“Rejoice, friends! that we are alive
And that we’re young and vigorous.
Never has there been a year like this,
And never has youth been so blessed.”
This poem sums up how many Jazz fans feel about the upcoming season. For a combination of reasons—dissatisfaction at how the Jerry Sloan era ended; a starless existence after the acrimonious departure of Deron Williams; the methodical offense and sluggish defense of Al Jefferson; the avatar of all evil that some see in Tyrone Corbin—the past three seasons have seen Jazz fans wandering in a strange wilderness of mediocrity. And Stockton and Malone were never walking through that door.
But the dawn of a new era of Jazz basketball has arrived. By settling the future on the shoulders of their Franchise Five—Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, and now Trey Burke—the Utah Jazz have taken the necessary step into uncertainty and fan exuberance.
Walk the streets of Salt Lake City asking passersby about how many games their team will win next season and you’re likely to receive a two-part answer. The first part, the predicted number of wins, will vary widely. The second will not: an expression that, for this season at least, the fan hardly cares. In a season about development and a new, young, athletic style, wins seem almost tangential.
But if losses pile up next season, it will be a product of the quality of play—or more pointedly, the lack of quality. And Jazz fans have plenty of reason to temper their enthusiasm to help brace for what is likely to be some bad basketball next season, particularly on offense.
HoopsWorld recently projected that the Jazz will finish next season 15th in the West. That is dead last. While I’m not as convinced as their Senior Writer, Eric Pincus, that the Jazz will be more hapless than Jeff Hornacek’s Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings, I believe Jazz Nation should keep expectations for next year’s team in check, not only in terms of wins and losses but in esthetic of play as well.
Because things will sometimes get ugly.
Here are three indicators why: turnovers, inability to score, and adjustment to new roles.
Based on data from last season, the 2013-2014 Jazz may turn the ball over more than any team in the league.
The Jazz’s vaunted C4—Hayward, Favors, Burks, and Kanter—combined for 10.4 turnovers per 36 minutes of play last season. That’s nearly one turnover more than the entire starting lineup last year per 36.
The bench contributed about six turnovers a game last season, so assume that number stays similar. Add in Trey Burke, who would do well to turn the ball over only three times a game as a starter if asked to play some 30 minutes a night, as seems likely. That means 9 turnovers outside the C4. If we assume the C4 will average 32 minutes a game per player, which is safe given this roster, then they’ll need to cut their combined turnover rate down 24% just to keep the team to 16 combined turnovers a game.
Sixteen turnovers a game would have put the Jazz dead last in the league last season.
The Jazz just might be the lowest scoring team in the league next season.
Based on production last season, Hayward, Favors, Burks, and Kanter project to score 56 points if each plays 32 minutes. That means to tie last year’s lowest scoring team, the Bulls at 93 points per game, the Jazz would need to get 37 points per game from Trey Burke and the bench.
Brandon Rush’s career high is 9.8 points in 26 minutes per game. Optimistically, say he roars back from injury and provides ten of the needed 37 points in a career year. So the team needs 27 more.
Again using optimism, pencil Burke in for 13 points a game as a rookie, which would be a very fine season. (Deron Williams’s per 36 points his rookie year was 13.5.) The Jazz need 14 more points. Not too hard, right.
With Burks and Burke getting 32 minutes a game each in this hypothetical season, and Rush getting 26, that leaves zero shooting guard minutes and only eight backup minutes at point guard (figuring Burke will take ten of his minutes at the point guard slot). That leaves the following players to score these points at last season’s pace:
Eight minutes for John Lucas III, in which time he should produce 3.6 points.
16 minutes for Marvin Williams/Richard Jefferson: 5 points.
16 min for Jeremy Evans/Marvin Williams: 5.6 points.
16 min for Biedrins/Gobert: 2 points. (It’s not justified by last year’s performance, but they’re simply too big not to get a dunk a game between them.)
Those 16 points put the team over the threshold. In this hypothetical drawn from production last season, the Jazz score better than 93 a game and reach 95. That would have put them 22nd in the league in scoring last season. Not great but not completely horrendous either.
