It's Just Two Games
October 30, 2010 -
The Cleveland Cavaliers posted the NBA’s best record last season at 61-21. Ironically, they started out by losing their first two games. The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks finished with a league-best 67-15 record. They began that season with 4 consecutive losses—including a 31-point jack-stomping by the Rockets and an 18-point beat down by (of all teams) the LA Clippers.
So what’s my point? Utah’s lopsided losses to Denver and Phoenix are no reason to hit the panic button.
I’ll admit, I was pretty bummed after both of those games. It’s definitely not the way I wanted – or anticipated – the Jazz to start the season, particularly after watching them go 8-0 in the preseason. However, prior to the surprising preseason win-streak, my expectations were a little more in line with reality.
The Jazz are a remade team this season, with six new rotation players – two of which are starters. They need time to learn the system and get in sync with each other. It will happen. I still have faith in this team, and I am not ready to back off my prediction of a 55-win season. I won’t be surprised if they hover around .500 for the first 10-15 games before things really start to click. After that, watch out.
Utah Jazz Season Preview 2010-11
October 25, 2010 -
With the Jazz set to begin playing games that actually count on Wednesday, it’s time for my annual season preview. Heading into last year, I wasn’t feeling much optimism. I expected more of the same: a good-but-not-great regular season followed by an early playoff exit. I officially predicted Utah would win 54 games, earn a 4th seed in the West, and lose easily to the Lakers in the 2nd round. The Jazz simply didn’t have a championship-caliber roster. That fact had been evident to me for quite some time.
My forecast was eerily accurate. Utah won 53 games, landed the 5th seed in the Western Conference (actually tied for 4th), and was unceremoniously swept by LA in the conference semis. Despite the fact they finished only 2 regular-season wins short of the 2nd seed in the uber-competitive West and managed to upset the heavily favored Nuggets (my second most-hated team behind the loathsome Lakers) in the opening round of the playoffs, the Jazz never really looked like a title contender.
Heading into the 2010-11 season, my mood is completely transformed. Considering how many key players the Jazz lost this summer, optimism is somewhat of an unexpected emotion. Three months ago I was ready to give up on Utah’s front office, calling them complacent and content with mediocrity. Now I’m signing their praises.
Let’s start with a statistical recap of last season, followed by my 2010-11 projections:
2009-10 Record: 53-29 (1st-tie in Northwest Division; 4th-tie in Western Conference; Lost in 2nd round of playoffs)
2009-10 Statistical Leaders:
Points: Carlos Boozer (19.5)
Rebounds: Carlos Boozer (11.2)
Assists: Deron Williams (10.5)
Steals: Andrei Kirilenko (1.43)
Blocks: Andrei Kirilenko (1.22)
FG%: Carlos Boozer (56.2%)
3Pt%: Kyle Korver (53.6%)
FT%: Wesley Matthews (82.9%)
Key Additions: Al Jefferson (trade), Raja Bell (free agent), Earl Watson (free agent), Francisco Elson (free agent), Gordon Hayward (1st-round pick), Jeremy Evans (2nd-round pick)
Key Subtractions: Carlos Boozer (free agency), Wesley Matthews (free agency), Kyle Korver (free agency), Kosta Koufos (trade), Ronnie Brewer (trade), Eric Maynor (trade)
Projected Opening Day Starting Lineup:
Deron Williams (PG), Raja Bell (SG), Andrei Kirilenko (SF), Paul Millsap (PF), Al Jefferson (C)
2010-11 Roster/Depth Chart
PG – Deron Williams, Earl Watson, Ronnie Price
SG – Raja Bell, CJ Miles
SF – Andrei Kirilenko, Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Evans
PF – Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur
C – Al Jefferson, Kyrylo Fesenko, Francisco Elson
Point Guard – D-Will is the best in the business, and he keeps getting better. The addition of Earl Watson brings an experienced vet to man the ship while Deron gets a breather, which should take off some pressure. Utah will outclass virtually every team at this position.
Interior Scoring – The Jazz always have one of the highest FG% in the league, as their offense is designed to create layups and easy shots. Jefferson, Millsap, and Kirilenko will be a tough frontline for opposing defenses to contain.
Coaching – Despite the fact he’s regularly snubbed for COY, Sloan is a deserving hall-of-famer who demands (and usually receives) the best from his players. This year he actually has the right pieces to work with.
Home Court – There isn’t a more difficult place to play (according to NBA GMs) than Energy Solutions Arena.
