As the NBA offseason plows ahead we’re taking some time to pause and assess the work each team is doing, building for the present and future. Today, we’re looking at the Utah Jazz.
Last season was the year the Utah Jazz were supposed to make the leap into the playoffs. An inability to win close games, among other things, pushed them out of the postseason and they are again looking for a way to carry their young core to the next level.
Inputs: Joe Bolomboy (PF, NBA Draft pick No. 52); Marcus Paige (PG, NBA Draft pick No. 55); Tyrone Wallace (SG, NBA Draft pick No. 60); George Hill (PG, traded from the Indiana Pacers); Boris Diaw (PF, traded from the San Antonio Spurs); Joe Johnson (SG, signed for two years, $22 million)
Outputs: Trevor Booker (PF, signed with the Brooklyn Nets); Trey Burke (PG, traded to the Washington Wizards)
The Jazz didn’t make a lot of moves this summer but the ones they did make were significant. Trading their No. 12 pick in the draft to Atlanta in a deal that netted them George Hill was a phenomenal deal that should pay immediate dividends. Hill is a terrific defender, capable of handling both guard spots, and was one of the best spot-up shooters in the league last season. He can create his own offense but is just as comfortable playing off other creators like Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward. Pairing him with Dante Exum should make for one of the best defensive backcourts in the league.
In addition to Hill, the Jazz added two key veterans in Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. Johnson’s offensive game is still potent, particularly when restrained as it will be in Utah. He is a very good spot-up shooter and can still exploit certain mismatches in the post or off the dribble. Although not an exceptional defender, his size should allow for plenty of lineup possibilities. It remains to be seen what Diaw has left, but in a small role he’s still a phenomenal passer who can space the floor a little and score in the post over smaller defenders.
The Jazz have themselves a ton of interesting pieces. Now it’s time to put the puzzle together.
3 Big Questions
To really dig deep on Utah’s offseason, I’m leaning on friends with some Jazz expertise. Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) is a senior writer, covering the Utah Jazz for Basketball Insiders. Jacob Rosen (@JacobLRosen) is a regular contributor to FanSided’s Hardwood Paroxysm. Ryan Aston (@mrmarykateolsen) is an editor for FanSided’s Purple and Blues.
Ben, Jacob, and Ryan were nice enough to help out by answering three big questions about Utah’s offseason.
What’s the right amount of Joe Johnson for this team?
Ben Dowsett: Not to cop out on my first answer, but that will truly depend on the scenario and context in question — which is exactly what made Johnson’s acquisition (along with the team’s other offseason moves) so valuable. Joe adds another versatile wing to an already stable group, further supporting the Jazz’s ability to shift guys around and switch up their looks without sacrificing talent anywhere.
A few things do seem relatively certain for Johnson given his skill set, first and foremost his likely appearance during crunch time minutes. The Jazz were among the league’s worst teams down the stretch of close games last year, a fact that may have cost them a playoff berth. There were concerns on both ends of the court during these minutes, and Johnson immediately fills a void offensively — “iso Joe” is a strong shooter with over a decade of experience in big moments, more than capable of creating his own shot when the game slows down and demands some individual heroics.
Outside stretch runs, expect a plug-and-play approach for Johnson from Jazz coach Quin Snyder. He’s insurance for a rough night from Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood, but can and will also appear in three-wing and small-ball units alongside them. Johnson is a good shooter off the ball (almost exactly 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in Miami last season, per SportVU), and another long body to help clog things up defensively. His veteran savvy and experience will go a long way for a group clearly in need of both last year.
Jacob Rosen: It’s a fascinating question. Joe Johnson averaged 33.9 minutes per game in Brooklyn last season, then 32.0 in Miami. Dating back to 2003-04, Johnson’s third season in the league, he ranks second behind only LeBron with 37,015 regular season minutes played and he’s played in 37.6 minutes per game. He hasn’t played anything resembling a complementary role since his first two years in Boston and Phoenix. Johnson was fairly efficient in Miami, despite still playing heavy minutes and similar usage to his time in Brooklyn. But it’s pretty clear there aren’t 30-plus minutes for him each night in Utah.
