Posted by: Derek S. on October 18th, 2012The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of the Utah Jazz.
Enjoy Jazz Fans!
SALT LAKE CITY — The Western Conference looks like it will be a three-team race again this season between the conference defending champion Thunder, the newly reloaded Lakers and the aging but timeless Spurs.
But if you look beyond 2012-13, a dark-horse contender is quietly emerging in the mountains, one that could be the NBA’s team to beat in the near future.
In August, John Hollinger and I ranked the Utah Jazz No. 4 in our Future Power Rankings.When Hollinger and I aggregated the numbers, it raised a few eyebrows — including ours and those of a number of observers around the league.
Newly hired Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey was among those taken aback.
“We are a long way from No. 4 right now,” Lindsey said. “I can understand on the future ratings why there’s reason to be optimistic — with the cap flexibility Kevin has created and the young players that we do have — but cap room doesn’t win you games. Young players, almost by definition, don’t win you games.”
No one can predict the future precisely in a league where injuries, trade demands, complicated cap rules and luxury tax thresholds can shift a team’s fortunes overnight. But over the past few years, our Future Power Rankings have done a solid job of giving us some clues. Most recently, the FPR signaled the rise of the Pacers well before Indiana finished with the third-best record in the East last season.
Will the Jazz be the next young team to take the league by storm?
I spent some time in Salt Lake City over the past week to dig a little deeper.
Players (Jazz Rank: 11 out of 30)
Of the five categories Hollinger and I use to develop our ratings, “Players” is weighted most heavily, accounting for 50 percent of a team’s score. After fiddling with different models, we have found that this number is about right.
Cap room doesn’t win championships. Neither does a market or a team’s management. They can all contribute in a big way, but ultimately it’s the players who decide the games.
The three teams above the Jazz in the FPR (the Heat, Thunder and Lakers) have LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard — the top three players in our ESPN Player Rankings this summer. Add in Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Pau Gasol,Steve Nash and Chris Bosh and those three teams have nine of the top 20 players in the league.
On that end, the Jazz are a work in progress. Their best players – Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson,Mo Williams and Marvin Williams — are good but not superstars. All have expiring contracts in the next two years, which means that there will be a ton of cap space down the road, and that the team’s foundation will likely change.
While Millsap, Jefferson and the two Williamses are all re-signable, the current thinking is that some, if not all, will walk or be moved.
It’s what the Jazz have waiting in the wings that has Hollinger and me bullish on the Jazz.
Third-year forward Derrick Favors and third-year wing Gordon Hayward are coming off excellent sophomore seasons. Second-year center Enes Kanter and guard Alec Burks have enormous potential. All four players have had productive summers, and the Jazz are optimistic that they may start to see bigger dividends this season.
Favors and Hayward spent the summer playing for the U.S. Select Team, which practices against Team USA, and the experience was eye-opening for both players. Practicing and playing against the best in the NBA has its privileges.
“You aren’t going to get any better competition in the world. … I was proud to have D-Fav on the team as well. Having two young guys from the same team was really cool,” Hayward said. “To me, it’s a reaffirmation that we belong in the league and that we’re here and that people believe that someday we can get to where those guys are. This is the first step.”
Both Favors and Hayward walked away from the experience with a better understanding of how much effort the best players in the league expend.
“It showed me I have to work a little harder to improve my game,” Favors said. “I’ve got to keep developing my offensive game. I think my defense is pretty sick, but my range, my post moves and everything else still need a lot of work.”
Said Hayward: “They have extreme discipline — all of them. Us young guys have a lot of talent, but sometimes we don’t know how to harness it. They make the right play almost every time. There are so many great players on that team and they could all play selfishly, but instead they play to win.”
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin raved about both the progress and chemistry that Hayward and Favors showed over the summer. Favors has been working on his low-post game. Hayward is no longer settling for jumpers; now he is putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket. Just as importantly, they appear to be working together.
“They’re two great players who continue to get better and who are learning from each other,” Corbin said. “They are playing off each other at different times, and we continue to expect them to grow.”
Kanter and Burks have also had their moments.
The Jazz staff has been working with Burks on his handle all summer. Burks may be the Jazz’s best player when it comes to attacking the basket, and he also ran the point for much of the second half in a recent exhibition game. While he likely won’t see a lot of minutes at the 1 this season, Corbin said he has the potential to play there down the road.
Kanter dropped an amazing 50-plus pounds this summer and is down to a svelte 241. He appears much more athletic than a season ago.
