I’ve said this before in the countdown, but I think people may have been drinking a little bit too much of the Utah kool-aid towards the end of last season.
Yes, the Jazz were easily the league’s best defensive team after the All-Star break, with the league’s fifth best net rating, which most basketball fans realize is a more predictive measure of future success than simple win-loss record. And yes, Rudy Gobert emerged as a genuine defensive beast, with the nickname to match (although I honestly think you could have replaced Enes Kanter with the quicksand guy from the Geico commercials and their team defense would jump at least 5 spots up). But, I can’t help but feel that a great deal of what happens after the league’s week-long vacay is a bit of an unreliable sample.
This would be the same period of time that saw playoff locks like Atlanta, Portland, Milwaukee, and Toronto absolutely fall off cliffs as they either became too complacent with their current standing or had to fundamentally alter their lineups out of personnel changes. This is the same period that saw the Celtics go on a full Evan Turner binge to snag the East’s 7th seed and the Pacers to lead the NBA in point-differential. It’s just a weird time, and its hard to say that any team will be able to replicate what it did in that stretch.
The Jazz are going to be great defensively either way. Kanter jokes aside, Gobert is an absolute stud and Gordon Hayward had a big year on that side of the court as well, although that was overshadowed by how well he performed offensively even with the huge roll he was forced to take on (5th in the NBA in usage rate at his position, and really 3rd when you think about how much time Melo and KD missed last season). Together, the duo formed an impressive counter to the wing-big man pick-and roll, which is something they’ll see a fair amount of in the West between OKC, New Orleans, Houston, etc., etc. The Jazz will miss Exum as a long-limbed guard-stopper, and it is very unfortunate he’ll miss this season after how much of a limited role he had last year, but they have a ton of young interesting pieces who can step in and try to approximate his contributions.
On offense, Hayward has the ball in his hands most of the time anyway, which really doesn’t look like it’s about to change. The injury to Exum likely forces Trey Burke into the starting lineup, though the Jazz are optimistic about Raulzinho Neto. Burke has been pretty much god-awful the whole time he’s been in Utah and I have a hard time imagining his pounding the ball into the ground is going to help much with an offense that ranked 26th in the league last year by points scored. Simply put, this team curled up and died an ugly death whenever Hayward left the court, even with the 16 points per game of the perennially underrated Derrick Favors. These guys played at the slowest pace in the NBA for chrissakes. They want to drag you into an 80 point grind-fest and steal your heart away as Trevor Booker hits a ridiculous game-winner to send you home. Which is awesome when you’re watching the highlight of it the next day, but more than a little soul-crushing when you’ve sat through 2 and a half hours of bulky, clumsy basketball to get to it.
Despite what I said before about samples after the All-Star break, I do think the Jazz have more than a good chance of seeing the post-season, even in the murderous West. Looking at it now (and not very thoroughly), I’m penciling in 7 absolute locks for the playoffs (count them if you can!), leaving one juicy, juicy spot up for grabs. Chief among there competition will likely be the Phoenix Suns, although they could be challenged by the Mavericks or Sacramento Kings if everything breaks right for those two organizations. And, much as I’d love to see Boogie rockin’ and jiving on national television every other night, part of me really wants to back Utah. It’s not often that a young team from a small market is able to become such a defensive juggernaut practically overnight, with a bright future ahead of them.
So, while I will absolutely be watching these guys and rooting for them down the stretch of 2016, I can’t imagine tuning in every single night, unless Quin Snyder really does break out the costume and facepaint and becomes the Batman supervillain he’s always been meant to be.