Roster Flexibility – Almost every player on the Jazz roster can play multiple positions, giving Sloan the flexibility to create mismatches and exploit opponent weaknesses. The Jazz have at least five realistic options at every position:
PG – Williams, Watson, Price, Hayward, Kirilenko, Miles
SG – Bell, Miles, Price, Williams, Watson, Hayward, Kirilenko
SF – Kirilenko, Miles, Hayward, Bell, Evans
PF – Millsap, Kirilenko, Jefferson, Okur, Evans, Elson
C – Jefferson, Fesenko, Okur, Elson, Millsap
Wing scoring – Will anyone step up and provide consistent scoring from the wing? It’s been five years since a Jazz wing averaged over 14 points per game, and that was Kirilenko (who is more of a tandem forward). It’s been over 10 years since a Jazz shooting guard did it, and that was Jeff Hornacek. Utah desperately needs consistent scoring from the wing, whether from a single player or by committee.
Interior defense – While the loss of Boozer (who played defense like a 6-year-old girl) should be addition by subtraction in this area, Jefferson isn’t exactly known as a defensive stopper. He is bigger than Boozer, however, and will block and alter more shots. This was a major weakness last year but did appear improved during the preseason. Still, it’s an area of concern until proven otherwise.
Outside shooting – Particularly with Okur out to start the season, this may be a deficiency. Korver is gone (you can’t help but miss a guy who shoots over 50% from behind the arc), and so is Matthews (38% from 3). Bell and CJ will need to light it up to prevent this from becoming a glaring weakness.
CJ Miles – The Jazz lost three key wings from last season: Matthews, Korver, and Brewer. CJ isn’t the athlete Brewer was, the defender Matthews was, or the shooter Korver was. BUT, he is capable of doing all three of those things in combination better than any of the aforementioned players. Miles appears slotted for a 6th-man role this season, and Utah will need his scoring punch off the bench. If he has the breakout year Jazz fans have been waiting for…
Andrei Kirilenko – Can he stay healthy, physically and mentally? It’s tough to place a value on AK when he plays with confidence and consistency. He’s a game changer. At his best, Kirilenko paired with Williams and Jefferson gives the Jazz a “Big 3” on par with anyone but the Superfriends in Miami (and Utah has a much better supporting cast).
Mehmet Okur – When and how well will he come back from that Achilles injury? If truly healthy, Memo could be an outstanding weapon off the bench at either the 4 or 5 spot.
This is the part where I gaze into my crystal ball (which happens to be a fish bowl that really needs cleaning) and predict individual performances for the season:
Deron Williams established himself as the top PG in the league last season, and he’ll keep that title this year. While his Team-USA buddies whine for trades and collude to join forces in big markets, Deron will quietly deliver an MVP-caliber performance.
Al Jefferson received a guarantee when he came to Utah that Deron Williams would make him an all-star. That promise will be fulfilled in February when Big Al is named an all-star reserve by the coaches. Jefferson will take a few months to achieve peak performance, but he’ll be a regular 20/10 machine by 2011.
Paul Millsap won’t improve much statistically from last season, but he will continue his progression as a player. Sap will be the perfect complement to Jefferson, bringing consistent hustle, energy, and toughness to the front line.
Andrei Kirilenko will have his best season since 2005-06. Though he won’t match his statistical totals from that year, he will have an invaluable impact on games and be a major catalyst to Utah’s success. Despite the potential trade value of his expiring contract, AK will finish the season a Jazzman.
Raja Bell will benefit the team with intangibles as much as he does with his defense and outside shooting. Similar to AK, his stats won’t convey the full value of his presence. Raja’s attitude will help revive the culture of toughness from Jazz teams of the past that seemed to have disappeared in recent seasons.
Mehmet Okur will struggle a little bit and probably have his worst statistical year in a Jazz uniform. Part of this will be due to his injury, and part will be due to a lack of minutes created by the play of Jefferson, Millsap, Kirilenko, and even Fesenko. Still, he will be a valuable contributor off the bench and will win a few games for the Jazz with his clutch shooting.
CJ Miles will finally almost become the player Jazz fans have been hoping he would become since he was drafted straight out of high school five years ago. Though nothing to generate all-star chatter, CJ will have something that could qualify as a breakout year. He won’t, however, deliver quite the needed consistency to make the Jazz true title contenders.
Gordon Hayward will look like a ROY candidate one game and a D-Leaguer the next. Still, Gordon will make a meaningful contribution throughout the season and validate Utah’s decision to make him the 9th pick in the draft (can’t believe I actually said that).
Earl Watson will start slow but finish strong. He will have some fans clamoring for Price early on, but by the all-star break Watson will be the best back-up PG in Utah since Howard Eisley (on his first tour of duty) played behind Stockton.
Kyrylo Fesenko will continue to drive Sloan nuts and remind Jazz fans of a more-athletic Ostertag by looking brilliant one night and failing to show up the next. Even so, Fess will have by far his beast season to date and will be a key cog in the second unit.
Francisco Elson will make KOC look smart. He will more than earn his vet-minimum salary by providing defense, rebounding, and toughness in limited minutes. In fact, he’ll become a fan favorite by getting under the skin of opposing players—something he managed to do twice in the preseason despite only playing in two games.
