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.

Jabari Parker says he doesn’t expect benching to be permanent

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Jabari Parker is no longer a part of the Chicago Bulls lineup, and he is reportedly available in a trade.

Parker was taken out of the Bulls regular rotation after their game against the Orlando Magic this week, and it was just another odd story coming out of the Windy City. In addition to the Parker saga, the team has also fired their coach and had a player-organized protest of his replacement.

The Chicago native is the highest paid player on the Bulls roster, but his short time with the team has been rocky. He’s not been the player the Bulls want, and his attitude hasn’t been great, which led to his benching. For his part, Parker told media that he didn’t think his removal from the lineup would be permanent.

Via Chicago Tribune:

“I’m not expecting it to be (permanent),” Parker said. “Everybody is telling me the truth and that’s just to stay ready. They’re not telling me things I want to hear. They’re not pointing fingers. And personally, I know I’ve done my job to embrace Jim as the head coach. I’ve been nothing but welcoming of him. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

It’s hard to say for certain what will happen with Parker, but it does seem at this juncture that he’s more likely to be traded than he is to be reinserted into the Chicago lineup.

Then again, it will be difficult to trade Parker for anything substantive. His deal is expiring after this season, with a team option for next, but it comes at a whopping at $20 million price tag. That will be hard for teams to swallow, and the best choice for the Bulls might be just to eat Parker’s deal for this season and keep their cap flexibility for next.

Stephen Curry talked with astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live about moon landing comments

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Was Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry just using his moon landing comments to sell his shoes? That’s what it seemed like to me, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.

Meanwhile, Curry has gone on his little PR tour in the wake of his boneheaded “joke” about the moon landing being fake. It’s included talking to astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live this week, and two had a discussion about Curry being more judicious with his words.

The video started with Curry essentially making a kind of public apology directly to Kelly. His words were, in part:

“It was important for me to understand, one the magnitude of things that I say and my comments how much weight they carry, joking or not.

For me to reflect on the last week, it’s been one of those situations where I had President Obama contact me, you [Kelly] and one other astronaut. [You all] really wanted to educate me on how significant the moon landing was — obviously it was real — but in terms of the sense national pride, and how that exploration fo mankind has pushed boundaries and limits on what is possible.”

Kelly went on to remark that he felt like the less-harmful conspiracy theories — like the moon landing or the Flat Earth theory — helped lead folks into the realm that big conspiracies might be true.

Meanwhile teams like the Sacramento Kings are running videos trolling Curry for not believing in very recent history. At least that’s one good thing to come out of this.

You can head over to Stephen Curry’s Instagram and watch the full video of the talk with Kelly.

Winners, losers of (eventual) trade of Trevor Ariza to Washington

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It was on. Then it was off over confusion of Brookses.

Eventually, it was back on again in a different form: Trevor Ariza was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Washington Wizards for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers. No picks, nothing fancy, just a straight player swap.

Who came out on top in this deal? Let’s look at the winners and losers.

WINNER: Trevor Ariza. You can’t blame Trevor Ariza for bolting Houston last summer. The Rockets were trying to manage costs then along comes Phoenix offering the largest payday of Ariza’s career and a little more than double what he made the year before. Of course he took the cash, we’d all have. But Ariza was an awkward fit in Phoenix on a team of young players still trying to find their game, and a team without a point guard to speak of. Ariza is a role-playing wing who can knock down threes and play good defense, fitting into a system with smart veteran players… except that’s not the Suns. Ariza looked like a round peg on a team with square holes, and he was taking more two-point shots and struggling with them (40.2 percent overall on twos and just 49 percent in the restricted area). Now, Ariza gets his big paychecks and gets sent out of town. But…

LOSER: Trevor Ariza. He ended up with the Wizards, the most dysfunctional locker room in the NBA. A team where there have been apathetic efforts on the court and finger-pointing off it — not something adding a role player solves, especially when the effort issues can start with the team’s “best” player. Worse for Ariza, he had been rumored to a number of teams looking to go deep in the playoffs, including his former team the Rockets, the improved Thunder, and his hometown Lakers (he played his college ball at UCLA) but he ended up with the Wizards. Ariza’s skill set fits better with what the Wizards’ need than it did in Phoenix (he’s an upgrade over Oubre), and he unquestionably will be solid for them. However, no matter how good Ariza is as the adult in the locker room (and he is a respected veteran leader) he is not going to solve the long-running personality problems in our nation’s capital.

