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Jazz will focus on adding offensive punch in offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate on defense this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.

After getting knocked out of the first-round of the postseason by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”

Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.

Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After January 1st, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.

Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs

“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”

Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0) in 2018-19.

Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in 1966-67.

Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.

“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”

Here’s a few other things to watch with the Jazz in the offseason:

POINT GUARD CHANGES?

Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games – five more than his previous six seasons in Minnesota combined. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.

Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.

“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”

FAVORS RISING

Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6th to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.

He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed. 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after January 1st and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).

His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.

“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”

KORVER RETIREMENT?

Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade

The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season. `

“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”

3-POINT FLURRY

Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10-or-more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.

Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was the second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating among NBA teams. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.

Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players.

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Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.

Bulls fire coach Jim Boylen

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Maybe the Bulls, despite a report otherwise, never actually planned to keep Jim Boylen for financial reasons. Maybe they did plan to keep him but saw the intense negative reaction to that report among Chicago fans.

Either way, Boylen is gone now.

Bulls release:

Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President – Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas announced today that Jim Boylen has been relieved of his duties as head coach.

MICHAEL REINSDORF: “No one could question Jim’s passion for our team and our organization. We sincerely appreciate his tireless efforts and contributions during his time with the Bulls, and we wish him and his family the very best.”

ARTURAS KARNISOVAS: “After doing a comprehensive evaluation and giving the process the time it deserved, I ultimately decided that a fresh approach and evolution in leadership was necessary. This was a very difficult decision, but it is time for our franchise to take that next step as we move in a new direction and era of Chicago Bulls basketball. Jim is a great human being that cares deeply about this organization and the game of basketball. I want to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to the franchise.”

A formal coaching search will begin immediately.

76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner to become Chicago’s next coach. A full search could yield other candidates. However, the Bulls must overcome a reported poor reputation among coaches and possible financial limitations in these economic times.

Chicago still has other problems, but Boylen was one. His tenure began with a near-mutiny when he took over for Fred Hoiberg during the 2018-19 season. To his credit, Boylen improved while on the job. But coming from such a low starting point, he often looked in over his head.

His players continued to dislike him. His signature coaching move was ill-timed timeouts. His record was just 39-84 (.317).

Firing him should have been obvious, especially once the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as team president. Let Karnisovas hire his own coach.

Chicago’s roster is lacking, though not necessarily hopeless.

Zach LaVine is more near-star than All-Star – not an ideal centerpiece – but the 25-year-old could continue to improve. Youngsters Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have had too many downs to feel great about their futures, though enough ups to at least be intrigued. Veterans Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky have underwhelmed but have prior records of success.

A new coach will have pieces to work with.

Karnisovas has more work ahead to upgrade those pieces.