29 September 2009
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. A Jazz nucleus that made the conference finals in 2007 and took the eventual conference champion Lakers to six tough games in 2008 was poised to take the final step in 2009. With all the key players in their prime and a few younger ones emerging, all eyes were on Utah to push for a spot in the Finals.
Instead, the Jazz struggled with injuries and inconsistency all season and never quite found a rhythm. Star point guard Deron Williams labored through an ankle injury in the first half of the year while All-Star forward Carlos Boozer missed 45 games with knee and hamstring problems. Utah managed to tread water in spite of it all, as reserve forward Paul Millsap replaced Boozer and played so well that he nearly made the All-Star team. A 12-game winning streak in February put them at 41-23 just as Boozer returned and, seemingly, left them poised to claim the division title and make a deep playoff run.
That's when the Jazz unveiled their worst surprise. Utah went 7-11 over its final 18 games -- including embarrassing home losses to injury-riddled Minnesota and Golden State squads -- to fall to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. In the postseason, it fell in five easy games to L.A., with all four losses coming by double digits. In short, the Jazz were far less threatening than advertised, going 8-15 in the final 23 contests.
In that stretch, they went 2-12 on the road, and that's part of a larger, troubling trend. Utah was 33-8 at home but 15-26 on the road, the largest home-road split in the league, and it marked the second straight season the Jazz claimed that honor. In the 2007-08 season, the split was actually worse: 37-4 at home, but 17-24 on the road. Over the past two seasons, their 38-game differential is far and away the league's largest. Their 70-12 home record is tied with Boston for the league's best in that span, but their road record is just 13th (see chart).
Playing on the road was one thing, but the Jazz also struggled in back-to-backs. Actually "struggled" is putting it mildly; they became an expansion team, going 4-18 on the second night of a back-to-back. It doesn't seem obvious why -- the Jazz were one of the league's deeper teams, so if anything, they should have thrived in that situation.
One key reason the Jazz underperformed was because their offense wasn't nearly as potent as it was the previous season -- Utah finished ninth in offensive efficiency after ranking second in 2007-08. The injuries to Williams and Boozer obviously were factors, but so was the lack of an outside threat. The Jazz ranked 27th in both 3-point attempts per field goal attempt and in 3-point accuracy; combine those two data points, and only Oklahoma City and Philadelphia had a less threatening perimeter game.
Utah still punished opponents inside, of course -- a fixture of the Jazz attack under Jerry Sloan -- and ranked second in the NBA in free throw rate. The Jazz finished fourth in 2-point field goal percentage, too, and had they complemented that inside power with more 3s, they would have been a devastating offensive force. Instead, they ranked seventh in true shooting percentage, not nearly good enough for an offensive team with title aspirations.
Defensively, the Jazz were their usual middling selves. As ever, they fouled at an unusually high rate, though they've dialed it back enough in recent years that they no longer annually lead the league. Utah was 26th in opponent free throw rate, and as a result, 19th in opponent TS%. Despite ranking third in forcing turnovers, their opponents' high TS% doomed the Jazz to a 12th-place finish in defensive efficiency -- again, a good showing, but below expectations for a team that hoped to win the West.
To complete the disappointing tone of the season, the Jazz also suffered a huge loss off the court -- the death of beloved owner Larry Miller. The team now is under the aegis of his son, Greg; so far, at least, not much has changed.
As with several teams this summer, Utah found its offseason colored heavily by two words that have nothing to do with basketball: luxury tax. With Deron Williams' maximum extension kicking in this season and the luxury tax level taking a slight dip, the Jazz suddenly found themselves well above the threshold. They hoped to move under it because Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver all had the ability to opt out of their contracts; somewhat to the team's surprise, all three opted to stay in Utah and play out the final year.
As a result of those decisions and matching an offer sheet to Millsap, the Jazz enter training camp about $14 million over the luxury tax threshold. They've never paid the tax before, and as a small-market team, aren't terribly well-equipped to take the hit. Fortunately, their financial foundation is otherwise solid, so they may swallow the bitter pill to keep the nucleus together.
On the other hand, if the team struggles, it makes little sense to keep Boozer's $12 million deal on the books -- at a cost of $24 million when the tax is included -- and the Jazz are likely to donate him to a team sitting under the cap if that situation arises.
But one thing they're unlikely to do, regardless of cost, is trade what has become an incredibly valuable asset -- a completely unprotected first-round draft pick from the Knicks in 2010. Utah acquired the pick several years ago, but looking at the Knicks' roster, it could very well end up being the first pick in the draft.
Aside from widespread debate about whether the team could handle the tax and if or when Boozer would be traded, very little happened in Salt Lake City this summer:
Drafted Eric Maynor and Goran Suton. Maynor will take over as the backup point guard after veterans Brevin Knight and Ronnie Price failed in that role last season. He's a savvy four-year player who doesn't have great upside, but as a 10-minute-a-night game manager, he provides decent value for the 20th pick. Plus, he's big enough that he might be able to pair with Williams in small backcourts at times. Second-round pick Suton surprised many by not playing in Europe to develop his skills; instead he will compete for a roster spot in training camp.
