It is almost time, ladies and gentlemen. Basketball season is upon us, with the Jazz traveling to Hawaii to begin their preseason schedule and end the long wait for hoops. With the season nigh, ESPN’s Marc Stein released his NBA Power Rankings. There were no surprises at the top with the Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs rounding out the top three. Stein ranked the Utah Jazz the 16th-best team in the league. With regard to placing the Jazz at 16, Stein wrote the following:
“The Jazz are oft-mentioned as a prime candidate to make the leap into the West’s top eight, which isn’t the craziest idea once you remember how close they actually came last season at 38-44. The key, besides Utah’s Rudy Gobert-anchored D, might well be whether Alec Burks’ return can offset the loss of Dante Exum.”
Stein hits on one of the biggest questions facing the Jazz this year: What will the return of Alec Burks mean for Utah?
Before we look at the numbers, it must be said that Alec Burks is certainly not a point guard, nor is he Dante Exum. Exum’s ceiling surpasses Burks’ without question, making Exum’s future with the organization much brighter. Alec Burks is not replacing Exum, which is why I believe Stein choose “offset” to describe the Burks-Exum dynamic. But what will Burks do to make up for the loss of Exum? Let’s take a look.
For his career, Alec Burks is a 43.6 percent shooter from the field and 35.6 percent shooter from three. While those numbers are not particularly stellar in their own right, compared to Dante Exum’s rookie season they are a dream. Exum had a field goal percentage of 34.9 and only connected on 31.4 percent of his shots from behind the arc. With Burks in the lineup, the Jazz instantly become both a better shooting team than they were last year and a more aggressive team.
For much of last year, Dante Exum’s offensive approach could have been defined as “sheepish.” Oftentimes Exum was afraid to make a mistake by forcing the issue, hindering the offense from reaching its full potential. That certainly won’t be a problem with Burks, who’s notorious for attacking the basket. In his last full season, Burks took 831 shots — 337 of those shots came in the restricted area. In contrast, Exum only took 64 shots in the restricted area.
Burks’ aggression alone could be the catalyst for a more effective offense, one more akin to Quin Snyder’s genius. Since Exum was never a true threat to score, defenders were never faced with the choice of staying home or helping out. Even when driving to the hoop, Exum was looking for the lob pass rather than the layup. Place Alec Burks in that situation and defenders will have to decide if they want to try to take away the driving lane, the lob pass or the kick out for three. That indecisiveness on defense due to Burks’ willingness to attack could be exploited for wide open shots or trips to the charity stripe.
Although Burks provides an instant boost to the offense, the numbers would suggest he is not the defender that Dante Exum is. Last season with Burks on defense, opposing players shot 5.6 percent better than their average. But the real problem isn’t with Burks’ on-ball defense, it’s when his man isn’t part of the action. Oftentimes Burks will get lost ball watching while his man slips backdoor for an easy bucket. Last season Burks had a defensive rating of 111.1, a far cry from Exum’s 99. Due to his unfortunate injury, Burks was only able to play 899 minutes, 608 alongside Enes Kanter — which might explain why it would appear opponents were scoring at will with Burks on the floor. However, when playing alongside Rudy Gobert, Burks’ defensive rating was still 108.7, per NBA.com. Despite having one of the best rim protectors in the league behind him, opposing teams had success. Hopefully, with a year of observing from the sidelines, Burks has been able to learn from his mistakes so as not to repeat them.
So will the return of Alec Burks truly offset losing Dante Exum for the year? Will Burks’ offensive ability make up for his defensive liability? Only time will tell. Whether Burks starts or comes off the bench is also a consideration yet to be determined. These questions will be answered soon enough.