Award speculation is a fun lens through which to preview a season. Until Quin Snyder rains on the parade.
One way to think about the season ahead is to get wildly hypothetical about league recognition relative to Utah Jazz talent. It’s not about predicting; there are always way more deserving candidates than can take home any particular piece of hardware, so it’s more about a hypothetical consideration of the possibility. What would it take for (insert player name here) to be considered for an award?
But then the Jazz coach preempted that discussion when he tapped the brakes on Tuesday night and reminded everybody that “it’s not like anybody, or our team, has done anything.” That stark truth makes it a little odd to entertain even hypothetically how a Jazz player might enter the All-Star of Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
So we’ll abandon, for now, a discussion about just where Jazz players are relative to different NBA honors. Instead, we’ll do what we did last year1 and approach it even more hypothetically. Who is the Jazz player most likely to enter into the conversation around a specific accolade or achievement, whether this year or in the future?
Current Jazz player most likely to become the next Jazz All-Star: Gordon Hayward
Hayward was the pick in this category last year, too. Twelve months ago, I said, “If 18-5-52 is the kind of output Hayward’s producing, then he’ll start hearing AS pub as soon as the Jazz start getting back to .500ish ball.”
G-Time hit 19-5-4, but the team fell short of “.500ish ball,” at least until after it was too late to influence the All-Star discussion. Still, Hayward’s statistical jump earned him some obligatory mentions in the All-Star reserve conversation, and got a bit of consolation coverage in some outlets’ examination of snubs.
He could generate even more buzz if he keeps producing around the same levels and Utah is a relevant team again. Despite Snyder’s assertion that the Jazz “played well for two months,” Utah was actually 32-25 starting on December 17. That’s a 57-game sample over four months. If the Jazz are anywhere near that clip in January, expect to hear Hayward’s name a lot. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll get in. The West’s frontcourt ballot includes ’15 All-Stars Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Klay Thompson, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, as well as a host of others left out last year3.
Honorable Mentions: Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert also have a shot at being the next Jazz All-Stars.
Most likely to make All-Defensive teams or compete for DPOY at some point: Rudy Gobert
This one seems like such a foregone conclusion now. It wasn’t 12 months ago.
Last fall, Gobert projected to play behind Favors and Enes Kanter, and historically that just hasn’t been enough to win this award. The typical recent DPOY winner is someone who captains his team’s defense for at least 33 minutes per game. It’s just not an award that guys bench guys win.
Now that Gobert muscled the starting job away from the departed Kanter — and took a noticeable and well-chronicled leap — that’s not an issue anymore.
Gobert should be part of the All-Defense chatter every year for the foreseeable future. He might not win right away — he didn’t make the top 6 in the NBA GM survey about best defensive player — he’ll be in the conversation.
HM: Spooked by Gobert’s projected playing time, I picked Favors last year. Favors is a top-five rim protector and is also capable of situational switching. Opponent shooting with Favors defending connected at 4.3 percentage points lower than their normal figure from the field, an even bigger impact than Gobert (3.9 pps lower).
Most likely to be a serious MVP candidate at some point: Dante Exum
This is partially an exercise of ceiling assessment. A bumpy first year and an ACL injury have definitely lowered the floor for the speedy facilitator, but X-Like-Xenopus still has at least a theoretical superstar ceiling. No current Jazz player has great odds of hitting that level, but Exum and Hayward are the two I could imagine.
It’s also largely a recognition of the fact that PGs, for whatever reason, seem to have different, looser criteria with MVP voters. Since 2000, only four players finished top five in MVP voting with a scoring average under 18, and three were PGs: Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and center Joakim Noah. And in terms of winning MVP, Nash and Magic Johnson — both points — are the only modern MVPs to win with less than 23 ppg.
So Hayward’s hypothetical path to MVP contention probably requires him to be scoring in the mid-20s on an elite Jazz team. Exum can get into the conversation in a different way, as shown by Nash, Kidd and others. But the odds of either being legit MVP candidates in the nearish future are pretty low.
