January 16, 2019
The Jazz last year were a tale of two teams. Which one was closer to the truth?

Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Utah Jazz.

1. Are The Jazz A Playoff Contender In 2015-16?

It was a tale of two seasons in 2014-15 for Utah. They won only 17 of their first 50 games under first year head coach Quin Snyder and struggled to find winning combinations of their talented young players. The Jazz had a -3.5 net rating in that time, which would have ranked between the Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets for 23rd on the season. They actually scored at an about league average pace of 102.9 points per 100 possessions, but allowed an atrocious 106.4 on the other end. Only the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves were worse overall.

That’s why Utah’s “second season” was so wildly encouraging. In their final 33 games, the Jazz allowed a highly stingy 95.3 points per 100 possessions en route to a 6.6 net rating, equivalent to San Antonio’s overall number. They were a legitimately good 21-11 to finish the season. And while it’s true that cherry-picking endpoints to contrast two points of a season can be misleading, Utah underwent several midseason changes that bear significance.

By trading Enes Kanter, the Jazz killed two birds with one stone; they removed a negative contributor both on and off the court, but they also gave Rudy Gobert the opportunity to play huge minutes. Kanter is a poor defender who gets exposed especially in pick-and-rolls, the most common NBA action. He averaged over 27 minutes over Utah’s first 50 games and posted a 108.4 defensive rating, worst of any Jazz bigs. Gobert, in a modest 21.9 minutes per night at that point, led Utah’s frontcourt at 102.3.

In the final stretch of the season, Gobert led all Jazz players in minutes and was a key part of their transformation. Derrick Favors flourished defensively playing alongside a bonafide rim protector rather than a liability. An increased role for their young rookie point guard, Dante Exum also contributed to the turnaround. Gobert was the linchpin, perhaps, but the defensive improvement was a team effort.

The Jazz won’t be 17-33 and out of the playoff race in early February next season. With last year’s successful core returning and another year older, Utah should comfortably be a .500 or above team. The Gordon Hayward-Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert combination that soared in Enes Kanter’s absence will have the opportunity to prove that their time is now. A step up from Alec Burks and Rodney Hood could turn Utah into a dangerous contender for a playoff spot.

Players are wired to always believe they have enough talent to win big, as they should. However, Utah’s front office must decide if they are a legitimate playoff team whose window is opening right now or a nucleus that needs one more year of growing pains. The Jazz should and will do everything possible to maximize victories on the court, but risking long-term success to win more this season will be a tricky call.

The Western Conference is historically stacked. The Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies could retool if they lose their respective All-Stars, but they are likely to retain them. If Mark Cuban fails to reinvent the Dallas Mavericks again, they could be in danger as well. On the other hand, Oklahoma City is a near lock to regain its playoff spot, while the New Orleans Pelicans seem unlikely to slip back out of contention with Anthony Davis one year closer to world domination. Utah will have a lot of competition.

The Jazz front office will have to first decide if making the playoffs in the Western Conference is a feasible goal this season. If they believe their team strong enough, their first round pick becomes a very interesting trade piece.

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2. Should The Jazz Trade Their First Round Pick?

With the draft rapidly approaching, it seems more likely than not that Utah will hold onto its pick. Last year’s team transformed so massively internally that the Jazz likely want to see this core continue to coalesce for another season. If they do keep their pick, they could look for a big man or a shooter. [Make sure you peruse BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Official Draft Companion Guide, which includes team needs and possible fits for all 30 teams.]

The Jazz also have to consider trading their pick for an established piece to round out their roster. In particular, Trey Burke and Dante Exum were one of the least productive point guard combinations in the league last season. Exum is the man going forward, but he’ll only turn 20 in July and is far behind offensively. If Utah wants to win this season, trading for a point guard that can competently run their offense is something they must consider.

If the Jazz are hesitant to stunt Exum’s growth, they’re also in desperate need of shooting. Adding a stretch four would be a big offensive boost. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert both operate best closer to the basket, and the Jazz were left without a real back-up big man when they traded Kanter. Another three-and-D wing never hurts either; Utah can be flexible if it really wants to move the 12th pick.

