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.

Celtics reportedly near 10-day contract with big man Greg Monroe

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When Aron Baynes went out with a twisted ankle against Philadelphia, it was quickly clear how much they missed the big man in certain matchups — they need his size against the Joel Embiid‘s of the world. The MRI came back clean and while Baynes is out Saturday against the Hornets but could return Sunday for the Celtics.

Boston is still thinking about adding some big man insurance, some experience, and some depth for the stretch run in the form of Greg Monroe, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. The deal is not yet inked, however.

This likely gets done.

There is some familiarity here, Monroe played an efficient 26 games with Boston last season. He averaged 10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists a game, with a PER of 23, going about 19 minutes a night. This season he signed with Toronto, where he played 38 games off the bench but was traded to the Brooklyn Nets who waived him.

Paul George has spoken to Kawhi Leonard about free agency experience

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Paul George was forcing his way out of Indiana and his people were making it clear — he was going to be a Laker. Any other team that traded for him it was going to be a rental. But Oklahoma City jumped in and rolled the dice they could win him over, and they put together the best package (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis). It paid off. After a season in Oklahoma City, George re-signed with the Thunder last summer and did not even meet with the Lakers. This season George is having an MVP-level season.

Kawhi Leonard‘s relationship with the Spurs organization had deteriorated last season and he pushed last summer to be traded, with his camp wanting him to come to Los Angeles (although the Clippers were always rumored as the more likely destination). But Toronto jumped in and rolled the dice they could win him over in a year (he’s a free agent in July), and they put together the best trade package (DeMar DeRozan was at the heart of it).

Sound familiar? With the Thunder in Toronto (and beating the Raptors) George was asked if he and Leonard had spoken about free agency, and he said they had, but George was not about to drop any details.

There are all sorts of rumors and speculation floating around the league about Leonard, with some recent buzz his camp is still pushing for Los Angeles (but are divided on which team). The Clippers are making their presence felt around him and I had heard from sources, dating back to last Summer League, it was the more likely destination of the LA teams (Leonard is not a fan of drama, and LeBron James‘ Lakers know drama better than TNT). There are also rumors that a deep playoff run could keep Leonard in Toronto, with an organization that has bent over backward to accommodate him and keep him healthy with time off to rest that quad tendon.

The fact is, nobody knows what Leonard is thinking. Leonard doesn’t talk, and when he does he doesn’t say anything. He isn’t on social media and doesn’t look at it. He is less concerned with his brand and image than any star in the league. The team of advisors around him is not experienced or predictable.

After the Raptors’ season ends, whenever that is, he will make a decision. How much whatever George told Leonard plays into that, we’ll likely never know. It’s not like Leonard is talking about it.

Paul George scores 28 as Thunder beat Raptors 116-109

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TORONTO (AP) — Paul George scored 28 points, Russell Westbrook had 18 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Toronto Raptors 116-109 on Friday night.

Dennis Schroder came off the bench to score 26 points and Jerami Grant had 19 as the Thunder snapped a four-game losing streak and avenged Wednesday’s 123-114 home defeat to Toronto.

The Thunder made 20 of 43 shots from 3-point range. Oklahoma City made a season-high 22 3-pointers against the Lakers on Jan. 17.

Kawhi Leonard scored 37 points and Pascal Siakam had 25 for the Raptors, who played without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

Lowry missed his second straight game because of a sprained right ankle. Coach Nick Nurse said there’s no structural damage to Lowry’s ankle, but soreness remains following a collision with New York’s Mitchell Robinson on Monday. Nurse said Lowry is expected to return next week.

Danny Green scored 19 points and Serge Ibaka had 11 but Toronto couldn’t hold a double-digit lead in the third quarter for the second straight game. The Raptors gave away a 20-point lead before recovering to win in overtime Wednesday, but weren’t able to match that on their home court.

Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points to start the second half, and was down 13 with 5:23 to go in the third before rallying. Westbrook gave the visitors the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter on a layup with 1:18 left in the period, putting them up 80-79. The Thunder closed the third with a 20-4 run to take an 83-80 lead into the fourth.

Leonard cut the gap to 93-91 on a free throw with 7:33 to play but George hit 3-pointers on either side of a fast-break layup by Grant, giving Oklahoma City a 101-91 edge with 6:21 left.

The Thunder missed eight of their first 10 shots of the game. Toronto was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first, with Green making all three of his attempts, and the Raptors led 29-22 after one.

Leonard scored nine points in the second and Green had six as Toronto led 58-48 at halftime.

 

James Harden ties career best with 61, Rockets beat Spurs 111-105

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden matched his career high with 61 points, including 27 in the first quarter, to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Harden hit three straight 3-pointers to give the Rockets a 103-100 lead and scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-2 run late in the fourth quarter.

Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with 9 minutes remaining in the third.

Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs led by six points with 4 minutes left in the game. The Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.

Harden was 7 of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.

Harden finished 9 of 13 from 3, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.

Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.

Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.

Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.