Like Denver, the Jazz are rebuilding on the fly. Both traded their superstars away in the middle of the 2011 NBA season, but may not be worse for the wear. Both peaked as losers in the Western Conference Finals — Utah in 2007, losing to San Antonio, and Denver in 2009, losing to Los Angeles. Both were bounced in the first round in last year’s playoffs, and both appear on track to make another run this season.
Around the core nucleus of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, who departed, quite literally, for greener pastures in free agency 2.5 years ago, Utah made 4 consecutive playoff trips from 2006-2010. In February 2011, the Jazz shipped the disgruntled Williams to New Jersey, now Brooklyn, for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, 2 1st-round draft selections and cash considerations. One of those draft picks has yet to be cast, and the other turned into Enes Kanter, likely a fixture of Utah’s frontcourt for years to come, alongside Favors.
As painful as they can be to watch at times, I actually really like this Utah team, particularly their young core of Kanter, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. I see franchise-player potential in Hayward, the 3rd-year SG out of Butler, who has great size, 6’8″, to cleanly release any perimeter shot and/or back down opposing 2-guards. He’s a capable shooter inside and out — a career 45.2% from the field and 39.1% from 3 — who’s a capable driver and deceptively strong finisher. He also gets to the foul line, 4.4 attempts per 27.1 minutes, and then makes them, 83.5%.
In his 2nd season, Burks, another formerly lottery pick, also has tremendous size for his 1-guard spot, at 6’6″. Burks, a willing defender like Hayward, is not as natural a point guard as you would like, averaging only 1.5 assists per game this year. His 10.64 player-efficiency rating does not scream starter, either, but head coach Tyrone Corbin really should be giving Burks (and Hayward, for that matter) more minutes — he’s only getting 17.6 a night, less than Mo Williams, 30; Earl Watson, 33; and Jamaal Tinsley, 35, all of whom probably are not in Utah’s long-term plans.
Setting the future aside for a minute, this team, in the present, is built on its frontcourt. Similar to Memphis’ front of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but not as talented, Utah relies heavily on post scoring from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap; combined, they’re averaging 32.8 points and 16.7 rebounds in 63.5 minutes. Surprisingly, for both Jefferson, 17.7 points per game, and Millsap, 15.1, those are their lowest scoring and rebounding outputs since 2009-10, granted also in their fewest minutes.
When Millsap and Jefferson give way to Kanter, 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14.9 minutes, and Favors, 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 22.2 minutes, the result is a more athletic front, even one where the offense can be more free-flowing. The only 5-man lineup to play at least 100 minutes together this season and have a positive +/- points differential is Tinsley, Hayward, DeMarre Carroll, Kanter and Favors, +6 in 102.9 minutes. (Now that is not to say the Jazz are better without Paul and ‘Big Al,’ who both have top-23 efficiency ratings.)
But as strong and deep as their frontcourt may be, Utah has issues at the 1 and 3. This summer, GM Dennis Lindsey shipped Devin Harris’ expiring deal to Atlanta for 2 years of Marvin Williams, and Williams, the former No. 2 overall pick selected ahead of Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005, has since turned in career lows in points, 7.9; field goal percentage, 41.6%; rebounds, 3.5; and free throw attempts, 1.7. His efficiency rating is a poor 10.49. Carroll, though, brings excellent defense (yet limited range) and is not nearly as much a liability.
Tinsley, Mo Williams and, the latest insert, Earl Watson have all started games at point, sharing the backcourt with combo guard Randy Foye. Williams is clearly the best of the 3, but he’s missed 35 games with a torn ligament in his right thumb, and is probably out until later this month. Tinsley, 29.9%, and Watson, 19.2%, are limited from deep, whereas Mo’s a marksman, 44.1% from the field and 37.6% from 3; the team’s assists leader, at 6.7 per game; and capable of creating his own shot.
Statistically, Utah’s about as middle-of-the-road as they come — their offense scores an 11th-best 98.5 points per game, and their defense allows, you guessed it, 98.5 points, good enough for 17th. Defensively, the fact that opponents shoot a 7th-best 37% from 3 is a concern, but Utah also shoots a 12th-ranked 36% from 3-land. Due to their formidable frontline, the Jazz are 11th, +1.4, in rebound differential, as well as 5th in blocked shots. Even without a true, pass-first point guard, Utah’s 9th in assists, too.
The Jazz, 32-27 and currently the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed, are 3 games up on the No. 9-seeded Lakers, the only real threat outside the top 8 to make a postseason run. But Utah’s schedule is brutal — 5 of their next 6 are on the road, they’ve still got a Texas road swing, and 13 of their remaining 23 games are against likely playoff teams, including 2 each against the Knicks and Thunder, 2 seeds in their respective conferences. Whether Utah could get past either San Antonio, by whom they were swept last year (with only 1 game, Game 4, decided by less than 12 points), or Oklahoma City, is an entirely different story.
But here’s why I love the Jazz — cap flexibility. Next year, assuming Marvin Williams picks up his $7.5 million player option, Utah still only has about $26 million committed to 6 players. Millsap and Jefferson are free agents likely to fetch 8 figures per in free agency, and my guess is one returns, probably Millsap, as Kanter and Favors develop larger roles. Mo, Foye and Carroll are all free agents, and I’m guessing at least Carroll returns on an inexpensive deal.
The earliest Hayward can hit unrestricted free agency is 2015, the same for Favors; Kanter and Burks in 2016. Utah has serious money to play with, its 1st-round pick and, of course, another from Brooklyn. So, in other words, it’s a good time to be a Jazz fan.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.