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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.

Report: Rockets’ Brandon Knight underwent knee surgery, will miss ‘some time’

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Though Rockets general manager Daryl Morey talked up Brandon Knight‘s ability to contribute on the court, I’m unconvinced Houston saw Knight as anything other than a necessary burden to dumping Ryan Anderson‘s salary via trade.

But if the Rockets wanted Knight to play, they won’t have him anytime soon.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Knight missed all of last season with a knee injury. He struggled on the court the two years before that.

It’ll be a long road before Knight helps a team with Chris Paul, James Harden and Eric Gordon as ball-handling guard. Heck, it might be a while until Knight can even eat up minutes while allowing those superior players to rest.

But at least Anderson’s contract is gone.

Report: Suns’ top point-guard target is Clippers’ Patrick Beverley

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The Suns were reportedly targeting the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, Pacers’ Cory Joseph and Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie.

One of those point guards apparently stands above the others.

Stadium:

Shams Charania:

I’m told they’re targeting Clippers guard Patrick Beverley. He’s been at the top of their list.

The issue is price, asking price. Phoenix has only been willing to give up second-round picks in all their discussions for a veteran point guard, which they’re trying to acquire. And the Clippers, just like every other team that knows Phoenix needs a point guard, wants a first-round pick.

The Suns trading for Beverley could make sense. Phoenix badly needs a point guard, and Beverley could fit with high-scoring Devin Booker like he did with James Harden. L.A. has plenty of players capable of being lead guards – Beverley, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Jawun Evans and Tyrone Wallace – and has already gone toward taking a step back to this season to position for the future.

But a second-rounder if far too little for Beverley. If that’s all the Suns will offer, there’s nothing realistic about this.

On the other hand, an unprotected first-rounder would be too much for Phoenix to surrender.

Perhaps, there’s a middle ground – a protected first-rounder (with Troy Daniels used to match salary). It’s just a matter of negotiating the protections and determining whether there’s common ground.

Jeff Bzdelik, assistant coach in charge of Rockets’ defense, retires

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Last season, the Houston Rocket’s defense surprised everyone and almost got them to the NBA Finals. They switched every pick — on and off the ball — all season long, both as a philosophy that most teams could not exploit it, and in preparation for playing Golden State in the playoffs. It almost worked. The Warriors struggled for a while before adjusting (and leaning on Kevin Durant), and the Rockets were up double-digits in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals at home. While their James Harden/Chris Paul led offense was their biggest strength, the Rockets became the sixth best defensive team in the NBA last season.

Jeff Bzdelik, Mike D’Antoni’s right-hand man, deserves a lot of credit for that.

And now Bzdelik has decided he is going to step away from it all. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Bzdelik has been a coach at the college and NBA level for 40 years, he has earned the retirement and chance to relax a little. Like players, sometimes coaches getting ready for the season realize they just do not want to do this anymore.

Matt Brase also likely will have a few more things on his plate.

While the defensive foundation is there in Houston, it will be harder to execute without Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, both of whom left via free agency and both of whom can guard multiple positions, making switching more effective.

 

New coach James Borrego determined to bring ball movement to Charlotte

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Last season, the Hornets averaged 281.5 passes per game, fifth lowest in the NBA. That doesn’t mean they were selfish, but if a team is going to not keep the ball moving it needs elite isolation talent – the two teams with the fewest passes per game were the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, teams with James Harden and Russell Westbrook (among others) who can thrive in isolation.

With all due respect to Kemba Walker, Charlotte doesn’t have that level or depth of isolation talent.

Which is why new coach James Borrego — out of the Spurs system — is preaching ball movement or guys will sit. Look what he told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

“It’s the spirit of your team because it says, ‘We’re unselfish,’” Borrego told the Observer of his non-negotiable. “That we make the right play and we trust the next guy to make the right play if that is what’s asked.

“It’s at the core of our organization, like if I ask a guy to play a (different) position or come off the bench. I expect you to do that job and do it well. Likewise, when the ball is in your hands, I expect you to make the right decision.: So pass it, drive or shoot it quickly because that makes us hard to guard.”

It’s why Dwight Howard is in Brooklyn right now. It’s not that Howard can’t still defend the paint or put up numbers — 16.6 point and 12.5 rebounds a game last season — but he demands the ball in the post a lot and that just drags down the offense. They become easier to guard. Isolations and post-ups only work well if a player is elite-level efficient at them, and Howard is not that guy anymore.

The Hornets will be an interesting team to watch this season. They chose not to test the trade market for their All-Star Walker, instead they brought in Tony Parker and are banking on a new coach, Nicolas Batum to stay healthy, Jeremy Lamb to take a step forward, and everything to come together in a run to the playoffs. It could go down that way. But if not… just listen for the Walker rumors to start up.