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Doc Rivers seemingly blames Steve Ballmer for Clippers losing Joe Ingles

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Entering the 2014-15 season, the Clippers had to waive someone to meet the regular-season roster maximum. Their choice came down to Joe Ingles and Jared Cunningham, neither of whom had guaranteed salaries.

L.A. kept Cunningham and waived Ingles. Cunningham never made a significant NBA impact. The Jazz claimed Ingles on waivers, and he became a quality starter in Utah.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was also team president at that time.

Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News:

When asked Wednesday if he regrets that decision, Rivers answered, “all the time.”

“I said it the day we released him that this was a bad decision and that we’re going to regret it,” he said. “Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract. We were begging to eat one contract and they said that will never happen and we had to let him go.”

Did Rivers confuse the timeline and think he was blaming Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was notoriously cheap? Current owner Steve Ballmer bought the team and was announced as the owner before the start of the 2014-15 season, when Ingles was signed for camp and released. Ballmer has talked big about spending, and is Rivers’ boss right now. It’d be strange for Rivers to criticize Ballmer like this, but I also can’t figure out whom else he’d be referring to besides the owner. As team president, Rivers had no other oversight within basketball operations.

Maybe Rivers wanted to keep both Ingles and Cunningham and waive someone with a guaranteed salary – likely Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ekpe Udoh or Glen Davis. But, in hindsight, the obviously right call would have been waiving whichever of those players was necessary to keep Ingles.

The frequent criticism of the Clippers about Ingles is somewhat unfair. They brought Ingles to training camp when other teams didn’t. The only reason they were positioned to waive him is because they were ahead of the curve on him.

But they also had the unique opportunity to evaluate him up close and still decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot.

How did that decision get made? Rivers passing the buck only adds confusion. It seemed as if it were his decision.

Donovan Mitchell adjusting to elevated expectations

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Donovan Mitchell quickly won over fans in and outside Utah with his electrifying play. Despite not being an All-Star, he stole the show at All-Star Weekend, charismatically building his platform and winning the dunk contest. He unleashed an insurgent Rookie of the Year campaign. He led the Jazz to playoff-series victory. He signed a lucrative endorsement deal and got a signature shoe.

Donovan Mitchell has made it.

And that makes him uncomfortable.

“I’ve never really come from a position where I’m not the underdog, if that makes sense,” said Mitchell, whose stature rose quickly for a player who initially intended to return to Louisville for his junior season and was still just a mid-first-round pick in 2017. “I haven’t really had that in my life.”

Mitchell is having another fine year, averaging 20.4 points per game. But he doesn’t look quite as sharp as last season, when he established himself as a co-franchise player with Rudy Gobert for the Jazz.

The future in Utah with those two can still be extremely bright. The ascent will be just be bumpier than hoped.

Some of Mitchell’s difficulties are unavoidable. He’s the go-to scorer on a defensive-first team – a tremendous burden.

Of the nine regularly playing guards with usage percentages above 30, only two have their team allow fewer than 105 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor – Mitchell and Russell Westbrook. Relatedly, Mitchell and Westbrook have the lowest true shooting percentages among those nine:

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(That’s Zach LaVine barely poking out behind Kemba Walker.)

The Jazz and Thunder have built systems around putting defensive-minded personnel on the floor, positioning players to get back on defense, gumming up spacing and expecting their top guards to produce anyway. It’s a big ask, one that depresses Mitchell’s and Westbrook’s individual efficiencies but works to the betterment of the team.

Westbrook was a seasoned star in his ninth season when Oklahoma City gave him that role following Kevin Durant‘s departure. Mitchell got it as a rookie and is continuing with it in his second season.

At times, Mitchell has tried to defer. His teammates urged him to keep shooting. This team was built to feature him, and a couple months of relative struggles don’t change the bigger picture.

Mitchell is the only Jazz starter who can reliably create for himself. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are the only starters who can reliably create for others. Mitchell and Joe Ingles are the only starters who can reliably space the floor from distance. Utah starts a pair of traditional bigs in Gobert and Derrick Favors. So much falls to Mitchell offensively.

Opponents have adjusted to Mitchell more quickly than he has developed his game. They blitz him more often on pick-and-rolls. They shade toward him more quickly as he drives. They stunt off him more often rather than completely leave him to help.

Ever since Mitchell torched Dwane Casey’s Raptors for 25 points early last season, the coach – now with the Pistons – has emphasized Mitchell in scouting reports.

“There’s certain things we want to live with and certain things we don’t want to give up,” Casey said. “And him sashaying from end of the court to the other, one slot drive, one dribble to the rim – those are the things we’ve got to take away.”

Mitchell isn’t getting to the rim as often as last season, settling for more floaters. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has also fallen from 41% to 30% – concerning because that should be more defense-agnostic.

“The season might not go the way I want it to this year, for me personally,” Mitchell said.

He’s figuring it out as he goes, but not quickly enough to maintain the sky-high expectations set for him entering the year. At least the Jazz (20-21) are winning a reasonable amount amid a tough early schedule that will soften. Team success, Mitchell says, is his priority.

This is a learning season for both Mitchell and Utah about how to best deploy him.

The Jazz will have an opportunity to reconfigure this summer. They could waive Derrick Favors ($16.9 million unguaranteed salary), renounce free agents Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and open a projected $31 million in cap space.

