After what seemed like endless August and September doldrums, the season has snuck up on us in a hurry. The first regular season NBA games will be played two weeks to the day after this column’s publishing, and the Jazz will start their year off in Detroit one day later.
With that in mind, it’s time to carry on a couple time-tested end-of-preseason traditions1. That’s right, it’s Jazz best case and worst case scenarios for the upcoming season.
A quick glance at this column from last year reveals just what makes this concept so fun. Even while sticking to an incredibly broad range of outcomes to cover my backside, I managed to wildly miss the mark in a couple areas, most notably Utah’s eventual defensive dominance. A few others were spot on, to my credit, but the entire exercise highlights just how much can change over the course of a long and busy NBA season.
The format will stay the same as last year also — we’ll break things down into a few simple areas, based on ease of organization and a few specific points of emphasis for this team. Injuries will be mostly left out of the final tally, as they’re virtually always the worst case scenario.
The degrees have certainly changed in several places in a year’s time, but the Jazz enter this season with similar sorts of questions on the perimeter, and particularly at the point. Last October came wonder at whether Dante Exum could have enough impact in his rookie year to assume the starting role; this time around, it’s whether Trey Burke, Raul Neto and Bryce Cotton can do enough in Dante’s stead to keep the position afloat.
The nuggets we can glean from preseason play have been tepid at the very best. Burke has slimmed down and seems more comfortable as a distributor within the offense, but still has a long way to go with his shot selection and accuracy. Neto’s 26.3 percent shooting from the field comes on a small sample, but is still a legitimate concern despite some exciting moments defensively. Cotton appears firmly last in line at this point and may know it, pressing on several occasions in his single appearance. Worst of all, coach Quin Snyder seems to be growing more and more comfortable with eschewing a traditional point guard for wing-and-big-only units, which have been noticeably more successful in four preseason games than those featuring one of the points.
The wing rotation is clearer, and quickly threatening to challenge Utah’s frontcourt as the team’s strongest and deepest overall area. Gordon Hayward looks like a borderline superstar despite a rough outing Monday night, and a return to form plus some from Alec Burks2 would easily offset any jitters from Rodney Hood within a larger role. Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap could play 25 minutes a night for several teams in this league. The largest concerns here are likely injury; Hood and Burks both missed chunks last year, and Hayward’s health is more important than any other individual on the roster by a long shot.
Best Case: One of Burke or Neto makes a big leap — Burke overall, Neto mainly on the offensive end — and is capable of giving the Jazz 25 to 30 positive minutes a night at the point without severely limiting the team in one area or another. Cotton remains on the roster as a change of pace capable of stepping up for larger minutes when one of the other two slumps or is banged up. Hayward is the franchise’s first All-Star since their rebuild, and Burks and Hood both continue their upward trajectories enough that Quin Snyder can leave at least one of the three on the floor at all times and feel confident about perimeter playmaking. Ingles continues his excellent clip from long range seen in the latter half of last season, and Millsap ticks his own accuracy from deep up just enough to function as Utah’s late-game shutdown defender without negative effects on the other end.
Worst Case: Burke is unable to make any tangible improvements on last season, Neto is such a liability as a scorer that the offense collapses when he plays, and Cotton isn’t an NBA player in virtually any respect. The team is scouring the trade market for a stopgap at the point by mid-December. Hayward finally sees some residual effects of an entire NBA offense mostly on his shoulders, and hits a wall with fatigue. Burks is active but fails to develop within Snyder’s system, and Hood sputters in his second year. Millsap is such a disaster shooting that he’s limited to spot minutes, and Ingles reverts back to his early 2014 ways as a hesitant offensive player.
How close was the back half of last season to a best-case scenario for Utah’s frontcourt? Rudy Gobert nearly won Most Improved Player despite only starting 37 games, Derrick Favors turned heads on both ends and joined Rudy as one of the game’s premier rim protectors, and Trevor Booker octupled his career attempts from 3 at a respectable accuracy while providing stability off the bench and in the locker room. Meanwhile, the Jazz shed their only lingering problem child and, as a bonus, inherited a potential rotation player this season as part of the package for a guy who was gone in six months anyway.
Things could still improve, particularly the back end of the big rotation. Trey Lyles has a sizable ceiling, even if it’s likely he doesn’t realize most of it for a few years. Tibor Pleiss clearly has a long way to go with NBA-level strength and tactics, but just a few makes from deep could turn him into an intriguing spacing piece in a hurry. And if he’s completely incapable of staying on the floor, early indications are that Jeff Withey will be a comfortable option for 10 to 15 minutes a night.
The more pertinent questions might honestly be with the bigger names, and whether they have a whole lot of realistic room for improvement left — especially as teams are much more cognizant of their presence and work to make their lives difficult. Can they remain similarly effective with teams scheming against their strengths, and in particular looking to downsize on them? Does Gobert have enough offensive ceiling left to make the Rudy-Derrick duo matchup-proof? No one would dare doubt these two overall, but with sky-high expectations and a league trending away from their key qualities, they have their work cut out for them.
