It's back! After two long, sorrowful weeks, your intrepid reporter has returned with a look at the league's most inappropriately named franchise, the Utah Jazz. It has been an eventful summer for the Jazz, who, like your grandfather admitting that rock and roll might not be a passing fad, have finally elected to join the realms of the tankers, a strategy formerly only propagated by the cool kids, signalling the embrace of a previously disdained strategy by a franchise that has endured only two losing seasons, one of which was a 39 win campaign, since 1983.
This mix of incredulity and pot shots has been the league wide reaction to the Jazz' moves this offseason, and to be fair to the cognoscenti, turning the expiring contracts of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson into the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins is not a recipe for short term success. Perhaps even more damning than the absorption of bad contracts in return for future draft picks is the fact that while Utah was probably wise not to match Al Jefferson's offer, Paul Millsap and sparkplug extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll each signed elsewhere at a bargain rate, signifying that the Jazz were perhaps more concerned with acquiring future assets than winning games in 2014.
For all the snark in the above paragraphs, and the future snorts of derision whenever Richard Jefferson is called on to spell Gordon Hayward this winter, the Jazz might not be that bad this year. Sure, they'll be lucky to crack the 35 win barrier, but it seems unlikely that they will reach embarrassing levels of putridity. The main reason for this is the presence of improving young players.
Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter are the biggest reasons Jazz fans should watch the 2014 season optimistically. Hayward has noticeably improved each of his three seasons in the league, and as the focal point of the offense could be in line for a 20 point and 5 assist season. The biggest test for the excellent shooter is keeping some of his efficiency, as he is maybe the only proven offensive player currently on the roster, and has not been gameplanned against since his time in the Horizon League.
Favors and Kanter have the potential to be one of the top frontcourt duos in the NBA, and they will get their chance to start delivering on that potential this year. Like Groucho and Harpo, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello, each have different, theoretically complimentary, strengths. Favors has as much defensive potential as any young big this side of Anthony Davis, with the blocks-steals-rebounds, and defensive RAPM, to prove it. Getting 30-35 minutes of well above average frontline defense is one of the great equalizing factors in the NBA, and would prevent Utah from supplanting Phoenix at the bottom of the conference. Unfortunately, Favors has not shown much improvement on offense, and remains something of a liability on that end of the floor.
While Hayward and Favors appear to be the Jazz' best chance at developing a fringe All-Star, Enes Kanter quietly showed glimpses of his offensive potential in his sophomore season. He continued to struggle with defense and turnovers, but remained a force on the offensive boards and around the rim. Even more intriguingly, he lifted his free throw percentage near 80%, and shot 44% beyond ten feet. His improvement as a shooter would be huge for the offense, allowing him and Favors, whose shooting has been disastrous, to coexist in a large amount of minutes.
This is the point in the article in which I casually mention Trey Burke shot 24% in summer league, and subsequently advise readers not to panic. Barring any more free agent moves, Burke appears to be the de facto starter, and his development will go a long way towards determining the future of the team, which was at its best when Jamaal Tinsley was running point, a statement that speaks paragraphs about Utah's point guard situation last year. Burke excelled in college, and should turn into a competent NBA point guard within the next few years.
The Jazz might also have the most entertaining, shot blocking, oop catching, offensively challenged reserve bigs in the league. Former fake Wolf Jeremy Evans and Rudy Go-Go-Gadget Arms are the type of players than fans love and coaches love to keep on the sidelines. Given the state of the Jazz roster, however, Ty Corbin may be forced to play each upwards of 15 minutes a night, and face the consequences. As a fan of spectacle, I can not wait.
Alec Burks and Brandon Rush make up the rest of Utah's wing rotation right now, and each player has intriguing upside, but many doubts. Rush is a prime candidate to develop into one of the league's premier 3&D specialists, but has faced a nasty string of injuries in his short career, and is currently recovering from an ACL tear. Burks seemingly has the skills to develop into a very useful player, but has not done so yet, and was unable to gain consistent playing time despite the Jazz possessing just under one competent two way shooting guard last season.
This is becoming my shortest entry to date, partially because of sloth on my part, but also because the Jazz, as currently constructed, possess half a roster. The front office, led by Dennis Lindsey and Kevin O'Connor, will have to fill out the bench with veteran minimum players and D-League stars, a strategy which sometimes results in finding the next Jeremy Lin, but more often results in the discovery of the next Donald Sloan.
It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Jazz are competitive every night. If Trey Burke can add his name to the list of young point guards with excellent rookie seasons and Gordon Hayward takes the elusive next step, the Jazz have enough young talent to stay with all but the league's elite. With several good young players and a bevy of future cap space and picks, the Jazz only need to hit on one lottery pick and hope one of their young guys develops into a fringe All-Star in order to be extremely well positioned to return to the top of the Western Conference in a few years. In the meantime, they will likely be an intriguing, if inconsistent, 25-30 win team.