The 2015-16 NBA Season starts in less than two weeks, preseason hoops are in full swing, and playoff prognostications have begun in earnest. Since season previews can get bogged down by team-specific minutiae, and we cover every basketball team, we’re providing our readers reasons why you should care about all 30 teams in the Association.
The Jazz have become the favorites of the basketball blogger coterie you love so much on Twitter. They were terrific last year after dealing Enes Kanter at the trade deadline and many of your favorite basketball writers have them as their sleeper eight seed in the Western Conference.
But basketball bloggers aren’t the casual, basketball-watching public we’re talking to in these preview pieces, and — on their surface — the Jazz just aren’t very sexy. Never mind that they play in a state that’s primarily known as the focal point of a moralistic minority religion, or that their best player, Gordon Hayward, is something of a nerd. Basketball dorks love them, and so should you.
There’s a reason basketball writers love them, and it’s got as much to do with how uncool they are as it does with the simple fact they play great team basketball. There are no superstars, so they’re forced to work as a unit if they’re going to have any sort of success in a Conference loaded with more talented teams.
Aside from that rather rah rah team > individual pitch, here are two more reasons you should absolutely care about the 2015-16 Utah Jazz.
The impenetrable wall of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors
Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert played less than 900 minutes together last season. They would have played even fewer if Enes Kanter — he of the pretty touch around the basket and borderline criminal inability to defend — hadn’t been dealt to the Thunder at the deadline. But the move opened up a spot for Gobert to become the beast down on the block, and combined with Favors, the two-main unit allowed the fewest points per possession among Jazz tandems who appeared in at least 50 games together (they appeared in 56).
In fact, when we look at two-man groups throughout the entire NBA after last year’s All-Star break, four Jazz players — Gobert, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum — are featured in some combination within the top five spots.
This is why the Jazz ranked No. 1 — by a significant margin (4.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than the next-best Milwaukee Bucks) — in points allowed per possession after the All-Star break. Before the break, with Kanter as the starter, they were No. 27. That’s how bad Enes defends (enjoy Billy Donovan) and just how well Gobert has proven to be at protecting the rim.
Among players who appeared in at least 50 games and defended against at least three field goal attempts at the rim per game, Gobert held opponent’s to their lowest field goal percentage at the rim. Derrick Favors was No. 7 on that list, by the way. And among those top-10 defensive obstacles patrolling the paint, only Gobert, Favors, Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka averaged over 25 minutes per game.
So combining Gobert and Favors together almost isn’t fair. They’re an immovable blockade, which is saying something in the topsy-turvy, jack a ton of three’s, spread the floor, everyone has a green light, no hand-checking-allowed contemporary NBA. They’re the Grizzlies, basically, but without the cool alliterative moniker to explain their style, or Tony Allen to personify it.
Instead, the Jazz just shut teams down, and the Gobert-Favors tandem is the biggest reason why. Yes, Quin Snyder started bringing Trey Burke off the bench and implemented Dante Exum as the starting point guard, and yes Exum is out for the year as Burke attempts to shoulder the starting load again, but it’s not like Burke wasn’t playing heavy minutes coming off the bench anyway.
Gobert and Favors’ defense won’t jump out at you right away, though the Stifle Tower is more than happy to bring his defense to the usual rec-league looseness of the
Rookie – Sophomore Rising Stars Challenge Game. And Gobert, unlike his normally taciturn teammate, doesn’t mind telling you about his defensive prowess.
Neither do we.
But all the tape we put together for this post will only satiate our desire to nerd out on defense, and could very well put you to sleep. The next time the Jazz play, just watch No. 15 and 27 throttle all comers.
We’ll get more granular on their brilliance after the season starts.
Gordon Hayward, point forward
Gordon Hayward is underrated. That seems to be universally understood by those who follow the league closely. The 25-year-old has a rare combination of length and bulk, is far more athletic than his perfectly coiffed haircut suggests, and boasts the picture-perfect stroke normally reserved for knockdown three-point marksmen.
But what sets Hayward apart from all but a select few – each of whom are full-fledged stars, by the way – is his ability as a playmaker. The Butler product is a small forward in name only; for all intents and purposes, he’ll be the Utah Jazz’s floor general this season, and a very good one at that.
Only five non-point guards in basketball averaged at least 19 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 2014-15: James Harden, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, and Hayward. While his name sticks out like a sore thumb among that quintet in terms of career accomplishments and national fame, Hayward’s impact for Utah will be something close to resembling the others on that list.
He’s a comfortable, canny pick-and-roll ball handler, often wrong-footing defenders by rejecting screens to crease the teeth of a defense. Unlike most creators, Hayward can make all types of plays from that tricky mid-range area, too: A pull-up jumper; quick pocket pass to a rolling Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert; skip to a shooter in the weak-side corner; or another dribble to further probe the defense.
Combined with his prowess both in transition and isolation, that wholly unique ability makes the 6’8 swingman one of the league’s most versatile offensive players. And if he helps Utah make good on all of its promise by leading the team to a playoff berth in 2015-16, it certainly won’t be long until Hayward receives the praise he’s due – if he doesn’t get it even before then with an All-Star selection in February, of course.