DimeMag

Why The Jazz Will Make The NBA’s Biggest Leap Next Season

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Quick, who’s had the best offseason in the NBA? Correct, it’s the Golden State Warriors. But who had the second-best offseason? I’ll admit it’s a pretty big drop-off, but taking everything into consideration, there’s a strong case to be made that it was the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz have been getting buzz for years now; they seem perpetually on the cusp of greatness, but they haven’t quite been able to get over the hump. Last year, they finished 40-42, one game short of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. Had Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert not both missed significant time due to injury, Utah probably would have earned its first postseason berth since 2012. While that might have been disappointing at the time, it’s quite likely that had the Jazz made the playoffs, they wouldn’t have been able to make their biggest move of the offseason: trading for George Hill.

By virtue of bouncing ping pong balls, the Jazz were awarded the 12th pick in the NBA draft, which they traded to the Hawks in a three-way deal that sent Hill to the Jazz and Jeff Teague to the Pacers. If that pick lands outside of the lottery, GM Dennis Lindsey might not have been able to swing the trade that shored up his team’s biggest weakness.

Rookie second-rounder Raul Neto was the team’s starter at the point last season after Dante Exum, the fourth pick of the 2015 draft, tore his ACL playing international competition in August of 2015 and was forced to postpone his sophomore campaign. While Neto certainly showed flashes of promise, he was an extremely low-usage player who kind of looked like he was just trying to not screw up. With Hill, the Jazz have a calm, steady hand at the position. Hill’s raw numbers are fairly underwhelming, but much like Mike Conley, he’s an intelligent decision-maker who effects the game in ways that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. He’s improved his shooting from deep, too, averaging a career-high 40.8 percent from downtown last season, despite a downtick in his usage with Paul George and Monta Ellis around. Plus, if you’re looking for stats that demonstrate Hill’s value, his career Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is .146, well above the league average of .100. With Hill starting and Exum coming off the bench, the Jazz have thoroughly upgraded the position they haven’t been able to capably fill since Deron Williams’ departure in 2012.

They also quietly brought in two quality veterans.

For years, Joe Johnson was known primarily for his massive contract, but those days are finally over. After being bought out by the Nets, Johnson proved himself to be a valuable contributor on a Heat team that came within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, the Jazz have him on a manageable two-year, $22 million deal, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t make an impact for Utah off the bench.

With Johnson on board, Quin Snyder has a problem every coach would love to have: how to dole out playing time among his perimeter reserves. Exum’s defensive ability, two-way versatility, and status as a potential franchise cornerstone ensures he’ll play substantial minutes, but they could still be limited by the presence of Alec Burks, another talented playmaker who spent most of 2015-16 sidelined by injury. Where does that leave Johnson? That remains to be seen, especially considering Utah signed another old-timer who’s physical limitations shoe-horn him into the stretch power forward role that Johnson so ably filled with Miami over the final two months of last season.

Boris Diaw’s career might really be on its last legs this time after he was picked up off the scrap heap by the San Antonio Spurs in 2012, but he still brings attributes to the table the Jazz’s other frontcourt players don’t possess. Diaw has a skill-set that is both useful and entertaining. He’s arguably basketball’s most creative passer among true big men, has a delightfully crafty post game, and still must be guarded beyond the arc. Conditioning has been a concern in the past, obviously, but when Diaw is on a team that wins, he tends to be locked in, so that shouldn’t be a problem this year.

The additions of Hill, Johnson, and Diaw made serious, if subtle, improvements to a team that was already on the verge of the playoffs. With a core of Favors, Gobert, and do-it-all wing Gordon Hayward to lead the group of role players surrounding them, there’s no reason why the Jazz can’t make the playoffs, but perhaps win a series and put up a fight in the second round. Utah has enough talent to leapfrog several of last year’s playoff teams from the West. It’s not at all outlandish to suggest they’ll be better than the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and the Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder. Health depending for both teams, the Jazz could even surpass the Memphis Grizzlies. Actually, why not go one step further? If the Los Angeles Clippers falter out of the gate, it’s fair to assume Doc Rivers could pull the trigger on a long-rumored trade involving Blake Griffin before he hits free agency next summer.

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There’s a scenario, basically, in which the Jazz could be the third-best team in the Western Conference this season. Is it unlikely? Absolutely. But that it’s even remotely plausible speaks to just how strong a position Utah is in as late October quickly approaches. For the last few years, we’ve looked at the intriguing young talent in Salt Lake City and wondered when Hayward, Favors, Gobert and company would mature into contenders. With Utah’s biggest weaknesses patched up following a rock-solid summer, it seems we’re finally poised to get a definitive answer.

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