Maybe Mitchell just needs more complementary offensive pieces, and that’d be the cash to get them. Or maybe continuing to emphasize defense while riding Mitchell offensively is the right formula.

This season has provided plenty of reason to reel in the Mitchell hype. It has not produced many doubters in him.

“He may have some growing pains,” Casey said. “But it’s there, and you never forget how to swim. He’s going to be a great player in our league for a long time.”

Jazz’s quiet summer could lead to triumphant season

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

I believe in the Utah Jazz.

Know who else believes in the Utah Jazz? The Utah Jazz.

The biggest difference is their confidence extends to Dante Exum, who understandably struggled as a teenage rookie but then missed 166 over the next three years. Utah gave Exum a three-year, $28 million contract – a big bet on a player who has proven so little. Exum is just 23, and he has shown flashes. I just haven’t seen enough of him due to his injuries. But the Jazz should know him better, and to a certain degree, we must defer to their behind-the-seasons evaluation.

But keeping intact the team that surged once Rudy Gobert got healthy and crushed the Thunder in the playoffs? I’m here for that.

Utah might be the NBA’s second-best team (behind the Warriors, of course). The Celtics, Rockets, Raptors, 76ers and Thunder are also in the discussion. But don’t count out the Jazz, who spent to keep a good thing going.

The Jazz re-signed Derrick Favors ($16.9 million) and Raul Neto ($2.15 million) for high salaries in order to get them to attach unguaranteed second seasons to their new deals at the same salaries. Utah also guaranteed the now-expiring contracts of Thabo Sefolosha ($5.5 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.36 million).

The result: A team with a lot of depth and a lot of flexibility.

If the Jazz want to keep chemistry again next summer, they can. If they want to chase bigger stars who might want to play with the promising and charismatic Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz could do that, too.

Exum is the big locked-in cost, and I’m treating him like I do most rookies – including Utah’s No. 21 pick, Grayson Allen – in these evaluations. Even though the decisions are monumentally important,  it’s just too early to assign much credit or blame,

The Jazz appear set to pick up right where they left off last season. That’s a good thing.

Offseason grade: C

All eyes on Derrick Favors as Jazz begin life without Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill were supposed to set Derrick Favors up for more opportunities with the Utah Jazz. That wasn’t consistently so through the first 12 games of the season, but there’s no question the eighth-year big man will now have to shoulder more responsibility on both ends of the floor.

The Jazz will experience life without Rudy Gobert for the next month with the second-team All-NBA center out with a bone bruise in his right leg.

“I’m excited about it,” Favors said. “It’s a new challenge. I get to be a big part of the offense now. A big part of the defense, too. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m ready for it.”

Favors is now the starting center, sliding over from power forward. Thabo Sefolosha started against the Nets at power forward and Jonas Jerebko got the start against the Timberwolves.

Gobert was averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Favors had 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks against the Nets, but nine points, 10 rebounds and one block against the Timberwolves.

The Jazz were already struggling with consistency as a roster and now they’re without their centerpiece – the defensive player of the year that’s the focal point of one of the league’s top defenses several years running. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s rim protection allowed defenders to be aggressive on the perimeter knowing Gobert had their back.

The Jazz will be smaller with the 6-10 Favors in the middle and a combination of Sefolosha, Jerebko, Joe Johnson, who’s currently out with a wrist injury, and Ekpe Udoh at power forward. Coach Quin Snyder can go even smaller with Joe Ingles at the four in certain lineups. That could result in more switching or other nuances defending the pick-and-roll.

“Our margin for error gets a little bit slimmer,” Snyder said. “Our team will adjust. That’s all you can do. Every substitution pattern changes the makeup of the team. Some more dramatically than others. Obviously, Derrick playing with Thabo or Joe Ingles at the four, there’s a different style of attack. It’s something that Derrick’s capable of doing and doing well.”

There will be adjustments offensively, also, as Gobert had improved as a finisher around the rim and is one of the best rollers to the basket in the pick-and-roll. The lob had become a staple of the offense.

Favors is averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks this season – improvements from his injury-riddled 2016-17, but still a step back from the previous three seasons. He has improved his range and has some of his athleticism back after knee and back injuries, but he still hasn’t been as effective. Opinions range from Favors just not being the same player anymore to his numbers being affected by decreased playing time with fewer opportunities.

Offseason acquisition Ricky Rubio has struggled as the starting point guard and his 3.9 turnovers per game are the eighth-most in the league. He’ll have to develop chemistry with Favors.

Snyder said they have to sometimes wrestle with Favors to get him to roll.

“It’s something different because at the four I’m so used to popping out to the free throw line, or beyond 3-point line, while Rudy’s in the paint,” Favors said. “Now my main job is to roll to the basket, roll in the paint, try to draw a lot of attention so guys can get open on the corner three or perimeter. It’s definitely something new this season that I have to get used to, but I’m ready for it.”

The Jazz are dealing with a plethora of injuries again after Favors, Hill, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all missed significant time last season. Dante Exum (shoulder surgery) is out for the season and Johnson (wrist) should be reevaluated soon.

Gobert said this won’t change any playoff expectations for the team.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” Gobert said. “We know that every game matters. At the same time, I think it’s just going to make us stronger. I’m confident the team can win without me. The only thing I can do is make sure I do everything right and when I come back, I’m stronger and I’m ready to help the team out.”

 

Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.