Ronnie Price will make Sloan wish he had more minutes to dole out. His playing time will be hampered by the presence of Watson, but Price will still find a way to contribute, bringing energy and hustle.
Jeremy Evans will once again make KOC and the Jazz scouting department appear brilliant. This 2nd-round gem will spend time in Orem but will actually work his way into some minutes as the season progresses. Portland is probably already preparing a toxic contract offer for him when he becomes a restricted free agent.
Putting It All Together
Three months ago I never would have imagined saying this, but this Jazz team could actually contend for a title. I didn’t like the roster composition of last year’s team. They were too small, too soft, and didn’t have the right chemistry. Hate to single anyone out, but Utah simply was not going to win on the delicate back of Carlos Boozer.
Following a masterfully orchestrated offseason by Kevin O’Connor, Utah now has the pieces in place to be a legitimate title contender. BUT (and this is a Charles Barkley-sized but), it will take everyone staying healthy and playing up their potential to make it happen. Realistically, I think the Jazz are still a couple of years away.
Based on where the “experts” are predicting them to finish, however, they'll be a lot closer than most people think this season.
Projected 2010-11 Record: 55-27
(1st in Northwest division, 2nd in Western Conference, lose to Lakers in Western Conference Finals)
Do Preseason Wins Mean Anything?
October 20, 2010 -
I’ve never been one to put much stock in preseason results. These games are less about winning and more about fine-tuning rosters, evaluating young players, and experimenting with lineup combinations. Starters rarely play more than 30 minutes, and the best players are rarely on the floor at the end, even in close games.
That said, with last night's victory over the Lakers the Jazz are now 7-0 in the preseason, with 5 of those victories coming on the road and 6 coming against 2009-10 playoff teams. That’s gotta count for something, right?
Turns out there is a positive correlation (rated at 0.4 for you stats geeks) between preseason wins and regular-season performance. Since 2004-05, teams that post a winning record in the preseason have made the playoffs 65% of the time, whereas only 38% of teams with a losing preseason record made the postseason. Taking it a step further, every team that has gone undefeated or had only one loss during the preseason made the playoffs. Only one team, the 2007-08 Cavs, earned a playoffs berth after posting one win or less in the preseason.
While I’m encouraged by those statistics, I’m much more excited by the way the new-look Jazz have played than the fact that they have yet to lose. For example:
- I’m excited that Al Jefferson was able to frustrate (if not dominate) Pau Gasol at both ends of the court -- something Boozer could never dream of doing
- I’m excited that Andrei Kirilenko is playing with more confidence than I’ve seen from him in years
- I’m excited that baby-faced Gordon Hayward dropped 26 points on the Lakers (primarily against their starters) while showing off an array of all-around skills
- I’m excited that CJ Miles is embracing his new 6th-man role and providing a much-needed scoring punch off the bench
- I’m excited that Fesenko looks fitter, faster, and more focused than I've ever seen
- I’m excited that Jeremy Evans -- who can jump out of the gym -- is playing light years beyond my wildest expectations and could actually work his way into the rotation this season
- I’m excited that team defense seems to be improving as the preseason progresses
I could actually keep going, and that’s a testament to how good this team has looked. All these positive observations mean much more to me than an undefeated preseason record.
Still, I’d much be 7-0 than 0-7.
Jazz-Suns Preseason Impressions
October 15, 2010 -
I came home from work yesterday to a pleasant surprise: The Jazz/Suns preseason game was televised (in HD) on League Pass. This was my first opportunity to actually watch the new-look team (referring both to the uniforms and the new players), so needless to say I was excited.
After watching the game, I’m still excited.
Recognizing that a single preseason game is hardly a valid sample size, here’s my analysis, player by player, of what I saw last night.
Let's start with the new guys:
Al Jefferson: I have officially added Minnesota GM David Kahn to my Christmas card list for the absolute gift he gave us this summer. Jefferson is a beast. Watching him go to work in the post was a thing of beauty. It’s so nice to have a player you can throw the ball into and expect him to score. His footwork, ball fakes, and touch around the basket are superb. Without a double team, he scored at almost every opportunity.
I was surprised at the fluidity of his mid-range shot. His passing, believed to be one of his weaknesses, looked solid to me. He had 3 assists, including a beauty to a cutting Millsap for a layup.
I was literally giddy after witnessing Jefferson’s performance. I know it’s just the preseason, but he was unstoppable in the post. Once he gets a little more comfortable in the system, I could see him averaging 25 points per game. Yes, he looked that good. Carlos Boozer will not be missed. Period.
Gordon Hayward: On the one hand, he definitely looked like a rookie. On the other hand, he showed me enough positives to make me feel he will turn into a legit player. I’m just not sure how long it will take.
