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.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.