HM: There just isn’t much precedent for defensive stars winning, or even competing for, MVP. Offensive megastars with passable defense become MVP candidates all the time, but the inverse is almost never true. Of the 80 guys to finish top five since the turn of the century, only one was a big man who averaged less than 18 ppg4.
Most likely to win All-Rookie honors: Raul Neto
Wolfie wins this a bit by default, since neither Trey Lyles nor Tibor Pleiss appear to be in Snyder’s 10-man rotation at the moment.
In all honestly, no Jazz rookies are very likely to contend for one of 10 All-Rookie spots, but Neto should have consistent playing opportunities. I do think the Lyles and Pleiss will both find minutes as the season goes along, but Neto appears poised to get time regardless.
Most likely to be in trade rumors this season: Trey Burke & Alec Burks
Poor Alfonso. Even as he starts to play better, he has clowns like me saying he’ll probably have to endure another year in the rumor mill. But it is what it is. The entire basketball world is presuming that the Jazz need an upgrade at PG to compete in the short-term, so no matter how well he plays, he’ll continue to be part of the scuttlebutt.
Burks has been the Jazz’s best preseason player by far, and yet that hasn’t insulated him from questions about his defense and whether he can play within a team concept. He was more or less off-limits from a trade standpoint because of an injury and a poison pill provision that makes extension-pending players harder to move. Now that neither applies anymore, I expect he’ll get talked about this year, although the $42M in salary commitment attached to him certainly makes it more likely that he stays put.
Most likely to establish himself as a locker room voice: Rodney Hood
Aside from the guys who already have, Hood has a chance to really establish some legitimacy after missing a bunch of time last year. He’s also smart and has street cred on both sides of the ball, so his preaching would carry some moral authority. Rookie Hood showed a lot of poise and leadership late in the season; sophomore Hood could become a real leader among his peers.
Most likely to get RJ/Raja level disdain from fans: Joe Ingles
This team is so young that there’s really nobody who can inspire the same veteran hatred that has become a staple of the online Jazz community. That said, there are people who are less impressed with the subtleties in Jingles’s game, and those folks may get frustrated when he continues to get minutes over someone like an Elijah Millsap.
Most likely current starter to come off the bench: Alec Burks
I did a whole recent post on Snyder’s options to shake up the lineup, so we don’t have to rehash the topic here. Suffice it to say that, since then, Burke has taken a firm lead as the best PG, so Burks becomes the most likely candidate to slide his scoring skills to the second unit at some point.
Most likely to land in Twitter jail: Trey Burke
First of all, the Jazz’s collective Twitter game is awesome. Enough of them tweet with ‘tude to make this an interesting category to pick, but for Burke, it’s mostly about the way he sometimes deals with detractors.
It’s a rough part of the job that complete strangers can criticize every aspect of your job performance. But the reason these guys have the option of playing an awesome game for a living is precisely because the sport attracts the attention of millions. Most players are above responding to fans and media members directly, but that’s one of the liabilities of having a younger team. Burke’s history of challenging the challengers is one reason why I think he could get a social media hand-slapping at some point.
HM: Gobert, whose online persona is every bit as badass as the on-court version.
Most likely to play a smaller role in ’14-15 than people suspect: Elijah Millsap
It’s looking more and more like Lil Sap is fifth in a wing rotation that really only has minutes for four. In Utah’s Tuesday game, an outing they approached with someone close to a regular season rotation, Eli logged just one minute. He’ll still find minutes when guys get gets dinged up or when matchups call for an elite defender, but I don’t think he’s going to play as big a role as some people thing.
Most likely to play a bigger role in ’14-15 than people suspect: Jeff Withey
Withey has looked beyond solid in the preseason and appears to have worked himself in ahead of Pleiss at backup center. People still talk about him like a roster hopeful, but make no mistake about it: as of right now, he’s 4th on the big-man depth chart.