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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.

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

Steven Adams wrote Kevin Durant didn’t like Thunder drafting him, Durant remembers differently

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Steven Adams has become an anchor in Oklahoma City, one of the best centers in the game, a defensive force in the paint, a beast on the boards, and a guy who sets a strong pick and can roll hard. Plus, he brings an attitude to the court that is part of who the Thunder are.

Durant loved Adams as a teammate… but did it start out that way? In his biography that’s not how Adams remembers it (hat tip ESPN).

The rumor that KD was not happy about the Adams pick has been around since that draft, and he has vehemently (in a NSFW way) denied that was the case.

Who was still on the board when the Thunder took Adams? Looking back, the best player by far is Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he was so raw it was considered a roll-of-the-dice pick at the time at 15. There also was Shabazz Muhammad, Tim Hardaway, Rudy Gobert, Tony Snell, and Kelly Olynyk. Looking back, outside of the Greek Freak the Thunder wouldn’t trade Adams for any of those other picks.

Magic to play Bulls, Jazz in Mexico City next season

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The NBA has scheduled two regular-season games in Mexico City for the third straight year.

And for the third straight year, a lousy-looking team will “host” the pair of games.

The Magic will face:

  • Bulls on Dec. 13
  • Jazz on Dec. 15

Unlike the previous Mexico City “hosts” – Suns in 2016-17 and Nets in 2017-18 – Orlando drew fairly decent home attendance the prior year. I wonder how the Magic got picked to surrender two home games.

Neither of these games look like barnburners. Orlando is building around Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, but that frontcourt – especially with the Magic’s guards – doesn’t appear ready to make a significant impact. Chicago could bring offensive firepower some nights, but that group is not reliable. Utah should be excellent, but defensive-first teams don’t typically excite fans, even when led by the incredibly impressive Rudy Gobert.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell will be the main event. He has the transcendent talent and inviting personality to turn heads.

And maybe these games will be a stepping stone to Mexico City getting a team.

Report: Jazz re-signing Derrick Favors for two years, $36 million

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Update: Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

That makes what looked like a slight overpay by the Jazz far better. They’re paying extra this year, when they have money to spend, for more flexibility next year — when they might need it.

 

The Jazz have been grappling with fitting Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, two fairly traditional bigs, together offensively for years.

That will remain a challenge in Utah.

Shams Charania:

This is reasonable value for Favors, 26. I’m not sure he could have gotten more elsewhere, but the Jazz – firmly in the mix in the loaded Western Conference – didn’t want to lose the talented player in unrestricted free agency.

Gobert and Favors form a stout tandem defensively and on the glass. Even though neither spaces the floor well, they’ve learned how to position themselves to minimize the downside of their pairing. Donovan Mitchell‘s ability to get buckets in tight spaces certainly helps, allowing Utah to keep the defensive presences on the floor together.

Favors will also slide to center when Gobert sits. That’s Favors’ best position in a vacuum, and he can play with a more modern power forward like Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko or Thabo Sefolosha.

The Jazz might prefer someone who fits better with Gobert, but they weren’t going to get a better overall player than Favors. So, this works just fine.