A couple of summers ago, I wrote about expectations. It’s always a delicate balance trying to find the line between realistic expectations and hopeful expectations, not getting too carried away and having unrealistic expectations. Given the relative youth of this team, especially two years ago, it was difficult finding that delicate balance.
Now, two years later, I find myself again struggling with finding that line, especially when the national media is getting on the hype bandwagon and projecting lofty expectations on a still-unproven team. While I’ve been as guilty as anyone for being excited about the Jazz’s offseason and the masterful work Dennis Lindsey has done, I’m trying so hard to temper my sometimes-skyrocketing expectations. But then CBS wrote about how the Jazz have the #1 bench in the league and the fifth-ranked starting lineup in the league. When ESPN wrote about how the Jazz will be ranked fifth in the West, below Portland, my expectations got the better of me again, thinking there’s no way Portland will win more games than the Jazz next year. Surely the Jazz will be ranked ahead of Portland. Does that mean they’ll be 4th? Is that me being a Jazz homer? Or is that realistic?
Here are a few things we know, which set a foundation for realistic expectations:
Gordon Hayward is a really great player. He’s not one of those transformational superstars, of which there are only a handful in the league, and that seems to be where some disappointment among fandom lies. But I’m thrilled with his progression as a player and his ability to be the guy to do a lot of things really well. He scores, he passes, he rebounds, he plays defense, he plays well in the clutch, and he works his tail off. I don’t want to think about where we’d be without him on the team. Next summer is going to be nerve-wracking for me.
The defense, when anchored by a healthy Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, is fantastic. It’s impossible to forget the historic defense at the end of the 2014-2015 season, though it’s unfortunate that injuries to both Gobert and Favors, plus the absence of Dante Exum, prevented that return to fine defensive form last year. Barring injuries, it’s hard to foresee a situation where the defense would dramatically regress, and phenomenal defense is what can keep teams with an average or above-average offense in just about each and every game. We saw that against the Warriors last year, and it was a blast to watch.
The frustratingly weak link last year—the bench—is significantly improved this year, thanks to Dennis Lindsey’s wizardry. Any time one of the starters went down with injury last year, the results weren’t good. And any time our starters went out for a rest and the bench was in, the results weren’t good. It wasn’t difficult for the casual observer to figure out why, so having a team where Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson are some of the first off the bench rather than Joe Ingles and Raul Neto is a good thing.
Here’s where it gets difficult to know where to set expectations, because the variance of the possible outcomes is so large:
Dante Exum is returning from a significant knee surgery, after playing a rookie season that could be considered great in one area (defense) and below-average in others (offense, shooting, aggressiveness). He could be really rusty this next year, and it’s possible his injury will mentally keep him on the perimeter instead of attacking the basket. If his shooting isn’t dramatically improved or his overall playmaking abilities have stagnated, how much of an impact can his defense and length alone have on this team? We saw that answered pretty well his rookie season, but then we also see glimpses of the tantalizing talent he has and hope for more. What if, after a rusty first couple of months, Dante starts to take off, wowing us with an improved shooting touch, tighter handles, and an aggressiveness we were all clamoring for his rookie season? What if a year spent watching the game from the bench improved his mental attack and analysis of the game and gave him a better understanding of how to pick spots, determine optimal angles, and detect teammates’ tendencies?
At times last year, the offense was inefficient and difficult to watch, a series of dribble hand-offs and a large number of passes that were without purpose, leading to a low assist rate. The lack of shooting hampered the team’s style of play, and crimped what Quin Snyder was able to dream up. As part of Lindsey’s efforts to improve the bench, he also found shooting in the form of George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw, all very good shooters who are also very good passers. Johnson and Hill were both 40% 3-point shooters last season, while Diaw has hit that at times. If the new players are able to integrate into the offense and the team as hoped, things could get interesting. Neto’s also a surprisingly good 3-point shooter, and Hayward and Rodney Hood are solid shooters as well, but that sheer number of shooters should open up the floor drastically, creating more space for Favors and Gobert to work inside. If, however, our hopes for a better-shooting team this year are unfounded, we’re going to be looking at an offense that will once again be a grind.
Rodney Hood’s game was up and down last year; at times, it looked he was breaking through and going to have a killer year, and then there’d be a string of poor shooting and little impact on games. Looking at his per-100 possession stats from his rookie and sophomore seasons, they’re not that different, and that’s potentially discouraging. Is his going to be the same player in his third season in the league? If so, that will limit how good the Jazz can be moving forward. But what if he’s able to play more consistently and with less variance in his game? What if he’s able to impact games even if he’s not shooting well? What if he’s able to get to the line at a better rate, improving his efficiency?
The three areas about which I’m most unsure—Dante Exum, shooting, and Rodney Hood—are part of what has me most excited for this season, but also the very parts that create difficulty in setting my expectations. We know what Hayward can do, we know what the defense can do, and we know that the bench will be more solid this year. But what if we have great play from both Exum and Hood, and great shooting? That could really set the tone early on and make this team great by the end of the season.