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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: Pelicans not concerned about possibility of Anthony Davis hiring agent Rich Paul

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Anthony Davis is reportedly dropping agent Thad Foucher and strongly considering Rich Paul, who also represents Lakers star LeBron James.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

But the Pelicans, per a variety of sources, don’t seem particularly concerned about Davis exchanging agents, regardless who he hires.

They should be.

Davis changing agents doesn’t mean he’ll leave New Orleans. I still believe, per his repeated statements, his primary goal is winning in New Orleans.

But what if the Pelicans don’t win enough over the next couple years for his liking? Would he pick a better team or remaining in New Orleans?

The status quo looked good for the Pelicans. Davis even hinting at leaving was rare. Foucher also represents Russell Westbrook, who stayed in another small market (Oklahoma City) when many thought he’d leave.

No matter whom Davis hires, New Orleans can still offer him a super-max contract extension next summer. That projects to be worth about $235 million (about $47 million annually). The max another team projects to be able to offer Davis in 2020 free agency is about $150 million over four years (about $37 million annually). Maybe that financial advantage will be enough, but it would have existed anyway.

The Pelicans certainly shouldn’t panic over Davis’ agent switch. It could mean any number of different things.

But they probably at least ought to be concerned by it. Most plausible explanations point toward him being more likely to leave – even if it’s still not actually likely – and the stakes are so high.

Russell Westbrook has arthroscopic surgery on right knee, out at least four weeks

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The Thunder are saying it’s just “maintenance,” but this has to put a scare into Oklahoma City fans.

The Thunder announced that Russell Westbrook had arthroscopic surgery on right knee Wednesday and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. That means Westbrook almost certainly will be out for the entire preseason, and the Thunder aren’t going to rush him back just to play opening night. He could miss first few games of the season, which for Oklahoma City begins Oct. 16 in Golden State (when the Warriors raise their new banner).

In training to prepare for the start of training camp, Westbrook “experienced inflammation in his knee this past weekend (and determined) that the best course of action was the proactive procedure” the Thunder said in their official release. It’s a smart move by Westbrook to deal with it now, even if it costs him a few games, rather than to play through it and risk something worse during the season (or miss a month of the season in a Western Conference where there is little margin for error because of the depth of quality teams).

That doesn’t take all the edge off the concern. Here is why this surgery is especially scary for OKC:

• This is Westbrook’s fourth surgery on that knee, although as Royce Young of ESPN noted it’s the first in more than four years. His issues with this knee date back to the 2013 playoffs when Patrick Beverley crashed into it and tore the meniscus. Westbrook at three surgeries on the knee within a year, but had been fine since.

• Westbrook is about to turn 30 and has some heavy-usage miles on that body, his aggressive and attacking style can wear a player down.

• He just signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension.

It may turn out to be minor and barely slow Westbrook, but it’s something to monitor.

Westbrook has averaged a triple-double each of the past two seasons — 25.4 points, 10.3 assists, and 10.1 rebounds a game last season — the first player to ever reach this feat for two consecutive seasons. He’s an MVP and one of the game’s handful of elite players, and the Thunder need him to be that to make the postseason. Last season the Thunder offense fell off a cliff when Westbrook sat, dropping 9.6 points per 100 possessions. More will fall on Paul George‘s shoulders in the short term, but the Thunder need both of their stars to be a top-four team in the West as many (including myself) project.

 

 

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.

John Wall: Team USA has ‘different atmosphere’ with Gregg Popovich succeeding Mike Krzyzewski

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John Wall said he wasn’t give a fair shot to make Team USA for the 2014 World Cup. Then, he (correctly) predicted he wouldn’t make the 2016 Olympic roster, either.

If the Wizards star resented USA Basketball, he’s using Gregg Popovich succeeding Mike Krzyzewski as coach as an opportunity to move on.

Ben Standing of The Sports Capitol:

Jerry Colangelo remains managing director. So, it isn’t a completely new regime.

Nor is it a different landscape for Wall’s roster competition. The Americans are loaded at point guard. Beyond Wall, the player pool for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympic includes:

If Wall is committed to making Team USA, he has a chance. But the bar is quite high.