With the advent of real, actual NBA preseason basketball, fans get to flip their calendars to the 2017-2018 season and start gearing up for one of the more anticipated campaigns of the last decade. As always, at Knicks at Night, we look ahead and break down the upcoming year, not by the quality of each team’s roster, but by how entertaining each should be to watch on a nightly basis. With nearly half the league’s All-Stars changing homes over the summer, there’s a lot more variability in these rankings and a lot of exciting, new situations to monitor. There’s never been a better time to plunk down that 100 bucks or so for the league’s premier subscription service, but also never a harder time choosing who to watch on a given night. To help answer that question… here are your Fourth Annual League Pass Watchability Rankings!
Gordon Hayward leaving the Jazz in free agency in one of the more teasing fashions imaginable sent a mini tremor through the league this offseason, marking the only All-Star player to move East this summer and ruining a lot of poor reporters’ Fourth of July weekends. Removing the best player from an exciting young core looking poised to challenge in the West for years to come was also a huge blow to one of the more faithful fan bases in the NBA. However, Utah did an admirable job of rebuilding on the fly and shouldn’t be crossed off when thinking about the postseason. In fact, I can see two very different, distinct paths for this team in 2018.
The first scenario has 4th year guard Rodney Hood taking a massive step forward and assuming the majority of Hayward’s role as the primary shot creator. Hood has excellent length for a 2 guard and a good shooting stroke. He’s shown the ability to take over games and has the support of the entire organization behind him as the lead dog. Coming into the year eligible for his rookie extension, Hood should have a lot to prove this season.
Utah also did an excellent job recovering from the departure of George Hill. They sent a lottery-protected first rounder from OKC to Minnesota for Ricky Rubio and flipped their 2015 pick Trey Lyles to Denver for the rights to draft Louisville standout (and prince of Summer League) Donovan Mitchell. Between the two of them, the Jazz have their point guard of the present and point guard of the future, even assuming Dante Exum continues to be a gigantic draft bust. With a new contract for 3 and D wing Joe Ingles, another year of improvement for Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, and fingers crossed improved health from Derrick Favors, the Jazz should be able to field a strong starting lineup and surround Hood with quality supporting pieces.
The health issue is key in this scenario, as no team had to field more lineups due to injury than Utah last year. This is the team that had the winning percentage of a 60-22 club when their starting lineup took the floor and boasted an incredible +13 net rating. While forty percent of that starting lineup might be gone, its easy to forgot how unbelievably productive a player Derrick Favors was before his injury concerns. If he’s able to return to form, the Jazz should be able to buck the conventional leaguewide trend by starting two hypermobile, rim-protecting bigs and beating the crap out of opponents on the boards.
It goes without saying that the Jazz will have a nasty defense in this scenario. Outside of 31 games of Joel Embiid, Gobert was the best rim protector in the league last year. And, while Favors was best suited as a backup center last year, he’s easily mobile enough to cover ground and switch out onto smaller stretch forwards. Hayward and Hill are good, underrated defenders but Rubio is far superior on that end of the floor and the team shelled out minimal contracts to stoppers Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh. The Spurs seem to fall ass backward into the league’s best defense every year, but I’d say there’s a strong chance this Utah team takes the crown this season.
In the other scenario, the Jazz still have this elite, top-7 defense but they’re sunk by a woeful, miserable offense. This is a team that relied heavily on a 36 year old Joe Johnson to create offense for them in the playoffs while they still had their best offensive player in Hayward. Rubio may be a better passer and shot creator than Hill was, but he’s a nightmarish 31% career 3 point shooter (30% last year) who defenses feel completely comfortable sagging off of. Starting Favors at power forward juices the defense but should cripple the spacing even more as he’s never shot more than 50 3s in a season. And, while more shots for Hood should help the Utah front office evaluate him further, it’s a tough ask for a guy who’s never taken the role on before (or played more than 60 games in a season).
In fact, this has the potential to be one of the worst 6 or 7 offenses in the league. The roster is close to deplete of anyone who can create their own shot, and if Rubio isn’t up to his usual passing wizardry, this team is going to be throwing up a lot of garbage at the end of the shotclock. This team played at a glacial pace last season and could slow down even more with increased minutes for Favors and Ingles. While I think there’s the potential for a fun Euro-style offense with Rubio dishing it between the big men and Hood and Ingles spotting up and moving the ball, there’s a better chance that this is an unwatchable 80 points per game squad. So while I’d love to bet on the Jazz (and Mitchell) there’s some part of me holding back.