After roundly (and well-deservedly) lambasting the Jazz early in the season for terrible play, ESPN’s John Hollinger takes a deeper look into his statistical crystal ball and reveals some good trends for Utah this season. The entire story is only available to Insider subscribers, but here are a few points:
Hollinger points out that Paul Millsap is playing like he’s from another planet. His production levels and PER are putting him in MVP territory. But even the most optimistic fan has to expect that will even out a bit as the season moves on. But I’m going to enjoy it while I can. Here’s Hollinger:
…Even with a fairly substantial regression from Millsap and an injury rate somewhere above zero, the Jazz look like legitimate playoff contenders. We don’t know yet whether they’ll make it, partly because we don’t know how high the bar will be — it’s plausible that it will require 36 or 37 wins just to grab the No. 8 seed, and if that’s the case Utah could play quite well and still fall short.
But the Jazz will be around, for a couple of reasons. For starters, their depth is an underrated advantage, one that will pay dividends if, and when, injuries do hit. Eleven players have seen more than a hundred minutes, and of those only one — shooting guard Raja Bell — has a single-digit PER. Conversely, Al Jefferson is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes a game, which means the schedule shouldn’t grind the Jazz down the way it will some other teams.
Hollinger goes on to talk about depth and non-fluky play being good indicators that the Jazz are for real. Then there’s this:
The only major concern for Utah is on the defensive end. The Jazz are 10th in Efficiency, but they’re emulating the Sloan era tactic of fouling the bejeezus out of everybody. Utah is 28th in opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt, which has been the team’s Achilles’ heel for the past decade […]
Of course, all this somewhat misses the point. The biggest reason to be excited about Utah’s start isn’t because of what it portends for this season, but because of what it means for their future. With quality young players like Hayward, Kanter, Favors and Alec Burks already making contributions, and two frontcourt linchpins — both of whom are just hitting their prime as players — Utah is set up to be a force for years to come. They may also be getting a lottery pick form Golden State to augment the roster next year; it’s top-seven-protected and the Warriors own the league’s ninth-worst record at the moment.
Overall, I like what I’m seeing from the Jazz. The most difficult trick in front-officery is to remain competitive while rebuilding and the Jazz are doing exactly that. The team might struggle a bit in the later stages of the season when the schedule reverses that the road beckons, but there’s no denying the mental advantage for a young team to get some wins early and build an identity.