Best Case: Gobert blows us all away once again, this time with the introduction of enough workable post moves to stop teams trying to hide wings on him defensively, plus an uptick to the 70 percent range from the line. Favors goes from good last year to great this year as a midrange shooter, and locks down enough stretch bigs that opposing coaches give up on super small units against the Favors-Gobert duo. Booker more than doubles his 3-point attempts and gains recognition as a legitimate stretch big, and Pleiss is dangerous enough also to allow Snyder the use of five-out spacing units. Lyles hits a few developmental benchmarks ahead of schedule, Withey is Gobert-lite defensively and the Jazz have the most complete top-to-bottom frontcourt in the NBA.
Worst Case: The starting tandem struggles consistently with spacing on both ends of the floor, forcing Snyder to separate them for longer and longer stretches as the year wears on. Booker’s deep stroke plummets as he increases his sample size, and issues like last week’s Roy Hibbert altercation become too common as his play suffers. Pleiss is such a liability down low that he can’t even play against bench-only units, Lyles is two years away from being two years away at NBA speed, and Withey is useless beyond the occasional block or dunk. Booker bolts in free agency and the Jazz are suddenly stuck with an identity crisis in the frontcourt just months removed from one of the brightest situations in the league3.
If last season was close to the frontcourt’s collective ceiling, the defense was hanging out on the roof following the All-Star break. Not even a year after showcasing the league’s most porous unit, the Jazz found themselves on a historic end-of-season pace that would blast any best-case scenario out of the water if they somehow maintained it for the entirety of the upcoming season.
By this point, anyone paying attention knows the book here. Versatility is now the name of the game for a team that proved emphatically last year it won’t be beaten inside. Teams fighting fire with fire against the likes of Gobert and Favors will go home with burns, but how the Jazz adapt to other tactics will determine whether they can remain among the league’s elite.
Best Case: As noted above, teams find little success attacking the Favors-Gobert front line with spacing as Utah’s tall trees dominate the glass enough to make them a liability. Neto is a consistent headache for opposing point guards, and at least one of Cotton or Burke progresses enough to keep things afloat. Burks picks up the finer points of Snyder’s scheme quickly, harnessing his full physical potential and making three-wing lineups a stifling mess of length and speed. The Jazz have enough versatility to combat any look teams throw at them and are the league’s best defense by a sizable margin.
Worst Case: The Jazz are shot into submission by teams who realize early on they can space the floor effectively without being hurt on the opposite end. Gobert has trouble with teams using more trickery and misdirection to stunt his impact, and Favors is too lurchy to guard the perimeter consistently. The point guard situation is terrible defensively, with Neto so hopeless on the other end that he can’t stay in games. Utah’s defensive identity crumbles and they regress back to around league average.
If we’re to take the preseason to this point at face value, scoring points will be the primary concern for this Jazz team. Utah is averaging 92.4 points per-100-possession in their four games, a mark even the 76ers topped for the full season last year.
There are issues everywhere. Units with Favors and Gobert together have trouble spacing the floor, and Utah’s shooting remains too shaky at the moment to capitalize even when they can create good looks4. Burks has been fantastic, but apart from Alec and Hayward, the Jazz have demonstrated basically no ability to create separation and get defenses moving.
Tempo remains a big concern as well, something I addressed at length after Monday’s loss to Portland. The Jazz will find uphill sledding all year if they can’t make things easier on themselves, and while it’s still early, the feeling that this group might live and die by their ability to score regularly is becoming unshakable.
Best Case: Issues with limited practice time and new bits of offensive emphasis prove to be primary causes for Utah’s preseason malaise, and the group finds new life once the cobwebs are shaken off. Crisper and more efficient offensive process trickles down to shooting comfort, and things gradually build on themselves as the Jazz are able to open the floor up in the right ways. At least one of Booker, Pleiss or Lyles becomes a legitimate stretch big who draws real interest from opponents. Favors and Gobert pound smaller groups into the ground on the offensive boards, while the Hayward/Burks/Hood trio combines to form the most lethal wing combination in the league. The Jazz are a borderline top-10 offense and maybe even crack single digits.
Worst Case: Basically, none of the above. The group continues to struggle to generate good looks with a simple lack of offensive talent, issues multiplying across the board as confidence wanes. Hayward needs a week-long nap by December with all the work he’s doing just to grind out 95 points a night. The point guard situation is so awful that Utah nearly abandons them with primary lineups, but even wing-heavy units don’t get the job done. Gobert stagnates, Favors regresses both from midrange and overall, and none of the team’s other bigs can even sniff a respectable reputation from range. The Jazz are a bottom-five offense with more questions than answers heading into a pivotal 2016 offseason.