Basketball. Season. Is. Back. For many in sports, those are four of the greatest words they can hear. For a faithful fanbase out in Salt Lake City, and the rest of the state of Utah, those words bring more excitement and anticipation this year than they have in some time.
Coming off an offseason that witnessed the departure of He Who Must Not Be Named, their first All-Star in years, many automatically ruled out the Utah Jazz from any contention talks. But to ever place doubt in general manager Dennis Lindsey, head coach Quin Snyder, or the ownership of Gail Miller is the first and last mistake one should make. Although the Jazz started out last year looking anything but great: injuries ravaged the team, new players were learning how to gel in a new and unique system, and the first half of the schedule was unforgiving while pieces were attempted to be put together. The Jazz got Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert back on the floor, watched as esteemed point guard Ricky Rubio became more comfortable with his new team and learned how to play under Quin Snyder, witnessed the ascension of a little known rookie out of Louisville start playing like a superstar in Donovan Mitchell, and saw the development of sharpshooter Joe Ingles’ franchise-record breaking season of most made threes.
The Utah Jazz had hope with all the pieces starting to come together, yet early in the new year still didn’t see the result show on the scoreboard or in the standings. That is, until the night of January 22, when the course of the season was changed. Utah didn’t just lose to the lowly Atlanta Hawks on that cold January night, they played their worst basketball of the season in an all-around pathetic and embarrassing effort. That performance was truly a wake-up call for a team that knew they were better than the dismal product they displayed. Their response? Winning the next 21 of 23 games, and finishing the season winning 29 of 35 to propel themselves into a fifth seed playoff berth where they unseated the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one and even won a game in the second round series to the first-seeded Houston Rockets.
The Utah Jazz shocked the basketball world last year with their inspirational play in the second half. They proved that they still belonged among the West’s heavyweights after losing their one and only All-Star in the prior offseason. While proving to the basketball world they belong, however, the Jazz aren’t necessarily in the company to rival the Golden State Warriors and advance out of the Western Conference playoffs. But could they be?
Continuity was the theme of the Utah Jazz’s 2018 offseason. GM Dennis Lindsey’s main goal was to retain free agents so that Utah can continue to build as one, something that isn’t seen in the basketball universe as much as it used to be. Jazz fans saw the return of notable free agents such as Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, brought back Raul Neto, and guaranteed the contracts of Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh. On top of these moves, the Jazz also snagged controversial Dukie Grayson Allen in the latter part of the first-round of the draft. They will see the return of Jae Crowder, Alec Burks, and Royce O’Neale, as well as a couple of players who may or may not get minutes this year in Georges Niang and Naz Mitrou-Long.
None of those names are necessarily flashy when put in context with the rest of the NBA, yet they are proven to be valuable assets in Coach Quin’s chess match. In order for the Utah Jazz to go above and beyond this season, they will rely on many of these names to take the next step. Favors has already proven himself at the four and to backup Gobert at the five if need be, but can Favors start consistently sinking the corner three that he has been working at? Exum and O’Neale proved to be valuable rotational players in the playoffs last year in guarding superstar players such as Paul George and James Harden; but Exum has yet to play a fully healthy season, which has surely impacted his growth, and O’Neale has aspects of his game he can make even better. Burks did not get many minutes during the regular season last year, but was an energetic shot in the arm for Utah’s offense in the playoffs, and will surely want to prove he’s deserving of more minutes this year. If Burks can play solid D and take smart shots approved by Quin and the rest of the coaching staff, he likely will gain minutes. Crowder fit seamlessly into the Jazz system after being traded from Cleveland, but was neither bad nor good, just average. After trimming down over this offseason, he is also one the Jazz will rely on to consistently get up shots. When Sefolosha went down for the season with a knee injury, the loss of his leadership presence was felt, and players admitted so. Lastly, the addition of Allen will be intriguing on how this roster is managed over the course of the season. Allen has shown glimpses of being great during the preseason, shooting the three consistently and getting to the basket with ease, yet his defense is lacking. Quin Snyder has said as much, stating that if Allen doesn’t improve his transition defense he will not be getting many minutes to start the year.
That’s the overall summary of the current look at the players of the Utah Jazz entering a season with high expectations. Players can only develop and get better as long as they stay healthy, which will be key for this year’s Jazz team. The loss of Rudy Gobert in the early part of last year was felt. The loss of Ricky Rubio in the second round of the playoffs all but eliminated Utah’s chances of potentially beating Houston. The Jazz have one of the deepest rosters in the league, but each player will play an important role in Snyder’s system, and it will be integral for the Jazz to be at full health throughout the course of the season.
In a world dominated by the Golden State Warriors, the West has a plethora of mighty teams and superstar players. Houston will be up there; OKC will remain one of the better teams; Portland will try and prove they still belong; Denver has a great young team that is surely on the verge of breaking through; New Orleans will attempt to have my MVP pick in Anthony Davis lead them back to the playoffs; the Lakers picked up some guy named LeBron in the offseason; Minnesota is a playoff team with Jimmy Butler, but everyone knows about that ongoing drama; then you have the rest of the West fill in, as the Clippers, Spurs, and maybe even Memphis will be fighting for the latter playoff spots.
The Western Conference is going to be a war this year. You should not sleep on this Utah Jazz team, which is typically the norm around this time of year. The Utah Jazz have a top defense, an offense that can break out at any given time, led by one the league’s more underrated coaches and a roster of unselfish players hungry to make a statement to the league; as the great Jerry Sloan once said, get your ice picks out, because basketball season is back.