A franchise known for its continuity made a number of changes over the summer; it remains to be seen whether Utah’s active offseason translates into an improved on-court product. Several such scenarios are entirely plausible given the makeup of the team – youth everywhere on the roster and an incoming coaching staff expected to take a very different approach from the one being replaced. Conversely, these same elements and their many unknown qualities leave plenty of potential room for many of the same frustrations that plagued the team last season.
Let’s take a look at both ends of this spectrum. I’ve split relevant on-court elements into identifiable groups, and what follows are some best case/worst case scenarios for the upcoming season1.
Grouped together both by convenience and Quin Snyder’s stated desire to play a more positionless brand of basketball, Utah’s contingent of rotation wings and guards offers a wide range of possibilities. Just look at the ages of the projected rotation: Trey Burke (21), Gordon Hayward (24), Alec Burks (23), Dante Exum (19), Rodney Hood (21) and even complimentary pieces Carrick Felix (24) and Ian Clark (23)2 are all under 25, and of them only Hayward has finished his rookie contract.
Shooting will be under the microscope for a team that struggled badly here last year. The team was 26th league-wide in three-point percentage, 24th between eight and 16 feet and 25th between 16 and 24 feet, per NBA.com. The guards (including Hayward, who is listed as such on NBA.com) shot just 32.5 percent from beyond the arc, the third-worst mark for a guard rotation in the league. Systemic issues as well as simple lack of shot-making contributed here; per shot distribution data compiled by Ian Levy3, the Jazz were 22nd in XPPS (Expected Points Per Shot, a rough measure of shot attempt quality) and 23rd in Actual PPS, meaning both their shot selection and ability to beat league averages from these locations were subpar. Slightly more condemning was their 29th-ranked 40.7 percent mark on all uncontested shots4, per SportVU data.
There are plenty of signs that suggest a turnaround is possible, however. Both Hayward and Burke had uncharacteristically bad shooting years given what was known about them previously, and another year of development for both plus expected schematic changes could change their fortunes around quickly. Each has certainly proven more capable in the past – Hayward has two 40-percent-plus seasons from three, and Burke shot over 38 percent on high volume as the first option in his 2012-13 year at Michigan. Further, the addition of Hood (and Steve Novak, though he’s technically part of the big rotation) should help loosen things up somewhat.
Best Case: Burke and Hayward thrive in a system designed to take the pressure off them individually, and Burks builds on a quietly excellent year as a spot-up shooter last season (46 percent overall and 43.2 percent from deep, per Synergy). Hood establishes himself as a bona fide sharpshooter with the ability to bend defenses, and Exum’s form and legs are solid enough to approach average as a jump-shooter. Even bigs like Novak, Trevor Booker and Enes Kanter get in on the fun with expanding ranges, and the Jazz turn a bottom-10 shooting team into a borderline top-10 unit.
Worst Case: Burke’s shot selection woes continue to hurt him, Hayward can’t rediscover his stroke from seasons past, and Burks returns to the sort of inconsistency that had been present before last year’s breakout campaign. Hood is too weak defensively to get on the floor much, and Exum has all sorts of trouble adjusting to the NBA game. The bigs aren’t able to generate consistency or spacing, and Utah is again among the league’s worst shooting teams.
Favors, Kanter and Gobert form an intriguing three-man rotation fit-wise, and how each develops will play a big role in future plans. Booker and Novak, the former in particular, may eat chunks of minutes in certain scenarios, especially if the above-discussed shooting again suffers and neither Favors nor Gobert shows any real improvement there.
There are questions on both sides of the ball; can Kanter, Booker and Novak offer enough defensively to warrant significant playing time? And on the other side of the coin, can Favors and Gobert progress enough on the offensive end to stay on the court and impose their rim protecting will against helpless opponents? Can Jeremy Evans build on a career high in minutes from last season and carve a place for himself on this or another NBA roster once his contract expires next summer? The answers should start to become clearer before long.
Best Case: Gobert’s summer high lingers into the NBA season, where he shows enough as a pick-and-roll dunker to give the Jazz 30 minutes a night of elite rim protection without sacrificing the entire offense. Favors continues last year’s brutally efficient numbers as a roll man in P&R sets while further developing his post game and jumper, and Kanter is revitalized defensively under Snyder with a range extending out to the corner 3. Booker and Novak stretch defenses while on the floor while doing enough to get by on defense, and the frontcourt is quietly a huge improvement on last season.
Worst Case: None of that happens; Gobert can barely crack the rotation without breaking the offense, Kanter is awful again on defense, and the Jazz enter next summer with more questions at the big positions than answers.
There’s seemingly nowhere to go but up here; a league-worst defense last season can hopefully only improve. It’s likely Snyder will employ fewer lineups with just a single big man on the floor, something Ty Corbin leaned on heavily last season that contributed to the defensive issues. As discussed above and in many other places, a Favors-Gobert pairing down low that can function offensively would be a huge boon to the overall team defense.
Real question marks remain as far as the guards and wings go, however. Both Utah’s picks, Exum and Hood, project as minuses, and Burke had a bevy of issues he’s unlikely to have fully solved over the offseason. Hayward certainly has room to return to the above-average defensive form he had shown in the past, especially if Snyder’s system takes some of the load off him on both ends of the floor, but there will be lots of pressure on him and Burks to contain top opponents on the wings. And if Hayward is again subpar, there could be real trouble; I’m higher than most on Burks’ defense, but he’d have to take yet another leap into the league’s truly elite wing defenders to support all the other holes.
Best Case: Favors and Gobert see a lot of the court, including plenty of time together. Hayward is energized in his new role and thrives in a switch-able two-man wing unit with Burks, who has improved on his off-ball defense to the point where it functions on the same level as his on-ball prowess. Burke, Exum and Hood leverage a more effective team scheme into acceptable showings for their position, and the team approaches league average defensively.
Worst Case: Hayward is again forced into too large a role, tiring him out and limiting him defensively. Burks gets the tougher wing assignments as a result, but also wears out with an increased role and fails to develop away from the ball. The rest of the young wings struggle, Favors and Gobert are unplayable together offensively, and Kanter, Booker and Novak are all liabilities. The team again finishes dead last in defensive efficiency.
A relatively straightforward theme here – the people determining the lineups, teaching the youth, and calling the plays are mostly different from last year. Incoming head man Snyder is among the league’s new guard of younger coaches, and brings with him the promise of more creativity along with lauded player development. He and his staff with have their work cut out for them right away with one of the youngest rosters in the league, and while no one expects an immediate turnaround into playoff contention, how they fill the previous year’s holes while building on its positives should be a sign of things to come.
Best Case: Snyder is the protégé Jazz fans were hoping for, both with his on-court systems and his player development. The team identifies with a younger, more relatable staff, and several of the core pieces make leaps amid an infinitely improved team culture.
Worst Case: The Jazz struggle with a tough early season schedule and several new rotation pieces, and some of Snyder’s lack of NBA head coaching experience is exposed. He isn’t quickly able to build a camaraderie with his players, and the same sort of disjointed culture as the last couple of campaigns again creeps to the forefront. His systems are well-intentioned, but a combination of these factors and a simple lack of developed NBA talent leads to a rough first year behind the bench for Snyder5.