Matched Portland's four-year, $32 million offer sheet for Millsap. This was far and away the biggest decision of the summer, as it all but ensured the Jazz would pay a large luxury tax bill. The Blazers front-loaded the offer to maximize their division rival's financial pain, but for the Jazz, preserving the asset was more important than avoiding the tax. Basketball-wise, that perspective makes tons of sense. The Jazz were looking to a post-Boozer future after this season (or perhaps sooner if they trade him), and Millsap is the obvious successor at the position given how well he played a year ago.
Announced Matt Harpring would miss training camp. Harpring is staying home and will reportedly check back in six weeks on the progress of his troublesome knee and ankle injuries. While it seems highly likely he will end up retiring, neither he nor the Jazz has gone there yet.
On the court, it's a blow more stylistically than in terms of quality. Harpring's stats declined last season, but his physicality was one of the defining traits of Jazz basketball. With Kosta Koufos -- who is bigger and more skilled, but far less physical -- replacing him in the rotation, Jazz games will less resemble human pinball this season.
Incidentally, if Harpring can't play, the Jazz won't be eligible for any kind of medical exception to sidestep the luxury tax, except in the unlikely event he agrees to a buyout for less than the $6.5 million he's owed. They could get an injured player exception from the league worth $6.5 million to sign another player, but it would count against their tax assessment.
Biggest Strength: Interior Offense
The Jazz will once again pound the ball down opponents' throats, and few clubs are more qualified to attack this way. Up front, Utah overpowers opponents with the three-pronged attack of Okur, Boozer and Millsap, with each being a potent scorer. Boozer is the best of the bunch when healthy, as he combines tremendous strength and leaping ability with a decent shooting touch and arguably the best weak-hand finishing skills in the game. Okur is no slouch either -- while the 6-11 pivot man tends to hang out on the perimeter, he's one of the best shooting big men in basketball and supplements those points with a steady diet of putbacks.
Behind them is Millsap, who could win the league's Sixth Man award this year. Despite being a bit undersized and lacking a perimeter game, he's so powerful and athletic around the basket that opponents struggle to contain him. He was phenomenal as a replacement starter for Boozer, racking up 19 straight double-doubles at one point, and should see starter-type minutes despite coming off the bench.
Finally, don't forget about Koufos. The 7-footer played very well in his limited minutes a year ago and should see a lot more playing time with Harpring and Jarron Collins no longer on the roster.
That covers the frontcourt, but that's not the whole story. Utah's guards are nearly as good around the basket as the big men. Ronnie Brewer shot 55.8 percent and 50.9 percent the past two seasons largely by feasting on layups; few players are better at cutting off the ball. And at the point, the 6-3 Williams is a strong finisher who relentlessly attacks the paint, either setting up others or getting himself a layup and/or free throws.
Biggest Weakness: Wing Shooting
Utah is loaded at point guard and power forward and pretty well set at center too, leaving the wing positions as the major question marks. Those two spots are also largely responsible for the paucity of 3-point shooting the past few seasons, a major weakness since it's allowed opponents to pack in their defenses to stifle Utah's forays into the paint.
The biggest magnet for criticism is small forward Andrei Kirilenko, who came off the bench for most of last season but may return to a starting role this season. He's making $17 million a year but has played much better as a running power forward his entire career -- probably because he's a 30.8 percent career 3-point shooter and seems like a fish out of water on the perimeter.
It doesn't help that Brewer has the same issues. He's at 22.9 percent on 3s for his career and rarely even attempts them; when he and Kirilenko share the court together, it lets opponents double the paint with impunity.
As a result, the Jazz frequently turn to Korver and C.J. Miles. Korver is the best shooter of the bunch but the least skilled in other phases, and his 39.0 percent mark on 3-pointers last season wasn't strong enough for a one-trick pony. Miles got a promotion to the starting lineup but proved disappointing and may relinquish that job this season -- he struggled on defense and too often settled for contested long jumpers.
The best resolution would be to trade Boozer for a strong marksman on the wings and move Kirilenko to the 4, a move that would put Utah in a much stronger position to succeed offensively. Until such an event happens, however, Utah's wings are unlikely to scare opponents from packing in the defense to stop the power game.
Much of Utah's projection depends on how the Boozer situation resolves itself, and that's still the biggest unknown heading into the season. Boozer seemed less than enthusiastic about staying in Utah and the feeling appears to be mutual, but his contract and impending free agency makes him extremely difficult to move -- especially if the Jazz are looking mainly to unload his salary obligation.
In this case, all we can do is evaluate the Jazz based on the current roster. On that basis, it appears they have three-fifths of a championship team. Williams is rock-solid at the point, obviously, and the Boozer-Millsap-Okur-Koufos frontcourt can hang with any in the league offensively. Unfortunately, they didn't get nearly enough from the wing positions last season, and with the same four players returning, it doesn't seem that situation will improve.
If so, the Jazz will have a top-10 offense but not a top-3 one, and they need it to be the latter to challenge the West's elite because the defense is merely average. Roster changes stemming from the Boozer situation could alter this outlook for better or for worse, but at the moment, their prospects look only marginally better than last season's.
Prediction: 50-32, 3rd in Northwest Division, 6th in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.