Rodney Hood is the future, Gordon Hayward is a fringe All-Star each season, and there needs to be playing time for Dante Exum, George Hill and others. Utah has an abundance of guards and wings. So, I’d go with about 20 minutes per game for Johnson. He’s not suddenly going to disappear and I don’t think he signs in Utah if he’s not getting any type of regular playing time. But there’s a happy medium there, somewhere.
Ryan Aston: Perhaps more than most teams, the Jazz are a squad whose whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Moreover, the way in which Snyder uses those parts may differ wildly from quarter-to-quarter, game-to-game, etc., especially when looking at the team’s supporting cast.
With that being the case, I think what exactly constitutes the “right amount” of Joe Johnson is going to be a fluid situation. There will undoubtedly be nights when he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the floor. But there are also going to be times when he’s relied upon heavily or he’s closing games. The Jazz roster has been constructed with versatility in mind and, as such, you’re going to see Johnson put into a variety of situations.
If I had to put a number on it, I would probably set the line right around 20 minutes per game as well.
This season, Boris Diaw will be .
Ben Doswett: Disappointed by the relative lack of good espresso in Utah?
Seriously, though, Diaw — like Johnson — serves not only as injury and poor play insurance, but as another node on the expanding decision tree at Snyder’s disposal. He’s the sort of multi-talented, creative fulcrum they lacked off the bench last season, capable of stretching defenses with his shooting and passing from the perimeter. He’ll fit like a glove with starter-heavy units as well, particularly within a strong defensive culture that should mostly hide his lack of athleticism at this point in his career.
Diaw will also be invaluable in the locker room and on the practice floor, especially for sophomore Trey Lyles. The 12th overall pick from 2015 is already a reasonable facsimile of late-career Diaw with his shooting and ability to put the ball on the floor from outside, but Boris can help fill out his skill set — passing in particular. The knowledge of Diaw ready to step in should keep Lyles hungry, plus offers Snyder a more experienced stretch big option when Trey doesn’t have it going. Diaw has begun to slow down a bit after 30,000 NBA minutes, but overuse luckily shouldn’t be a concern. Snyder can pick his spots and rely on Lyles’ fresh legs when needed, and could even look to keep Diaw’s load somewhat limited later in the year if a playoff berth (and potential run) seems likely.
Jacob Rosen: … a combination of a slight afterthought and a great mentor for Lyles. In San Antonio, he had to be shipped out to create cap room for Pau Gasol, but the Spurs now have a somewhat depleted frontcourt. In Utah, there’s clearly Favors and Gobert at the top, with Lyles as the recent first-round pick. There’s no more Trevor Booker, so there are some minutes available: Booker averaged 20.7 last season, Diaw had 18.2 in San Antonio. But I don’t see Diaw making a huge impact on the court on a regular basis. He’ll be an undoubted boost behind the scenes and working with Lyles and the young Jazz, but I think the Johnson fit is much more significant for the team’s scoring and firepower.
Ryan Aston: A strong veteran presence on the Jazz bench, hopefully. Serious question here — we all really like the team’s acquisitions this summer on paper, but what if things go horribly awry?
In theory, Diaw is going to be a smart player who keeps the ball moving, makes great reads on the floor and occasionally makes the opposition pay for leaving him open. However, you could play devil’s advocate and wonder whether or not the Jazz actually get the guy who was a non-factor in Charlotte or one who has outlived his usefulness in the NBA.
Having said that, given his turnaround with the Spurs, the fact that he should be motivated to get his deal guaranteed beyond next season and the good situation he’s coming into with the Jazz (and a fellow Frenchman in Gobert), I suspect he’ll have a positive impact on the floor and in the locker room.
He may not win Mr. Universe anytime soon, but he should be able to help the Jazz win games, even at 34-35.
With the return of Dante Exum and the addition of George Hill, how good can Utah’s defense be?
Ben Dowsett: It feels like forever ago, but the 2014-15 Jazz, with a healthy Exum, notched a post-All-Star break defensive efficiency figure that made last year’s Spurs look like scrubs. Scouting (or lack thereof) and simple variance played a role, sure, but that group spent their nights frustrating and ultimately shutting down some of the best offenses in the game with more length than any team in the league.
