Derrick Favors

Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.

Jazz mitigate loss of Gordon Hayward well, but that’s still a devastating departure

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Jazz traded up to draft a player who is already exceeding expectations.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz made a savvy trade to land a starter before free agency even began.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

The Jazz executed several nice value signings.

But they lost Gordon Hayward.

In what was otherwise a smart offseason, there’s just no way around Utah losing Hayward – a 27-year-old star at the critical wing position. Hayward’s importance to the Jazz is self-evident in the effort to re-sign him – a max offer, a billboard, multiple players flying to San Diego for a final meeting. His departure to the Celtics derails what had been a promising ascension.

Two years ago, the Jazz were the only team with four 25-and-under players – Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood – who posted at least six win shares.

Last year, the Jazz were the only team a pair of 26-and-under players – Hayward and Gobert – who posted at least 10 win shares.

Though Favors’ and Hood’s progress was sidetracked by injury, Utah still made another step forward with Hayward and Gobert becoming All-Star caliber. If Favors and Hood got healthy, they could have joined Hayward and Gobert – and Donovan Mitchel (who was drafted No. 13 this year then impressed in summer league) and Ricky Rubio (who was acquired for just a likely low first-round pick thanks to the Jazz’s excess cap space to close the 2016-17 fiscal year) – in a core that was growing into a legitimate Western Conference power.

Alas, Hayward bolted for Boston, which threatens even more in the Eastern Conference.

The Jazz rebounded as well as can be expected. They preemptively got Rubio for just a lottery-protected Thunder pick, allowing them not to re-sign George Hill and deal with the 31-year-olds frequent injury troubles. Mitchell has quickly drawn rave reviews. Thabo Sefolosha ($5.25 million), Jonas Jerebko ($4 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.2 million) are all on favorable salaries – and each have unguaranteed seasons tacked on for next year, making their deals even more team-friendly.

Those players could join a deep rotation that already includes Gobert, Favors, Hood, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Dante Exum. And here’s a little secret: Gobert – not Hayward, the team’s lone All-Star – was Utah’s best player last year. The Jazz aren’t falling off the map just yet.

Their defense might be even better. They could win even more than the 51 games they won last year if healthier.

But their offense will suffer without Hayward’s creation (which could hurt their defensive rating, if they’re defending after makes less often), and their ceiling is far lower. Guaranteeing Ingles $50 million during his 30s is probably an overpay that will also limit flexibility, though at least his salary declines annually.

The Jazz did a good job of handling losing a star. But losing a star isn’t good, and I’m grading results.

Offseason grade: D+

Report: Jazz waiving Boris Diaw

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The Jazz were good for Gordon Hayward. He decided another team would be better for him going forward.

Boris Diaw was good for the Jazz. They decided another player would be better for them going forward.

Following Utah’s emotional reaction to Hayward leaving for the Celtics, the Jazz are back to the cold business decisions teams and players make all the time.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Utah’s recent additions of Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko – whose salaries combined exceed the mid-level exception and individually surpassed the bi-annual exception – necessitated dumping Diaw. Diaw’s $7.5 million salary is fully unguaranteed and becomes fully guaranteed Saturday. The Jazz could always trade him if a deal presents itself before Saturday, but this report suggests they’ve already canvassed and found no takers.

Utah has plenty of options to take Diaw’s minutes, in big or small lineups: Derrick Favors, Jonas Jerebko, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Ekpe Udoh. None possess Diaw’s playmaking ability, but Ricky Rubio‘s talent as a singular distributor make that less of a concern.

The 35-year-old Diaw has shown significant signs of decline, but he has so much basketball intelligence and is so well-liked, he’ll likely land with a contender.

Report: Jazz signing Ekpe Udoh to two-year, $6.5 million contract

AP Photo/Ben Margot
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The Jazz reached deals with Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko that exceed the mid-level exception, meaning Utah will likely waive Boris Diaw – whose $7.5 million salary is fully unguaranteed and becomes fully guaranteed Saturday – to create cap room. That move would leave the Jazz with another $3 million or so to spend.

The other shoe dropped today on that space – with center Ekpe Udoh coming to Utah.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Udoh has his ups and downs in five NBA seasons with the Warriors, Bucks and Clippers. He went to Turkey and really shined.

Has Udoh developed into a player who will succeed in the NBA, or did he just find the right competition level for himself overseas? That’s the open question he and Utah are facing.

The NBA’s shifting landscape bodes well for Udoh. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, he is a versatile switching defender. He has good timing on blocking shots inside, and he moves his feet well on the perimeter. Udoh’s underwhelming rebounding still concerns, but the league is less preoccupied with his lack of interior strength.

The 30-year-old Udoh should be more ready to contribute than No. 28 pick Tony Bradley. Whether Udoh cracks the rotation might depend whether Derrick Favors is Utah’s starting power forward or backup center. At minimum, Udoh will be a nice change of pace behind Rudy Gobert, who holds up relatively well on switches for a more-traditional center but still carries that old-school size.

Report: Jazz signing Jonas Jerebko to two-year, $8.2 million contract

AP Photo/Elise Amendola
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The Jazz have avenged the Celtics poaching Gordon Hayward.

Utah is signing Jonas Jerebko, who spent the last few years in Boston.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

When the Jazz agreed to terms with Thabo Sefolosha earlier today, it was unclear whether they’d sign him with the mid-level exception or clear cap room for him. This suggests they’ll waive Boris Diaw, whose $7.5 million salary is fully unguaranteed and becomes fully guaranteed Saturday,* to create cap space. Jerebko wouldn’t fit into the remainder of the mid-level exception or bi-annual exception.

*Utah could also clear space by trading someone, including Diaw. Waiving him is the simplest, and therefor most likely, outcome.

Jerebko would fit into the room exception, allowing the Jazz to use the rest of their cap space before finalizing his deal. If they also delay making Joe Inglescontract official – his cap hold is low, and they have his Bird Rights – they’d have a little less than $3 million available.

I’m not sure how far that money would go for Utah, which was already pretty deep even before adding Jerebko.

The 30-year-old Jerebko has seemed to figure out that his place in the league is as a hustle player who makes 3-pointers, not as the scorer he flirted with trying to become. As long as he maintains that mindset, he should be helpful as a combo forward.

Derrick Favors is better than Jerebko, but considering the tough fit with Rudy Gobert, Jerebko might even start at power forward. Though injuries factored, Diaw held down that role late last season for similar reason. Jerebko isn’t nearly the distributor Diaw is, but Utah has less use for frontcourt playmaking with Ricky Rubio. Jerebko’s floor-spacing could be sufficient, even if Joe Johnson takes over to close games.

Boston had to renounce Jerebko to clear room for Hayward. Though Jerebko had some nice moments there, I’m sure the Celtics are just fine with the de facto swap.