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)