NBA Season Preview: Utah Jazz

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dwilliams_high5.jpgLast season: 53-29, they won the Northwest division and got four seed in the West. Then Mehmet Okur went down the first game of the playoffs. The Jazz still got by the Nuggets but the Lakers proved to be too much in the second round. (Which is probably exactly what happens if Okur is healthy.)

Head Coach: Jerry Sloan, who I think has been in Utah since the days of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Key Departures: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Wes Mathews, a sense that things will be the same in Utah.

Key Additions: Al Jefferson, Raja Bell, draft pick Gordon Hayward, a sense of hope that Jefferson can make the Jazz better.

Best case scenario: Another good regular season, the team really gels in the playoffs and they make it all the way to the Western Conference finals. Then Deron Williams is so excited he announces he wants to sign an extension in Utah.

For that to happen: The second part of that is not going to happen, at least not that way. Deron Williams has not gone public the way others have this summer, but both sides can see the next contract looming as a future issue. Williams is under contract this season and next, with a player option for the third year. There are a lot of questions — including what the new CBA looks like — before we talk about Williams leaving Utah, but if he feels the franchise is not committed enough to winning next season could be about where he goes.

As for this season…

Al Jefferson is going to have to fit his game into the Jazz system. Which is no given. Jefferson got 56.8 percent of his shots last season getting the ball in the post, while only about one time a game did he set the pick in the high-screen. Jefferson shot pretty well when he did set those picks, but it is not something Minnesota used him to do often. Jefferson also did not get many points in transition, something Boozer did quite well.

The Jazz get a lot of shots at the rim — they were third in the league in shot attempts at the rim per game last season at 31.3, and they shot a very good 63.5 percent on those — but they do it more through cuts and a motion offense than traditional sets. Like a post up.

Jefferson can certainly play the Utah — err, we mean Sloan — way, but it could be an adjustment. We also have to see how Jefferson fits in once Okur returns. To start the season Jefferson will be more of an Okur replacement than a Boozer replacement.

That will mean more Paul Millsap, which is good for everyone. He’ll need to grab more boards (a strength of Boozer) and continue to score efficiently in more minutes. This is a guy who deserved a big chance and now it is here.

It’s a lot easier for Jefferson to fit in when you have Williams as your point guard. He is the perfect guard for the Jazz system — he can drive the lane, knock down the three, has great floor vision and a nearly 3-1 assist to turnover ratio. Every team game plans to stop Williams, nobody does it. So long as the Jazz have him, they will be good (which brings us back to keeping him).

Hayward has a lot expected of him as rookie, essentially having to step in and take over the Korver designated shooter role. That’s a lot to ask of a kid making a big leap in competition level. Raja Bell will bring the “threes and D” energy off the bench, but at age 34 entering his 11th season in the league you know what you are getting (and you may get a little less of it).

As always, the real X-Factor with the Jazz is Andrei Kirilenko. When he is healthy he is a game changer, a high-flying shot blocker who can drain the three. He stretches the floor, gets to the line and is generally a matchup nightmare for everyone else. But he has missed nearly a quarter of the Jazz’s games the last two seasons ad played in just two playoff games last year. Without him they are much easier to match up with along the front line — and with a big expiring contract ($17.8 million) he could be moved anyway to save money (he was almost part of the Carmelo Anthony four-team deal). Basically, the Jazz can’t count on Kirilenko to be there for them all season.

More likely the Jazz will: Be a little bit worse than they were last year but basically what they have been for a long time — good but not quite good enough. Jefferson will be close to a wash for Boozer, but Bell and Hayward will be a step back from Korver and Mathews. The Jazz will be entertaining, play pretty basketball, but not be contenders. Williams will amaze, Jefferson will be a nice fit, Kirilenko will show flashes but disappoint, Millsap will hustle, the rookies will play like rookies, Bell will be solid but not fantastic.

They will hover around the 50-win mark, maybe win in the first round (depending on matchups) then be out by the second round.

Prediction: 48-34, with a six or seven seed in the West. A tough first round matchup for someone.

Joel Embiid: “I feel 100 percent”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on prior to the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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After missing two entire seasons, all signs are pointing to 2014 No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid finally taking the court this season. Last week, Sixers coach Brett Brown said that Embiid has looked great in his workouts and is on track to play in the preseason, and Embiid himself echoed that sentiment over the weekend. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Marc Narducci that he feels “100 percent.”

There’s always a possibility and fear that Embiid’s recurring foot problems will come back, but for now, all indications are that he’s feeling good and will be able to contribute this season, which should make Sixers fans excited.

Evan Fournier pokes fun at his ‘NBA 2K’ likeness

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 07:  Evan Fournier #10 of the Orlando Magic dribbles the ball against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 7, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The release of NBA 2K17, the latest edition of the popular 2K video-game series, is less than a month away. Players are starting to get their likenesses in the game, as well as their player ratings, and tweet them out. Magic forward Evan Fournier wasn’t too happy with the way his came out.

Fournier’s countryman Rudy Gobert got in on the fun, too, changing his Twitter avatar to Fournier’s screenshot and encouraging others to do the same. He even created a hashtag for it.

At least they’re having fun with it.

Report: Sixers expected to waive Tibor Pleiss after trade with Jazz

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tibor Pleiss #21 of the Utah Jazz controls the ball in the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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On Friday, the Jazz traded German center Tibor Pleiss to the Sixers along with two second-round picks for Kendall Marshall. The big draw of the trade for Philly was the picks, and Pleiss is not expected to stay with the Sixers, according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia’s Jessica Camerato.

Pleiss had a forgettable season with Utah, and the Sixers have a glut of bigs including Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. It would have been virtually impossible for Pleiss to crack the rotation, and it’s unlikely another team picks up his contract, which has $3 million guaranteed this season.

Jordan releases new Russell Westbrook ad, may include a shot at Kevin Durant

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder (L) and Russell Westbrook #0 look on during a press conference after the Golden State Warriors defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-101 in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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As a Jordan Brand athlete, Russell Westbrook is under the same Nike umbrella as former teammate Kevin Durant. But his latest Jordan spot, released Friday, has a very pointed tagline: “Some run, some make runways.”

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than a reference to Durant signing with the Warriors and Westbrook signing an extension with the Thunder.