Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson

NBA Preview: Utah Jazz

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Last season: The Utah Jazz were what they have always seemed to be — solid. They moved on from the Deron Williams era to a team that tried to dominate with its front line of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, while hoping young guys like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors would develop. The result was 36-30, a good team that got the eight seed in the West then were swept out of the playoffs.

They also lost their high draft pick that the Warriors owed them when Golden State tanked their way all the way to the No. 7 pick (Harrison Barnes).

Key Departures: The Jazz didn’t lose much, unless you are a huge Devin Harris fan. Exactly. Not much.

Key Additions: Utah basically stood pat, they want to see how their young players develop and keep their cap space open for next summer.

But the Jazz did make moves. They tried to bolster their roster by adding veterans Mo Williams and Marvin Williams. Marvin will be a nice upgrade for them at the three, he’s not explosive but he is better than what they had. Mo Williams will give them some points and a midrange shooting threat out of the backcourt, but the Jazz struggled more on defense last season and he doesn’t help there. They also added Randy Foye.

Three keys to the Jazz season:

1) How big a step forward can Derrick Favors take? What about Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter? While the Jazz want all their young players to develop, Favors is the key. The Jazz struggled on defense last season — they were 19th in the league in points allowed per possession — but the second half of the season Favors started to look like a defensive beast. They need that, and they need him on the boards. But what really has to happen is his offensive game needs to continue to evolve so he can get some minutes up front with Millsap and Jefferson, who both were playing like All-Stars last season.

Hayward took steps forward last season on both ends of the floor but his jumper has to be more reliable. Kanter could use to develop (or show) his jumper more and find a way to fit into the offense. The Jazz are banking on growth from these guys.

2) How does coach Ty Corbin juggle all these big men and make it work? Utah has some real talent along the front line — it may be a tad undersized but only a couple teams in the league are better down low than the Jazz. (Unfortunately, two of them are in the West with the Lakers and Grizzlies.) The Jazz rely on their front line players for everything but they need to find a balance with their top players — Jefferson and Millsap — and the guys they are trying to groom with Favors and Kanter. They need to find a balance between points in the paint and defense (Favors can provide both as he develops).

With Jefferson and Millsap in the last year of their deals, they both could be on the trade block as well.

3) What is the big picture direction for the Jazz? They have some guys entering their peak with Jefferson and Millsap, they have some developing guys like Favors and Hayward and in some ways they can seem like a team on the rise. But they don’t have the one elite star who glues the whole thing together (unless you are higher on Favors than everyone else). They are a young team with a ton of cap space next summer.

The Jazz have a nice core and room to maneuver. The question is what is the long-term goal (besides “winning”)? What kind of team do they want to be and how do they want to build it. They have options. They can do it through the draft, they can make trades, they can go after free agents, give Favors a larger role, a whole lot of things.

In the next year is when the Jazz will define who they are for the following five years at least. The real pressure on this team is with the front office. The question is what kind of team are they trying to build.

What Jazz fans should fear: Life in the NBA’s middle ground. The Jazz are going to spend this season fighting for one of the lower seeds in the Western conference, and even if they miss their draft pick is still in the teens. It’s easy in the NBA to get trapped into being good without ever being great. The Jazz have that potential. They also have the cap room and players to avoid it, but if I were a Jazz fan my biggest concern is that they become just good.

How it likely works out: They may be one of the hardest teams to predict in the NBA because they are counting on development of young players and they are in position to move key pieces in trades. Most likely they make smaller trades that look to the future, their young players develop some and they are in the hunt for the eighth playoff spot in the West with Dallas, Minnesota, Golden State and others.

Prediction: They finish 41-41 and that ends up being the eight seed. Or nine seed. Or 10 seed. They are good, maybe Millsap will get some All-Star recognition, but this year ends up being about what is to come in future years.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.