WINNER: Memphis Grizzlies. They stayed out of this mess. While GM Chris Wallace should get a little blame for how the Brooks screw up went down, it appears it was more the Wizards’ GM Ernie Grunfeld and the Suns leaking things that were the bigger issues. The Grizzlies were smart never to want to give up Dillon Brooks — a 22-year-old 3-&-D wing who started for them much of last season, has been good off the bench this season, and is making just $1.6 million next season — and only offer MarShon Brooks, who is 29-year-old and needs the ball in his hands to provide much value and plays a limited role. Not sure why the Suns thought it was Dillon who was in on this trade, that’s not the guy you throw in a deal, but the Grizzlies dodged this whole mess and are better off for it.

LOSER: Washington Wizards. I will stipulate one thing up front: Ariza is an upgrade over Oubre. Usually, the team that gets the best player in a trade wins it. Not this time. Ariza is a rental, a player on a one-year contract who will go where the money takes him next summer, and teams that bring in rentals should be ones trying to push themselves into elite status. Ariza does not put Washington anywhere near the Toronto/Boston/Milwaukee/Philadelphia level, and I still have them behind Indiana and probably Detroit as well. At best, this trade means maybe the Wizards have a slightly better chance of making the playoffs (and the Wizards save a little money on salary and tax, but not a significant amount). In doing so, the Wizards gave up a young trade asset who was a restricted free agent that they could control. Yes, Oubre was probably going to command more money next summer than the Wizards were willing to match, but he is young and has value, and for him the Wizards got a modest upgrade at best. It’s not a good omen for Wizards fans, considering there are more and bigger trades coming in the next year that will have a much more significant impact on the franchise.

LOSER: Kelly Oubre. On Friday night he was headed to the Memphis Grizzlies, a 16-13 team currently in the playoff mix in the West, and a team in need of good wing play. He would have gotten a lot of run, quality touches, and been on a team playing meaningful games and maybe playoff bound. On Saturday, he was headed to Phoenix, the only team in the West out of the playoff chase, and a team loaded with young talent on the wing already. That’s a punch to the gut.

LOSER: Phoenix Suns. This isn’t as severe a loss as the people above, but I can’t call this a win for Phoenix. At best, the trade is “meh” for them, a “C” if you’re grading it. Austin Rivers is a below average NBA point guard, but he’s better than the black hole Phoenix has at that position, so technically it’s an upgrade. However, Trevor Ariza was the best trade asset the Suns had by a mile and a highly coveted player, a lot of teams were talking and making offers. However, owner Robert Sarver didn’t want to deal with the Lakers and the rebuilding Suns were not willing to roll the dice on bringing in Markelle Fultz. So, with this valuable trade piece in Ariza, the Suns get a below average point guard and a nice young wing player for a team already loaded with young wing players scrapping for minutes. The Suns could have done better, but that feels like the story of this franchise the past decade. At least this distracted people from Sarver and company spinning how they didn’t threaten to move the team out if the city didn’t use taxpayer dollars to enrich the team owner.

LeBron James, Lonzo Ball both drop triple-doubles on Hornets (VIDEO)

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The game itself wasn’t that interesting, it was an old-fashioned drubbing. The Charlotte Hornets go as Kemba Walker goes, and he was 2-of-13 shooting on the night. The Lakers have LeBron James… and Lonzo Ball.

LeBron has a triple-double Saturday with 24 points 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Lonzo Ball joined him in the triple-double realm with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Check out the highlights.

It’s been a while since teammates had a triple-double together: The last ones were Vince Carter and Jason Kidd as New Jersey Nets back on April 7, 2007.

The last Laker teammates to do it? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson back in 1982.