Rookie scale contracts are perhaps the NBA’s most valuable asset, but the Jazz already have several young players under these deals. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have both received lucrative extensions, but Utah is still in great shape going forward with the impending salary cap boom. Leveraging future production for someone who can contribute in 2015-16 would be a highly logical move if Utah is all-in on pushing for the playoffs.

Even if the Jazz were to turn their first round pick into a contributor, what would that buy them? As touched upon above, is there much value in getting more immediate gains, given the mountain that is the West? Perhaps the 21-11 stretch from last season was legitimate, and they can win 50 or 55 games to make the playoffs. They would nevertheless still face a gauntlet of postseason opponents likely to include some combination of Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers.

There is value to making the playoffs, though, even in defeat. Golden State may have lost to the Spurs in 2013, but the confidence they gathered in taking San Antonio to the limit is immeasurable. That experience is hard to quantify, but it prepares teams to prevail in similar situations in the future.

On the other hand, not all playoff experience ends up being ultimately significant. Utah admirably scrapped its way to a playoff spot in 2011-12 and was promptly swept by those same Spurs. Nearly that entire team has been dismantled now as the Jazz wisely allowed Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to move on. Turning up just to lose badly and uncompetitively is not always a good thing.

Still, they’ll have to consider making a push after finishing last season in such a dominating fashion. Gordon Hayward is a legit star on the wings, while Favors and Gobert make one of the most enviable big men combinations in the league. Both New Orleans and Oklahoma City, while more battle-tested, will feature new head coaches that will have to adjust, whereas Quin Snyder established himself as an excellent coach for young players and a fantastic giver of the evil eye in his rookie season.

Even if Utah is hesitant to go all-in on winning now, they can still be flexible with their pick. The Jazz have talent at every position and can select the best player available to them. If other teams are interested in their pick on draft night, Utah can take advantage of that. While much of the talk surrounding their pick has been about acquiring current talent, the Jazz could just as easily trade down and stock more assets. If they aren’t likely to make the playoffs, there’s no hurt in sacrificing a little production now.

When the Jazz make a decision on their draft pick, we should gain a much clearer understanding of their intentions. A trade for an older player would be a clear indication of an aggressive strategy. But if they simply select another rotation player or trade down, it is likely that the front office believes they are still a year away.

Five Questions: AtlantaBostonBrooklynChicagoClevelandDenverDetroitIndianaL.A. LakersMemphisMiamiMilwaukeeNew OrleansNew YorkOklahoma CityOrlandoPhiladelphiaPortlandSan AntonioTorontoUtahWashington

3. Is Dante Exum Ready To Run The Team?

Having grown up in Australia and being just 18 years old, Exum was the most mysterious player in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Jazz selected him fifth, one year after fellow point guard Trey Burke was selected ninth overall. Burke began the season as the lead guard and continued to struggle as a traditional floor general on both ends, yielding the role to Exum in late January.

The Jazz began their turnaround in February and Exum undoubtedly contributed defensively. His 94.4 defensive rating and +9.0 net rating in that time were second only to Derrick Favors among Jazz starters, per NBA.com. However, he remained one of the least productive offensive players in the NBA. Exum averaged just 5.1 points and 2.7 assists in the 41 games that he started. He only shot 31% from long range, but his 35% mark overall was even more discouraging.

Exum wasn’t expected to produce much in his rookie year, but he failed to do much of anything. Luckily, he was only 19 all of last season and will assuredly gain muscle and strength as he gets older. He’s already shown strong skills around the bucket: he made 73.1% of shots from within three feet last season. Anywhere else inside the arc, however, he shot below 30% on.

If he’s unable to shoot significantly closer to league average, it will be hard for Utah to start Exum on a competitive team. He’s too small to power into the lane and is still developing good enough court vision to navigate NBA defenses. While he converted a superb amount of his shots near the rim, they only made up 12.5% of his attempts. Threes accounted for over 63% his shots, so the Jazz can’t afford for Exum to miss that badly from deep again.

Another area where Exum must improve is his involvement offensively. Last season, he used only 13.8% of possessions when on the floor. Because the Jazz also start another low-usage player in Rudy Gobert, it’s crucial that Exum finds a way to use more possessions. Last season he was unable to create separation or finish through contact, so he resorted to hanging out around the perimeter.

