ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Utah Jazz

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Last season: The Jazz finished 43-39, but they missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Nobody really knew what direction Utah was headed, perhaps including Utah itself. The Jazz kept Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both on expiring contracts, past the trade deadline to make a playoff push. All they got was the honor of tying the 2010-11 Rockets as the best team in the last four years to miss the playoffs.

Signature highlight from last season: This was really impressive, but Utah still fell just short – /metaphor – by losing in overtime.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7PYBdqcL2U&w=560&h=315]

Key player changes: Al Jefferson (Bobcats) and Paul Millsap (Hawks) left in free agency, radically altering the Jazz’s identity. Plus two other starters, Mo Williams (signed with Trail Blazers) and Randy Foye (traded to Nuggets), are gone just in case someone wanted to pretend this was business as usual in Utah.

The Jazz re-stocked by drafting Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert in the first round and accepting the contracts of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon with the sweetener of the Warriors’ first-round pick – AKA Utah is tanking.

Keys to the Jazz’s season:

1) How many starters can eventually start on a playoff-series-winning team? Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter give Utah a full lineup of young players who can grow together. Now, the Jazz must decided how many of those five are worth building around. They should get plenty of minutes for evaluation.

2) Is Tyrone Corbin a good coach? It doesn’t matter how good the Jazz’s coach is this season. They’re Riggin’ for Wiggins, anyway. But at some point, they’ll need a good coach, and that might not be Corbin. The most important thing an NBA coach does is allocate minutes, and Zach Lowe of Grantland makes a solid case that Corbin does that poorly.

3) How much can Utah gain by flipping its veterans? Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Marvin Williams and Brandon Rush represent more than $30 million in expiring contracts. All four might be able to help contenders on the court, too. Utah kept the expiring contracts of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap last season to make a playoff push. This season, there will be no such illusions. If the Jazz can get future value from those four, they’ll surely take it.

Why you should watch the Jazz: See “Why you should watch the 76ers.” Apply more so to Western Conference teams.

Prediction: 23-59. The Jazz are too far into their rebuild and have already acquired too much young talent to be truly horrific, but they’ll still be bad. All their top players will be placed in the largest roles of their careers, and there will be growing pains. At best, Utah will mirror the 2008-09 Thunder – a team that went 23-59.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

NBA COVID-19
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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.