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How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.

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.