Given last season’s results, it is going to be very tough for Dante Exum to produce near the level of an NBA starting point guard. For Utah, though, that may be a blessing in disguise. Ultimately, they are going to be big underdogs to make the playoffs no matter how they approach the offseason. Allowing Exum to continue experiencing growing pains as a big minutes starter is a highly justifiable way to ensure more favorable draft positioning. The Jazz have no interest in tanking, but sticking with Exum could ultimately be an opportunity to maximize their next draft pick.

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4. How Will Quin Snyder Divvy Up The Minutes On The Wings?

Of Utah’s wing players, only Gordon Hayward is assured of having a big role. Hayward is the team’s offensive centerpiece, a legitimate playmaking scorer who can also dish the ball. After him, though, Quin Snyder has a handful of young players who will be fighting to earn their spots.

Alec Burks seems likely to reclaim his job as the starting shooting guard after undergoing shoulder surgery to end his 2014-15. He struggled last season, shooting just 40.3%, but it’s difficult to say how much the nagging shoulder woes caused that. Burks doesn’t have any one elite skill (though he did knock down over 38% of his triples last season) but he contributes across the board. Unless he’s traded, then, Snyder will likely play Burks heavily as he’s entering the first year of a $40 million contract.

However, in Burks’s extended absence last season, rookie Rodney Hood made a strong case of his own. Hood was the 23rd pick of last year’s draft and flourished when he got his chance, looking like a blossoming three-and-D wing in the second half of the year. In 26 games after the All-Star break, Hood shot 46.4% overall and a scorching 42% from the three point line. The Jazz had a 7.8 net rating with Hood on the floor in those games.

Snyder will have to decide which young wing to start and which will be a weapon off the bench. His second team will also include Trey Burke, who seemed more comfortable leading that unit last season. Burke is a far higher usage player than Exum, increasing his rate from 21.8% in his rookie season to 23.9 in 2014-15. It thus makes sense to pair Exum with the active Burks, and the sharpshooting Hood with Trey Burke to find him on the wings.

Utah also has Elijah Millsap, a highly skilled defensive player, and the Australian point forward Joe Ingles. While Ingles held up amidst injuries to other wings last season, he’s likely to lose most of his minutes, but Millsap proved his worth on the defensive end last season and will surely work his way into Snyder’s rotation. Past Hayward, the Jazz lack another complete wing player; however, their wings offer various skill sets that compliment their other players. It will be interesting to watch the minutes distribution unfold.

5. What Will A Full Season Of Rudy Gobert And Derrick Favors Look Like?

The most exciting aspect of Utah’s new defensive identity last season was the twin towers of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. With both players locked and loaded for 2015-16, the Jazz will get to experience a full year of their dynamic combination.

After Kanter was shipped off, the two started together for the rest of the season. While much of Utah’s defensive resurgence was credited to the combination, they were more effective in isolation. Per nbawowy, the Jazz actually had a net rating of just 3.5 when Gobert and Favors shared the floor in the final 32 games. Their offense remained near its overall level in that stretch, but the defensive rating jumped to 99.9 points per 100 possessions.

Also via nbawowy, the Jazz scored 111 points per 100 possessions with Favors on the floor and Gobert on the bench after Kanter was traded. They allowed just 96.3 in that time – extrapolated over a full year, that figure would easily lead the league. Additionally, when Gobert played without Favors, the Jazz outscored opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions. Overall, it’s clear that both Favors and Gobert have contributed to Utah’s success. It’s also obvious that Favors is the superior player right now.

Gobert received the lion’s share of the credit for Utah’s defensive charge as he largely replaced Kanter’s minutes. However, it was really Favors who emerged as a bonafide star in that time. He averaged 16.4 points and 8.4 boards on 50% shooting and posted a team-high 9.9 net rating in the final 32 games. Both Favors and Gobert will be big parts of the Jazz going forward, but the wildly exciting Gobert perhaps has more to improve on than is commonly thought. A full season of the two starting together should tell Utah a lot about what its frontcourt will look like going forward.

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Jake Weiner

Jake Weiner is a Chicagoan and a graduate of Vanderbilt University. He spends much of his free time breaking down and enjoying the NBA. In addition to contributing at BBALLBREAKDOWN, Jake also writes for Today's Fastbreak and co-founded and manages DRosesAndThorns.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JakeWeinerNBA.

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