ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 NBA Preview: Utah Jazz

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Last season: The Jazz were not good, a 25-win team well out of the playoffs in the West. But frankly that was kind of the plan. They are rebuilding through the draft and that takes time, that takes putting your young players out on the court and letting them make mistakes and develop. What really held the Jazz back at the start of the season was Trey Burke being out with a thumb injury — he was clear and away the best point guard on the team and they were better on offense with him back (although still 25th in the NBA in points per possession). The real problem was they were the worst defensive team in the league. By a lot.

Signature highlight from last season: If you’re looking for one play that could foreshadow hope for the future, how about this game winning three against the Magic.

Although… it’s hard not to go with this.

Key player changes: The biggest change wasn’t a player it was the coach — gone is Tyron Corbin, in comes Quin Snyder, who was one of the top assistants in the league and spent years with the Spurs organization. Snyder is known as a player development guy (the Spurs are good at that, in case you missed it) and a discipline guy, two things very much needed with the young Jazz.

As for the roster of players, the big move was matching the four-year, $63 million max offer Charlotte made to Gordon Hayward. He’s getting paid like a foundational piece now. The team drafted Dante Exum and Rodney hood, while adding veterans Trevor Booker and Steve Novak. Gone are Marvin Williams, Richard Jefferson, and Andris Biedrins. Well, mostly just Biedrins’ contract.

Keys to the Jazz season:

Player development. Let’s just be clear: The Jazz are not going to be a good basketball team this season. They are not going to reach the playoffs, they are not going to reach .500, they will not pass “go” and will not collect $200. But paired with that statement needs to be this: The Jazz have assembled one of the better core group of young players in the league (15 guys invited to training camp were under age 25). I think they still lack a true No. 1, but their roster has potential. They key is getting that out of the players. This is another season about building for the future, showing signs of improvement, and player development — there was too little of that under Corbin and Snyder needs to change that dynamic. Jazz management has said wins are not the measuring stick and this year they shouldn’t be, but there needs to be real progress.

The Jazz now have paid Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors like foundational players, they need to step up and lead like it. Trey Burke showed promise as a rookie but has big steps to make still. Rudy Gobert showed promise at the World Cup for France, he needs to build on that and be the shot blocker the Jazz need. I am firmly in the “I like Dante Exum” camp but he is a genuine project a couple years out from really paying off and Snyder has a lot to do there. The biggest questions to answer this year is just how good are Enes Kanter and Alec Burks — both can be restricted free agents next summer (assuming a deal on an extension is not reached by Halloween) and the Jazz need to decide how much they are willing to pay to keep them in the fold.

Play some defense. The Jazz were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season, giving up 109.1 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com). To say their help defensive rotations were bad would be to acknowledge their existence, not sure I can do that. All this needs to change. There has been a lot of talk around the Jazz about revamping and upgrading the offensive sets, but that’s all moot if they don’t get stops. Between Kanter, Favors and Gobert someone needs to become a feared shot blocker. Utah has to get better defensively on the perimeter. They just need to be better everywhere, frankly.

Who is the go-to scorer? For all the things to like about the young core on this team, it still feels like a roster loaded with good young complimentary players lacking that elite, superstar, Top 10 guy to lead them. That can show in crunch time — who gets the rock? The first answer here might be Gordon Hayward because he is often the guy with the ball in his hands anyway, a guy who can create some looks for himself and others, plus he’s now getting paid like an alpha dog. When I saw Hayward at Team USA camp in Las Vegas the first thing you notice is he’s filled out physically a little and will be stronger, which would help in this role. However, I think this could become Trey Burke’s role — he showed it at Michigan and again last season at points (see the video above) that he is cool under pressure. He just can make big plays. That said, the Jazz don’t really have a “clear out the side and isolate our star” kind of guy on the roster, so Snyder needs to run plays, not just isos.

You’re young — get out and run. All that young talent, dynamic playmakers in the open court like Burke and Hayward, bigs who can run the floor like Favors, and the Jazz played at the 26th fastest pace in the NBA last season. Not good. This team doesn’t have to play at a Showtime Lakers pace, but get out and run and pick up some easy buckets in transition. Create mismatches before the defense can get set then exploit them. Make things easier on yourself. Snyder has said that is the plan, but every coach says he wants he is team to play faster next year. We need to see it.

Why you should watch the Jazz: This is a young, dynamic, improving team that has a lot of potential — Favors is a quality big man inside, Hayward has a well-rounded game out on the wing, Burke is a good young point guard, plus there are guys poised to make a step forward in Burks, Kanter and Gobert. This is a team on the rise and those are always the most fun to watch.

Prediction: 33-49, which lands them back in the lottery and not with a thrilling record, but this needs to be a bridge season to better things in the coming years. If they play better defense, run more, find those go-to scorers and if Hayward steps up this is a season that can be a step forward, it’s just hard to predict that translating to many more wins because they are in the brutal Western Conference. The measuring stick shouldn’t be wins, it should be if we see development to what could be wins in a couple years. The Jazz have been amassing young talent for a while, it’s time for some of that to start paying off.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.