He wasn’t abused on defense the way I feared he might be. On offense, his shot wasn’t falling and he clearly struggled to finish through contact. He seemed to be thinking too much and probably still has some nerves. He did, however, show some great court vision and passing skills. The ball doesn’t stop when it comes to him. He seems to understand the offense already, which is a great sign. I’m still not convinced the Jazz made the right pick, but I’m also not convinced they didn’t.
Jeremy Evans: Holy freakin’ pogo stick! This kid can jump. High. Evans was probably the player I was most excited to watch after reading about his freakish athleticism. He didn’t disappoint. The guy is just instant energy. While I originally expected Evans to spend the year with the Flash (if he even made the final roster), I now think he may crack the rotation at some point. Last night he had 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, and 1 assist… in only 13 minutes. He needs polish and he needs muscle, but this kid has a bright future. KOC found another 2nd-round steal.
Earl Watson: I was thrilled when the Jazz signed him. He didn’t show me much last night, although he did have 4 assists with no turnovers. It will take a while for him to get comfortable, but I think he’ll be a solid backup for Deron. I love his intensity on defense.
Raja Bell: Good to have him back in a Jazz uniform. Didn’t do much statistically, but you can tell he just fits on this team.
Now for the incumbents:
Deron Williams: He was solid but not spectacular. You can tell he has another gear that he simply hasn’t engaged yet because there is no reason to. His play was a little sloppy, but his brilliance still shone through at times. I expect an MVP-caliber year from him.
Andrei Kirilenko: What is up with the hair? A few more inches and he’ll have the full Fabio. Aside from that, he looked good. Nothing we haven’t seen before. He does so many things that don’t show up in the box score, and last night was no exception.
Paul Millsap: He had a solid game. Didn’t have a particularly eye-popping stat line, but he looked good. While Jefferson’s presence will probably hurt his stats a little, I think their games will actually complement each other pretty well.
Kyrylo Fesenko: Fess actually looks quite a bit better to me. I heard he dropped 20 pounds, and it really shows with his improved mobility. He is amazingly quick and agile for a player his size. He still makes boneheaded mistakes, but this performance gave me hope that he may actually have a breakout season.
CJ Miles: He looked OK. Not a great game, but definitely not a poor one. He was 2 for 2 from behind the arc, so that’s a bonus. I may have my expectations a little too high for CJ, mostly because I think the Jazz will really need him this year. I hope he finds his groove quickly.
Ronnie Price: Barely played and didn’t take a shot. I think we know what to expect from him by now.
Everybody Else (Gaines, Jeffers, Thompson, Nichols): These four are competing for what will likely be a single, final roster spot. None of them particularly stood out last night. Gaines is a long shot simply because Utah already has 3 PGs with guaranteed contracts (Williams, Price, Watson). Jeffers plays hard but is undersized (I think he got his shot blocked 3 or 4 times). I didn’t really get much of a feel either way for Thompson or Nichols, so I have no opinion yet as to whom I prefer.
In summary, I was pretty impressed with the team as a whole. They still have rough edges as would be expected with so many new faces. Still, something just feels good about this group. Can’t wait to watch more of them and see how accurate my first impressions prove to be.
From Offseason to Preseason
October 6, 2010 -
Kevin O’Connor did his job. Now it’s Jerry Sloan’s turn.
Following one of the busiest offseasons in team history, the Utah Jazz are now officially in preseason mode. Sloan has the not-insignificant task of integrating a plethora (can’t ever use that word without thinking of El Guapo on The Three Amigos) of new faces, most of whom will be expected to contribute in a big way. This was by no stretch of the imagination a typical Jazz summer.
To put things in perspective, it’s entirely possible that Deron Williams will be the only Jazz player to start the first game of both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. That’s big change, especially for a conservative franchise like Utah. You have to go back five years (Deron’s rookie season) to find the last time 3 starters changed from one season to the next. The Jazz have never changed 4 starters over one season in my 20+ years as a fan.
To put it lightly, Sloan has his work cut out for him.
That said, this may end up being one of his easier coaching years in recent history. Why, you ask? Because looking at this roster, I see more toughness and fewer egos. I see guys who are committed to working hard and getting better. I see guys who actually want to be on this team and seem to genuinely like each other. Music to Jerry's ears.
(I also see more size and athleticism than I ever recall seeing on a Utah team, but I’ll save that for another post.)
It can be tough to separate fact from fiction in the world of blogs and internet bulletin boards, but from everything I gather, this team seems to be on the same page. The new guys are all saying the right things, and the “inside” scoop is that all the players are particularly high on Jefferson, Hayward, and 2nd-round pick, Jeremy Evans.
I’m not ready to make my season predictions yet (I’ll wait to watch a few preseason games before doing that), but I’m feeling optimistic. Jerry has a big job to do, but I think he’ll do it well. And I think he’ll enjoy it.