However, this hypothetical assumes: 1) the Jazz suffer no injuries to starters all season; 2) Rush returns to 100% health; 3) the C4 produce at their per 36 pace from last season in spite of jumping up the offensive option list, playing against better defenders, and being heavily scouted by opposing teams; 4) Trey Burke produces better than a young Deron Williams; and 5) Biedrins and Gobert (Biebert!) combine to provide a marginal rather than non-existant offensive option at backup center.
Take any of those assumptions away, and the team starts to really struggle on the offensive end. If starters get hurt, fans will start seeing these substitutions, with the correlated drop in production. Loss of a single starter for any amount of time instantly knocks the Jazz down to cellar-scoring territory. Kicking out any of the other supporting struts would as well. Subtract a few points from a Rush struggling to regain form after ACL surgery. Maybe Trey Burke only plays reasonably well, contributing nine points a game rather than 13. What if one of the C4 struggles with his role, providing a mere two points less than projected from last season’s pace?
It would not take much to dip the Jazz’s projected 95 points per game to match the Bulls’ anemic 93 from last season, or even lower.
In a year when only a point or two a game may separate the Jazz’s maximum talent output from the worst scoring clip in the league, any one of the above complications could make the team stall on the offensive end. It’s far more probable that some problem creeps into the equation than that the season goes without incident.
Next season’s Jazz are extremely young and relatively inexperienced by any measure. But by the standard of the roles they are being asked to assume, they are practically novices. This is made obvious in the minutes played in those roles last season.
As a point of reference, Al Jefferson played 2,578 minutes last season, every single one as the primary offensive option on the team, and all on top of eight seasons worth of previous experience, most in the same role. Here is how next year’s starters’ experience last season matches up, according to my calculations:
Gordon Hayward, primary offensive option: 243 minutes.*
Derrick Favors, primary post option: About 226 minutes.**
Enes Kanter, primary post option: About 137 minutes.***
Alec Burks, starting shooting guard: 0 minutes.
Trey Burke, starting point guard: 0 minutes.
The collective experience of the starting lineup of this season’s Jazz combines to just over 600 minutes of game play in their likely upcoming roles, or less than one fourth what Al Jefferson racked up last season alone. (Plus, practically all of that was against bench-level competition.)
To put that in perspective, last year’s Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, became more experienced at his role than the entire starting lineup of the Jazz will be on opening night sometime in his December 1st, 2012 game against Cleveland, in which he played his 600th minute. He played his first NBA minute Halloween night.
Two months starting for the Blazers gave Lillard more experience at his role than the Jazz’s entire starting lineup brings this season.
Or consider total career starts. Tyrone Corbin’s preferred starting lineup last season of Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Marvin Williams, Paul Millsap, and Al Jefferson have combined to start 1,956 regular season games. Should Corbin start Alec Burks at shooting guard the first game of the upcoming season, the starting lineup will take the floor with 144 combined starts to their name—102 of those belonging to Gordon Hayward. That is 7% of last year’s starters.
Given the Jazz’s young players have such a minimal body of work in the roles they will be asked to play this season, it is all but impossible to predict their production with any degree of certainty—except that there will be some growing pains to endure.
Put such frequent turnovers and difficulty scoring together, and a team starts to look an awful lot like last season’s Phoenix Suns: 14.9 turnovers and only 95.2 points per game. Now ask how quickly a team as inexperienced as the Jazz is likely to overcome such struggles.
It’s possible that the 2013-2014 Jazz could best the Suns’ futility with something in the range of 16 turnovers and 92 points a game. That would place them as a favorite in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.
Will the Jazz struggle this greatly in these areas next season? I don’t know. But I believe they may. I also believe they may surprise everyone and win as many as 35 games. The truth is, the 2013-2014 Utah Jazz are such a collection of little known and completely unknown variables that is impossible to predict anything with conviction. But such lack of certainty leaves ample room for hope.
Do I hope this new, infant era erupts onto the NBA scene from the beginning? Of course. I am beyond eager to see Gordon Hayward as the go-to guy, Derrick Favors rule the paint, and Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, and Trey Burke all unfettered. I have great hopes for the upcoming year.
But they are hopes and not expectations. My only expectation is plenty of the unexpected and fun—as long as one expects some stretches of pretty ugly basketball on the journey.