Adding Exum plus another 6-foot-9 wingspan in Hill may not quite return them to that historic form, but their ceiling defensively feels close to limitless. Utah’s expected starting lineup of Hill, Hood, Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert averages over seven feet per man in wingspan, with more oversized talent off the bench in Exum, Johnson, and Alec Burks. The Jazz have the size and mobility at every position to switch a ton, and perhaps the league’s best rim protector in Gobert to clean up inside when things go awry.
It may not be quantifiable, but all this doesn’t even mention another vital element: Another year of experience within Snyder’s defensive scheme. Playing the long game from the moment he stepped off the plane in Salt Lake City, Quin has consistently emphasized the manner in which his system will evolve as his core players spend more time within it. Injuries and inconsistency interrupted the continuation here somewhat last season; with more stability and depth locked down, look for a return to that process. If this group finds a way to become greater than the sum of their parts, they could be the league’s best defense pretty easily.
Jacob Rosen: Utah is the favorite to be the best defensive team in the NBA, no? With the Spurs losing Tim Duncan and replacing him with Pau Gasol, they’re not the same defensive juggernaut they used to be. The Hawks were the second-best defensive team in the league last season, but just lost Al Horford and it’s unknown if Dwight Howard can return to his defensive anchor-type ways. Other good defensive teams like Indiana and Golden State exist, but the boost of adding Exum and taking Hill from Indiana (what a trade!) is phenomenal for an already great defense, presuming health throughout the regular season. This team now has more depth to fend off possible injuries, so you have to imagine they’re going to be right up there. The upside is scary for the Jazz, but it’s still a significant jump for any non-playoff team to jump into the range of claiming homecourt advantage in the first round.
Ryan Aston: While Gobert is undoubtedly the piece that defines the Jazz defense, the role that Exum played in the team’s defensive schemes in the latter half of his rookie season was huge. His length and, subsequently, ability to recover, were crucial in setting the tone for defensive possessions.
With Exum on the shelf last season, the team’s pick-and-roll defense took a step backward and the bigger, faster, more athletic point men in the league were able to hurt the Jazz pretty consistently at the point of attack. Despite his best effort, Raul Neto lacked the quickness and measurables to compensate at times; Shelvin Mack’s size was a plus after the All-Star break, but the steak still lacked some of its past sizzle.
The Aussie’s return (and Hill’s arrival) should make a huge difference in allowing the Jazz to do some things in coverage that they just didn’t have the ability to accomplish last season with diminished length in the backcourt. Both players are ultra-long, athletic and willing to guard, and I think their presence will have a positive effect on every position out on the floor.
Will it be enough to match their historic-level defensive efficacy during the latter half of the 2014-15 season? That’s probably a lot to ask, but I do expect the Jazz to, at the very least, display a better ability to defend late in games en route to being a top five defense statistically.
With great age comes great responsibility
For the past few seasons, the Jazz have been characterized by their youth. With a focus on internal development they mostly eschewed adding veterans for the sake of experience, instead choosing to prioritize minutes and opportunities for their young talent. After missing the playoffs last season, they seem to have taken a different tack this summer adding players like Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill. All are older players who fill a role and should help solidify the team’s system and adaptability.
However, adding those veterans makes for a fairly significant change to the roster. According to Basketball-Reference, last season the Utah Jazz were the fourth-youngest team in the NBA (age not weighted by minutes played). This season, using Basketball-Reference’s technique for calculating average age, they are the 13th-oldest team in the league.
You can see the Jazz moving from one of the younger teams in the league to one of the older teams. In fact, no team increased their average age by more than the Jazz did this summer.
There are some caveats here. I’ve used the current rosters from RealGM, and every team is probably slightly younger than they will be when the season starts because of youthful training camp invites. A few teams will still be making free agent additions as well, so these numbers aren’t final. In addition, they aren’t weighted for minutes played. While Hill will likely play a lot of minutes for Utah, Johnson and Diaw are likely to be more lightly used and thus the team’s “effective” age may not increase as significantly as it appears to here.
Still, the message from Utah is clear. They have the youth and they have the veterans. They’re ready to win now.
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