Schedule Spotlight: October a Season-Determining Start?

October 13th, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

The Utah Jazz are ready to tip off their 2017-18 season. (Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

State of the Jazz

The NBA’s 82-game regular season is a marathon. But in the West, competition is so intense that teams who aspire to reach the playoffs will need to sprint out of the gate. Utah’s ability to do that will go a long way to determining their playoff viability in a conference that is potentially as talent-laden as any the NBA has ever seen.

It’s reasonable to consider Utah part of a playoff chase from opening night on due to the seismic changes in the conference landscape, shifts to everything except the unassailable Mount Warriors. Gordon Hayward’s flight east1 leaves Utah in a weaker and less certain position even as a hoard of their competitors have reasonable claim to improvement, or at least to realistic playoff contention:

Houston (Chris Paul), Oklahoma City (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony), Denver (Paul Millsap), and Minnesota (Jimmy Butler) all believe they have markedly improved themselves.

The Clippers (with a potentially healthy Blake Griffin), Portland (a full season with Jusuf Nurkic), Memphis (a supposedly healthy Chandler Parsons), and New Orleans (a full season combining Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins) all believe they have the talent to make the playoffs.

Add in the Warriors and Spurs, both expected to reside at and near the top of the conference throughout the season, and that leaves ten opponents tussling with Utah for only eight postseason slots.

In such an intense and thickly contested race, a bad 14 days to start the season could put the Jazz behind the pack in a race where it looks especially difficult to make up ground.

Who’s Hot?

Alec Burks: It is a marked pleasure to report that Alec Burks hasn’t only been healthy throughout the preseason, but excepting a rough outing against the Lakers may also have been the team’s best player. He played in all five preseason games, averaging nearly 19 minutes a contest, and his play was distinctive for its maturity. Not only did Burks take fewer kamikaze attempts at the rim, but his play was deliberate and intentional; not slow but under control, speed guided by firm decision making. This produced results. Burks ends the short preseason as Utah’s fifth leading scorer (10.8 points), fourth leading assist man (2.4), and fourth leading rebounder (3.6) on a per game basis2. Most impressive of all has been his shooting: 54 percent from the field and better than 44 percent from three. One thing to watch: His lone rough outing against the Lakers was a game played at a much faster pace than the Jazz typically employ, and that seemed to speed him out of his mature game. Burks’ level of control may be something to watch as closely as his health this season.

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Rodney Hood: While most of Hood’s preseason numbers don’t jump off the page, one vital facet of his game does: offensive efficiency. While only getting significant playing time in three of the five games, in that time Hood scorched the net, shooting 63 percent from the field and 69 percent from three! That shooting isn’t sustainable, of course, and Utah’s new primary scorer didn’t contribute much else while on the court3. But Hood’s efficiency at generating points in his new role, if only over several games in the preseason, is encouraging.

Whose Not Hot (Yet)?

Joe Ingles: Ingles is in a tough spot. A consummate and willing role player who can contribute in many ways, he’s best equipped to fill in competitive gaps: needed shooting on many nights, lockdown defense at others, and some games even see him becoming a primary distributor or ball handler. But with a sizable new contract and starting role, the team is counting on him to find a way to employ his varied skills in combination with more consistency than before. He never found comfort in the role in the short preseason. He shot only 33 percent from the field and 25 percent from three, sometimes struggling with his deliberate shooting motion. He frequently plays with various combinations of Gobert, Favors, and Rubio, and those lineups depend on Ingles not just to space the floor but to generate points from the perimeter. He hasn’t yet found a way to meet that need.

Jonus Jerebko: While Quin Snyder would insist that every player has a responsibility to contribute to the team in various ways, the brass tacks answer says that Jerebko is in Utah to drill threes. The only prototypical stretch four on the roster4, Jerebko has shot 36 percent or better from deep in five of the last six seasons. When Utah is struggling to score and teams deliberately compress the lane against Gobert and/or Favors in the paint5, Snyder will want the option of inserting marksmanship without sacrificing height6. Through three preseason games, Jerebko shot a horrid 14 percent from long range, which saw him out of the rotation completely in Utah’s dress rehearsal for the regular season against the Lakers. He’ll get other opportunities, but recall what happened when Trey Lyles, last season’s Jerebko, lost his aim from deep.

