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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.

Utah’s Dante Exum underwent knee surgery Thursday, likely out for season

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As we told you before, Utah’s Dante Exum tore his ACL playing for the Australian National team last month, in what was a friendly game against Slovenia. Thursday he underwent surgery on his knee, the Jazz announced. From the official press release.

Exum underwent successful surgery today to repair the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. The surgery was performed in Los Angeles by Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache of Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic following consultations with Jazz physician Dr. Travis Maak and University of Utah Health Care as well as Dr. Brian Cole of Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush in Chicago. Jazz head athletic trainer Brian Zettler accompanied Exum. Once he is cleared to travel, Exum will return to Salt Lake City to begin his rehabilitation.

The Jazz would not give a timeline, but don’t expect to see Exum this season.

Utah is everyone’s favorite team to climb into the crowded playoff picture in the West, based on their 19-10 record after the All-Star break last season. I don’t think that changes with Exum out.

Trey Burke will become the starter, and his defensive numbers when paired with Rudy Gobert are still impressive — they gave up 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which would have been fourth best as a team in the NBA (and just 1.7 per 100 worse than the Exum/Gobert pairing).

The bigger challenge with Burke is on the offensive end — Exum didn’t make a lot of shots, but he didn’t take a lot either (usage rate of 13.8). Burke struggled with his shot and shot selection but he takes a lot more (23.9 usage rate). Every time Burke is dominating the ball better players like Gordon Hayward do not have the ball in their hands. Burke’s growth is key to the Jazz.

That and Exum getting right for the long-term.

 

Andre Drummond’s offensive rebounding trick: grabbing his own miss

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Andre Drummond is a rebounding machine — he is the only player in the last 17 years to grab more than 100 offensive and 100 defensive rebounds in a month. Last season, Drummond grabbed 437 offensive rebounds, the most in the NBA by a wide margin (Rudy Gobert was second but 40 back). He grabbed a ridiculous 18.3 percent of the Pistons’ missed shots last season, also best in the NBA by a healthy range (DeAndre Jordan was second at 16.2). Drummond’s offensive rebound rate was 11th best in NBA history. He had 337 putback shots off misses last season. He’s a physical force of nature on the boards.

He’s also got a little trick, a little gift that helps him out — he gets a lot of his own misses.

This isn’t new news, look what Drummond told MLive last season when asked if he rushes shots knowing he might miss and grab his own board:

“Yeah, I’d say sometimes I do,” Drummond said, when asked if he indeed plots some misses directionally. “I’m not going to lie. I do sometimes. I know I can go get it and put it right back in.”

As noted in a great piece by Scott Rafferty at The Sporting News, this is an old Moses Malone trick and it’s not about racking up stats, it’s about practicality.

It’s not that Drummond deliberately misses shots for the sake of padding his rebounding numbers; He rushes them knowing his second jump is far quicker than most opponents. Malone did the same over the course of his career. As soon as the ball left his fingertips, he’d use his size and speed advantage to fight for positioning while his defender was still in the air.

Check out this video to get an example — Drummond hurries his shot but knows he can just move Gobert out-of-the-way and get his own board.

(Drummond gets fouled here, and as a guy who shot 38.9 percent from the stripe last year he can expect to see more of that. It’s a valid strategy against him.)

It will be interesting to see if Drummond can keep up these numbers as Stan Van Gundy brings in shooters — it’s not just that there may be fewer rebounds to grab, but the rebound of a missed three-point shot often caroms a long way out from where Drummond is around the rim.

But consider this something to watch next season. As the NBA trends smaller, Drummond is an old-school big man who can do this to a lot of teams.

Canada cuts Olivier Hanlan, finalizes roster FIBA Americas with nine NBA players

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The Jazz drafted Olivier Hanlan No. 42, but they didn’t have a roster spot for him this season. So, the former Boston College guard signed in Lithuania.

Team Canada apparently didn’t have room for him, either.

Canada announced its roster for FIBA Americas, and Hanlan was the final cut.

It’s remarkable that Canada can afford to drop a player drafted to the NBA, but the country’s basketball team has come a long way in a short time. The Canadians will have nine NBA players:

  • Andrew Wiggins
  • Cory Joseph
  • Kelly Olynyk
  • Anthony Bennett
  • Nik Stauskas
  • Robert Sacre
  • Andrew Nicholson
  • Dwight Powell
  • Melvin Ejim

Aaron Doornekamp, Phil Scrubb and Brady Heslip round out the 12-man roster.

The top two teams in FIBA Americas – besides Brazil, which got an automatic bid as host nation – will qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The next three teams, again excluding Brazil, advance to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Canada is definitely a threat this year and next. With such a young team, its future might be even brighter.

Maybe with a little seasoning, Hanlan will eventually make the squad.

Then again, he’ll also have to fend off the next generation of Canadian basketballers, players like Trey Lyles and Jamal Murray.

A few years ago, it would have seemed incomprehensible Canada could afford to cut a player drafted by an NBA team.

Soon, Canada might form its roster completely from NBA players.

Jazz sign J.J. O’Brien to join roster competition

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The Jazz are set to hold one heck of a training-camp battle.

Utah just added its 20th player, the offseason limit, to compete for 15 regular-season roster spots.

Jazz release:

The Utah Jazz announced today that the team has signed free agent forward J.J. O’Brien.

Utah has 13 players with guaranteed contracts, leaving two potential vacancies on the regular-season roster for the other seven players.

Jeff Withey’s deal is $200,00 guaranteed, and Treveon Graham’s is $75,000. Christopher Johnson, Jack Cooley, Elijah Millsap and Bryce Cotton have unguaranteed contracts. O’Brien’s salary is partially guaranteed, according to Mark Zeigler of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

O’Brien, a 6-foot-7 forward, went undrafted out of San Diego State. He’s well-rounded for a power forward, though undersized. He’s not quite skilled enough to be a small forward.

Most likely, the Jazz waive him and assign his D-League rights to their affiliate, the Idaho Stampede.

Withey, Millsap and Cotton are the favorites to make the regular-season roster. Withey has shown some ability at the NBA level and has the largest guarantee. Millsap looked good defensively last season. Cotton might be needed at point guard with Dante Exum injured, though Utah has Trey Burke and Raul Neto, and Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood can handle some point guard duties.

Like Graham’s, O’Brien’s partial guarantee gives him a slight leg up. Its size – but more importantly, how he plays in camp and the preseason – will determine whether he makes the team.