“It’s so much better,” Kanter said. “I’m running the floor faster; it’s easier to jump and jump higher. I feel like my knees and my back feel so much better. I just feel like a completely different player.”
A lot of players think they’ve arrived and feel like ‘I’m here. I’ve been drafted in the lottery. I’m supposed to be this.’ There’s an entitlement, and those kids don’t have that.
”– Jazz vice president Kevin O’Connor on his team’s young core
Most importantly, he is finally getting the reps that he missed for more than two years. Kanter’s plans to play in U.S. in high school and in the NCAA with the Kentucky Wildcats were both stymied by eligibility questions and he then was stuck in five-and-a-half-month-long lockout to start his NBA career.
In the Jazz’s first four preseason games, Kanter is averaging 12 points and 10.8 rebounds in 20 minutes a game. He even made a “SportsCenter”-worthy dunk on Cole Aldrich on Friday night — something that was unheard of last season.
Team vice president O’Connor, who drafted Kanter despite having zero game film on him, is happy with the progress, but he is preaching patience.
“He still has to get a feel for the game of basketball,” O’Connor said. “He didn’t play for almost two years. The thing he’s done is he’s lost weight. He’s gotten himself quicker. He’s done the things we’ve asked him to do, but he’s 20 years old and if you really want to go in terms of basketball age, he’s 18. He’s still not there yet.
“Anyone who expects him to make a quantum leap … he’s going to be a slow work in progress. When we drafted him, I thought he was a couple of years away from where we’ll know where he’ll get to. But are we pleased with the progress? Of course.”
Most importantly for the Jazz, the four youngsters seem to genuinely like one another.
“We have a really bright future,” Favors said. “If we keep working together, we can really be something special. We’ve built good chemistry together.”
“I think they’ve made great strides,” O’Connor said. “I think there’s a lot more to go. The key point with them is that they are willing to work to get better. A lot of players think they’ve arrived and feel like ‘I’m here. I’ve been drafted in the lottery. I’m supposed to be this.’ There’s an entitlement, and those kids don’t have that.
“They have to ratchet it up a little bit and play at an NBA level all of the time, but the focus they have is lengthening and it has to lengthen a little bit more.”
Management (Jazz Rank: 8 out of 30)
Spurs GM R.C. Buford and Thunder GM Sam Presti may be the two standard bearers for NBA general managers. But ask just about any exec in the NBA who the most underrated GM in the league is and they all come back with the same answer: O’Connor.
O’Connor has quietly built a perennial winner in one of the smallest markets in the NBA. He has done it despite the fact that free agents rarely have Utah as a preferred destination, and he has done it in the face of two retiring stars (Karl Malone and John Stockton) and another upheaval 18 months ago when they shipped out All-Star Deron Williams.
Hollinger and I probably have the Jazz underrated in this area. O’Connor, with the help of an ownership family that has been willing to pay the luxury tax when necessary and with the smallest front office and scouting staff in the league, has been working wonders in Utah for years.
Incredibly, the Jazz have built and rebuilt their teams without having to spend years in lottery purgatory like so many teams. O’Connor has insisted that young players be surrounded by veterans and earn their spots in the rotation. His goal every season is to make the playoffs. He has a deep-seated belief that you need talent — but talent without a winning culture stagnates and regresses.
“The Celtics didn’t make the playoffs for years after they lost all of those guys, and I think after all those years of losing, you can develop a bad culture,” O’Connor said. “You look at teams that try and go that route and some have success. Sam Presti has done a great job, but there are a lot of teams that don’t have that success and they get into bad habits. The young players start thinking that points and rebounds are how you judge success and not wins and losses.
“I think we’ve always been fortunate that when we’ve had a young team, we’ve had someone like Matt Harpring, we had a Raja Bell, those type of guys that will compete every night. This time around, Paul Millsap is an anchor, and having guys like that on the team are awfully important because they help us win and the young guys understand what winning is, what making the playoffs is and then watching us get our tails kicked by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs and knowing there’s another step we all have to take.”
Now, he is taking another step — this time in the front office. The team has spent the past year expanding its coaching staff and scouting staff and, with the hire of Lindsey this summer, bringing in someone who can help O’Connor run the day-to-day affairs of the team. Contrary to popular belief, however, O’Connor isn’t retiring anytime soon.
“I’m not stepping away,” he said. “I’m stepping sideways and hoping to still contribute.”
Lindsey is coming off stints as an assistant GM in Houston and San Antonio. O’Connor insists the franchise wasn’t following the league trend of hiring Spurs and Thunder front office people to model after them.
