They don’t have a lot of room, but I’m interested to see if they try to turn the last few bucks into some kind of an asset. The Jazz could have between $3 and 4 million if they were to waive all non-guaranteed contracts by 1/10, which in itself is an interesting question (for another week, anyway). This question gets far more interesting if they consider buy-outs. If one of the vets will give the Jazz a discount in exchange for a chance to go reestablish value heading into free agency, suddenly the Jazz could be in a position to absorb some salary in exchange for something.
12. Hangnails and strained earlobes?
I’ve said all along that I don’t think the Jazz are exactly tanking. I think they’re seeing what they’ve got in this young roster and accepting the consequences. But one way we’ll know if I’m wrong is if they start to milk minor injuries with weeks of downtime for good players.
11. ROY Race
Sorry, award-watchers, this isn’t that high on my list because I don’t really care that much about individual honors. They have very little franchise-shaping power. What does have franchise-shaping power is youth realizing potential ahead of schedule, and it would be pretty impressive to go into the draft with picks 14 & 21 and come away with the best rookie. Trey Burke might not have the points to steal the conch from Michael Carter-Williams or Victor Oladipo, but if he racks up a points-assist combo, like 14 & 7, he might have something new for his mantle.
10. Post-deadline PT
One reason a team might choose to play an expiring over a long-term project is to show GMs that their expiring trade chip still possesses some basketball abilities. That’s only one of many reasons why a coach chooses play one guy over another, but as that motivation disappears after February 20, I wonder if some of those 10th-12th man minutes will start to go to guys like Ian Clark and Rudy Gobert over Brandon Rush and Andris Biedrins.
9. Enes Kanter’s slump: an indication of fit problems, or just a natural part of adjusting to a major role?
This matters for so many reasons. My personal take (as shared on the SCH Saturday Show) is that it’s part of growth; I’ve talked to many NBA guys who say that the jump from a 15-mpg guy to 25+ is one of the hardest adjustments to make. Still the Jazz need to figure out soon if Kanter & Derrick Favors make sense as a tandem.
8. D Improvement
The Jazz remain last in the league in defensive efficiency, even though they’ve made some adjustments that I have really liked. I’ve messed with player combinations on nbawowy.com to figure out where the weak links are, but at the end of the day, Favors needs to show everybody he’s the anchor the Jazz thought he was when they opened the checkbook. When he’s the defensive leader like the Noah/Chandler comps that get used, the Jazz should naturally rise from 30th, almost regardless of who he’s out there with.
7. Extension Deadlines
Assuming Alec Burks and Enes Kanter are still Jazzmen this July (more on that at #3), one of the bigger questions of the summer will be whether or not they get locked down with extensions and for how much. Ranks lower than other “who stays” questions since there’s still an RFA safety net if extensions aren’t signed.
6. Coach Intrigue
Is Ty Corbin still coaching the Jazz at the end of 2014? I’ve heard cogent (and not-so-cogent) arguments on both sides, and I can honestly say I don’t know. I imagine many Jazz fans still don’t know which outcome they’re even rooting for, but this particular discussion is going to get a lot more interesting between now and April, almost no matter what else happens.
Once again, we’ll spend the first half of the year rooting against the Warriors. I still don’t think they’re a surefire playoff team, but their 6 straight wins certainly help them (and hurt us). We will need a lot of help from any three of Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans and Minny, but this could turn into a decent asset that helps the Jazz in what I think is their #1 goal of 2014.
4. Is this (high-volume, low-efficiency scorer) the new version of Gordon Hayward?
Being a #1 option is its own tough adjustment, but Hayward’s year includes career-high marks for usage and attempts per 36, as well as career lows in just about every form of scoring efficiency. Is this the new Gordon, or will he eventually get back to what made him so efficient in years 1-3? I still think he needs to embrace his inner Ginobili/Kirilenko as a crafty all-around scorer and versatile weapon rather than play as though he’s a Curry/Allen sharpshooter. The career-low FTr in particular worries me.
3. Who gets traded?
Like the 2013 deadline, this trade season will probably tell us a lot about the front office’s plan and priorities. I think they’ll be active, specifically trying to do anything that will improve their asset position going into a potentially franchise-changing draft. That said, a lot has changed since my trade likelihood series. Specifically, Rush’s value has suffered greatly, and that makes it more likely that an asset-producing trade would require Burks, Kanter or Jeremy Evans’ inclusion. There are probably some Richard Jefferson scenarios, but almost all would involve either long-term salary or swapping a playoff team for an injured expiring. Whether or not the Jazz sell high on Marvin Williams or try to keep him around is an intriguing question that could tell us a lot about where they want to be next season.
2. Hayward’s Summer
How much drama will Hayward’s restricted free agency bring? My guess is not very much, but how that plays out will still be a 2014 plot with impacts for many years.
1. 2014 Draft
Everything the Jazz have done in the last 12-18 months says they’re banking on finding a franchise player this summer, and the most likely way of doing that is on June 26. If things go the way most are hoping, this is the June we’ll all look back to in the future and say, “That’s when the glory days started.” There’s also a chance it won’t go that well – particularly if the Jazz land in the 6-10 range I’ve predicted and have a hard time moving up. But either way, this could be the most defining aspect of ’14 for Jazz basketball now and in years ahead.