Schedule Breakdown

Green = Home opener; Blue = Road; Yellow = Home. (NBA.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Games: 7 (4 home, 3 road)

Back-to-backs: 2 (1 road/home, 1 road/road)

Key Stretch: 4 games in 6 days, two back-to-backs

Likely Wins: 2 – LAL (10/28), DAL (10/30)

Likely Losses: 1 – OKC (10/21)

Toss-ups: 4 – DEN (10/18), @MIN (10/20), @LAC (10/24), @PHX (10/25)

Must Win Games

Lakers at home (10/28) and Dallas at Home (10/30): Essentially the same story in each of these games. While both opponents should be improved7, the Jazz simply have a better combination of talent and experience than either of these teams, something Utah will not be able to claim in most contests against Western competition. Each game is a home game. Each game comes off at least one day’s rest and allows a day’s rest afterward. These are games Utah should win, and this year should-win games will often be must-win games.

Must Watch Games

Denver at home (10/18): While opening night at home goes a long way to making the night must watch, it’s far from the only factor. This will be a night of firsts. For the first time in seven years, Utah will take the floor with no Hayward in uniform. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors will play in tandem, both healthy, both fit. Ricky Rubio may start a bid to lead the NBA in assists while Rodney Hood attempts to become a true NBA number one scorer. Donovan Mitchell will take the stage when it counts, and Alec Burks will finally–FINALLY–get a chance to show what he can really do. To top it all off, beloved former Jazzman8 Paul Millsap will re-enter the conference as part of a team Utah will likely jockey against for playoff position throughout the season. Everything about this says tune in.

Oklahoma City at home (10/21): This is all about getting an early look at a potential9 super team. Russell Westbrook is an ubermensch powered by, I think, cold fusion. Paul George isn’t Kevin Durant, but he’s the next best thing not named Kawhi Leonard. Then throw Carmelo Anthony and his perpetual controversy into the mix and the Thunder will be good. The questions are how good, how much will the internal dynamics of the roster limit their ceiling, and–pertinent to the Jazz here–how quickly it takes for them to hit their stride. This team should be better than Utah. But it’s the perfect time to get them at home, less than a handful of contests into the season.

Variable

Point guard shooting

It’s no secret that Utah’s shooting will likely be the team’s greatest weakness. With Hood, Ingles, Joe Johnson, and perhaps even Burks on the wings, the Jazz should have enough shooting to create a functional offense–unless the point guard exerts anti-gravity on the defense. Rubio is a career 32 percent shooter from deep. Donovan Mitchell, who will likely absorb some minutes at the point10, showed greater willingness than ability to hit the three in the preseason. In fact, both Rubio and Mitchell shot and made the exact same number of three pointers in Utah’s five preseason games: 21 attempts, tied for the team high, with only six makes. That’s under 29 percent shooting. But both have shown the ability to get hot, and both will get open shots as defenses pack the interior against Utah’s size. A hot streak early in the season from one or both point guards would go a long way to getting the team off to a strong start.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Hope you are right about Alex but his defense is still questionable at best and his offense selection would make a rookie blush. Joe Ingles will do what needs to be done, as his shot vs the Lakers again proves.Mitchell has the same need as Alex, shot selection but his defense is out standing. Hopefully Ricky has a year like the last half of last season. Udoh must catch and finish?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I thought Burks’ shot selection was notably improved outside of the Lakers game, when he fell back into playing too fast and taking those questionable long twos. You’re right about Udoh’s problems catching the ball, especially in the pick and roll. Gobert has improved that aspect of his game massively, so hopefully the coaching staff will help Udoh in the same way.

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