“We told Dennis, ‘Don’t bring San Antonio with you. Don’t bring Houston with you. Just bring the parts you want, and most importantly, bring Dennis Lindsey,’” O’Connor said.
Besides, Lindsey said, there isn’t any magical Spurs model to bring.
“There’s no San Antonio model,” he said. “It starts with David Robinson and moves to Tim Duncan and moves quickly to Gregg Popovich. They get this gift of great scouting and a little bit of luck in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and the list keeps going on and on.
“I kind of laugh a little bit on this. To line all of those things up again would be very unique. What you can line up is lessons about humility, hard work and character and strong evaluators and good coaches that develop players and get people of strong character that you can build around over time. We [the Spurs] learned a lot of lessons from the Jazz on those areas.
“I’m not coming from the Spurs and saying we’re going to change this and that. I like what’s been happening here. The Jazz have been doing things the right way. There are a lot of cool, progressive things I’ve learned from the Jazz, and hopefully that will be vice versa and we can marry those systems together.”
Money (Jazz Rank: 3 out of 30)
While things on the court and in the front office are looking up for the Jazz, where the Jazz ranked the highest in our FPR was in the Money section.
Over the next two summers, the Jazz will have loads of cap space to use if they choose. Jefferson, Millsap and Mo Williams all come off the books this summer. Marvin Williams comes off the year after. The Jazz are looking at something in the neighborhood of $30 million-plus in cap room in July 2013.
While the Jazz have not historically been free-agent magnets, the cap flexibility allows them to re-sign their own players if they want, make trades with teams looking for cap flexibility and make offers that few teams can match.
Given its young core, the team doesn’t have to panic. It can wait for the right player or the right deal before it pulls the trigger.
Few teams will have the flexibility that the Jazz have while maintaining all their young talent.
Market (Jazz Rank: 23 out of 30)
If there’s been one negative over the years for the Jazz, it’s been their market. While the team sports some of the most passionate fans in the league, a low cost of living, exquisite ski resorts and a committed ownership team, players tend to gravitate to warmer climates and larger populations.
While Malone and Stockton loved living in Utah, the market situation bit them with Deron Williams. At the start of the 2010-11 season, Williams, an All-Star, began to send the signals to Jazz officials that when he became a free agent, he wanted to go to a bigger market.
O’Connor had seen what happened in Denver, where Carmelo Anthony was holding the franchise hostage over his trade demands. O’Connor acted decisively. The minute the Nuggets finally agreed to a trade with the Knicks for Anthony, O’Connor called the Nuggets’ other suitor, the Nets, and offered them Williams for a package headlined by Favors.
The deal came together quickly and stunned Williams and Jazz fans alike. Williams got his wish — a big market and a team with a huge payroll. The Jazz got another lease on life.
While it’s possible something like that could happen again with Utah and Favors, Hayward, Kanter or Burks, the Jazz have proven to be as adept at anyone in the league of getting value in trades and free agency.
Draft (Jazz Rank: 10th out of 30)
As an up-and-coming playoff contender, the Jazz might not land in the lottery in the near future. But the team does own the Warriors’ pick next summer (top-7 protected), and O’Connor has been as savvy as any team in the NBA when it comes to pawning off veterans for future lottery picks.
When the Jazz are drafting, they’ve been one of the better teams in the league when it comes to talent evaluation. Millsap, for example, was the 47th pick in the draft. They also discovered Mo Williams in the second round — also with the 47th pick (and recently reacquired him).
With the addition of Lindsey, the Jazz will employ an even more comprehensive scouting system, especially when it comes to using advanced statistics to evaluate talent.
“We needed to expand, especially the analytical part of it,” O’Connor said. “In order for us to succeed in a small market, we can’t make mistakes on contracts, and we’ve got to get it right with free agents, draft picks and trades. It requires a lot of work. It requires you to use every tool available to you. I think that Dennis is someone that has proven he can help us there. The Spurs have done a terrific job drafting players of value in the second half of the draft. We think that combining what Dennis brings to the table with our own staff, we’ll continue to get better.”
As for Lindsey, he is still not ready to concede the Jazz have the fourth-best future in the league. Expectations are a tricky thing.
“It’s human nature when you have expectations. It’s good,” Lindsey said. “Whether it’s your kid or your job, it’s good to strive to be the best. You can be championship caliber on how you comport yourself and how you do your business and not win a championship.
“I’m not going to put an arbitrary win-loss total on our expectations going forward. I’m going to judge us day to day. If you put enough good days together, you can have a lot of success in the league.”
The rest of the league should take notice.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.