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.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.