The key to how good the Utah Jazz can be in 2014-15 probably lies in the developmental leaps by key players such as Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. The key to how bad they could be might be on the bench.
The reality is, with no true impact signings this off-season, the Jazz won’t crack 35 wins — or maybe even 30 –unless Hayward plays like he’s truly a top 5 wing1 and others in the Jazz core make big steps forward. Presuming for a second that the penciled-in starting lineup going into camp is the Favors-Hayward duo with Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Enes Kanter, that group will largely be responsible for determining the Jazz’s ceiling. Projections are giving Utah something like 28 or so wins. If the starting five take big leaps forward this year, maybe they surprise some people.
But the floor? If you look around, most prognosticators’ biggest question about just how much the Jazz could struggle are based on questionable depth. The Jazz have had a solid off-season, but haven’t yet answered the question of how much quality they have on the bench. The potential promotions of Burks and Kanter to the starting five leave the second unit a bit vulnerable.
So what do the Jazz have in their bench unit? Let’s break it down.
The X (like xenopus2) Factor
It seems likely that rookie phenom Dante Exum is slated as a reserve at this point, but I also keep hearing that the Jazz are planning to give him as many minutes as they can justify with a straight face. For that and other reasons, the Australian guard is one of the hardest players to project.
On the one hand, he’s the most likely of anybody outside The Five to crash the starting lineup. It’s not hard to imagine him having a Tim Hardaway Jr. type of rookie season: 20+ minutes, a green light to create his own shot, and 2-3 win shares on the way to an All-Rookie season3.
On the other hand, we’ve all seen him suffer lulls in his play where he was out of step or just invisible. He needs to get better at playing away from the ball, as right now the opposition doesn’t really have to factor him into their defensive thinking unless the ball is in his mitts. His shot is also a bit of an adventure, and he’s struggling with screens. Those could all be rhythm issues from having an extended basketball sabbatical, or they could be real developmental hurdles he has to work over.
So while the long-term possibilities are tantalizing, there’s no telling right now what exactly the Jazz can count on from Exum in the immediate term.
Exum has the highest long-term ceiling, but it seems increasingly likely that Rodney Hood will be the Jazz’s best rookie in ’14-15.
I know what all the stat models say4, but there’s room to be bullish about Hood despite predictive formulas. For one thing, if you look at some of the quality draftees that the stat community has missed on, a lot of them were overlooked largely based on their age. Hood is an older rookie after playing a year at Mississippi State and then waiting a year for his transfer eligibility at Duke. But guys like Chandler Parsons, Damian Lillard, Taj Gibson and perhaps most notably Brandon Roy were also older rookies who outplayed their projected WARP, proving that the age knock isn’t iron-clad.
(Tangent: The age correlation in predictive models probably deserves reexamination. It’s undeniable that a broad correlation exists, but that could be simply because extremely talented prospects are less likely to spend 3-4 years at the NCAA level. This might be an area where we assume as a rule that A leads to B, when in fact it’s just that A and B often coexist because they’re both caused by C — a Freakonomics principle worth thinking through as it relates to the predictive value of age.)
Anybody who has watched a lot of Hood’s games knows that he simply understands the game. He’s a natural scorer, he reads and reacts well, and there will definitely be some minutes for a big SF with some scoring capability. He was a leader at Duke, and a good character guy.
I’ve already written about how Rudy Gobert could improve this year, so I won’t belabor the point here. In a nutshell: he seems certain to be a rotation regular this season, and could possibly be play his way to decent minutes with game-changing defense.
Trevor Booker looks like a quality addition that will help the bench. He’s played well in that energy role before, and he is effective at defending down low without fouling a lot. He continues to improve as a midrange threat on offense, which helps justify keeping him out there for his defense and energy.
Of course, Booker’s presence complicates the role of the oft-overlooked Jeremy Evans, but I expect he’ll find his way into some minutes this year, too. After three years of being this anomaly of a player — highly effective in only spot minutes — he finally got a taste of rotation minutes last year. He still posted an above-average PER, but his rebound rate is pretty mediocre for an NBA four. Previously an at-the-rim-only specialist, he saw a lot of his volume move to 10+ foot jumpers: 37.6% of his attempts, by far the largest percentage in his career. But he still managed to be a net positive player, and probably deserves more mention than he gets as a cog in the Jazz’s rotation.
Those five guys could really be the key to the floor not falling out on the 2014-15 Jazz.
On the other hand, if Utah is forced to rely on the eight below, it might mean they’re having a tough year.
A case could be made for Steve Novak to be grouped with the possible rotation guys above. Novak is certainly capable of filling in admirably should someone need to spend some games on the shelf.
But I’m confused at the fan speak that treats the Novak pickup as a difference-making move. This is an 8-year vet who has topped the 1,200 minute mark exactly once in his career, and that was the wacky Linsanity season in New York. His rebound rate is borderline unacceptable for an NBA big, and his defense isn’t much better. He does one thing really well — space the floor — and that’s why he’ll always find some minutes here and there. But if he’s one of Utah’s top three or four bigs, somebody else probably isn’t doing their job.
Ian Clark is another guy with a definite specialty, and what complicates his case is that he hasn’t even done that one thing all that well in games. He’s essentially a shot maker who doesn’t always make shots. The experiment in Vegas was to see if they could shoehorn him into some point guard minutes. I’m not entirely sure if that will work. Ultimately, he has to shoot better than 38.8% (TS 48.5%) to wrest minutes away from the other backcourt players.
Some are excited about the pickups of Carrick Felix and Toure’ Murry, but let’s not rewrite history to make them seem like impact signings. Felix was ranked 57th in the ’13 draft class by Chad Ford and had the 86th best WARP projection. A year earlier, Murry was ranked 96th by Ford and was so far out of the draft picture that he wasn’t even included in the WARP projections. Neither has shaken off those low expectations thus far — they both posted 0 win shares last season.
That doesn’t mean they were bad pickups. Remember, the Cavs gave Utah enough cash to pay Felix’s salary and then some, so they get to try him out for free and essentially get a pick just for taking over on the formality of actually signing the paychecks that Cleveland is funding. And with Murry, they were just looking for a third point guard option who could give the club some insurance, and they got one for just $250K in guaranteed salary, per rumors.
Now, it’s possible that any of these four could surprise us. Every year, guys in the NBA come from out of nowhere to achieve relevance. But there probably aren’t great odds of these four dramatically altering Utah’s win total.
Battling for roster spots
So far we’ve talked about 14 guys with a chunk of guaranteed salary ($250K or more), which means Brock Motum, Jack Cooley, Kevin Murphy and Dee Bost are likely fighting for one remaining roster spot. Chances are good that most or all of them will see a lot more of Boise than of Salt Lake City this year. Although again: same disclaimer about surprises could be made here.