In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s an extensive preview for the Utah Jazz:
2012-13 Record: 43-39; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 41-41; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 25 (was 27.5 prior to Burke injury)
Over the summer, the Utah Jazz passed the torch from their veteran starters to their young and promising bench players. It’s a move that would usually signal tanking, but this team is still going to be plenty competitive. With the notable exception of Paul Millsap, all of Utah’s starters were outplayed by their respective subs last year. Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and Al Jefferson are all terrible defensively. Foye has always been one of the worst rebounders in the league while Williams has never been a very good playmaker for a point guard. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward is a spectacular offensive player who contributed rebounds and great passing, Derrick Favors is an elite defensive big despite his youth, and Enes Kanter and Alec Burks showed flashes of talent all year. Jefferson and Millsap leave huge holes to fill on offense and the team’s bench isn’t going to wow anyone, but it would be foolish to expect this team to plummet to the bottom of the Western conference.
Here’s a table comparing the RAPM of Utah’s starters from last year to the RAPM of their new core:
And here’s a table of what Hayward, Favors, and Kanter were able to do on the court last year without Milsap and Jefferson (via NBA Wowy):
|Hayward w/o Jefferson, Millsap
|Hayward w/ Favors, Kanter
|Favors w/ Kanter
You can see some evidence from the two tables that while the offense might take a hit, the team’s defense might actually improve. Now let’s look at the new starters individually:
Trey Burke: I don’t watch extensive college tape, so I don’t have much of an opinion on whether or not Burke is closer an all-star caliber point guard or a high-level back-up. In all likelihood, 20-year old Trey Burke is in for a rough year whether or not he is the point guard of the future for the Jazz. As soon as he gets back from his finger injury, he will be a starter and should be given the keys to the offense. The temptation is there, but it would be a mistake to compare Burke to Damian Lillard, an older point guard who came into the league last year after four years of college experience and stepped into a situation with an all-star forward to help shoulder the offensive burden. Without a lot of established offensive threats around him, it wouldn’t be a stretch to envision a scenario where Burke records over 200 turnovers, shoots under 42% from the field, and is a turnstile on defense. Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings, John Wall, and Jonny Flynn all came into the league at age 20 or younger, immediately started for bad teams, and met the above criteria. Hickory-High projects Trey Burke’s RAPM to come in around a -1.7, which sounds about right for a rookie dealing with the steep learning curve that is the NBA (only the top two picks came in on the positive side of things). Fortunately, that’s still significantly better than Mo Williams’ RAPM from last season.
What Burke will bring to the table upon his return is a skill-set the Jazz have lacked in a point guard since dealing Deron Williams: he can make plays for others, get penetration, and run the pick-and-roll very well. Last year, Utah was dead last in drives to the rim and relied on a UCLA “flex” style offense. That should change this year with the slow footed, jump shooting Williams being replaced by the quicker Burke. Pick-and-rolls will become more common without the go-to post threats of Jefferson and Millsap. As a result, the ball movement should also increase. The Jazz’s offense slumped with Mo Williams on the floor last year because he was not a good distributor, but this study from Vantage Sports suggests Burke was the best distributor in college last year, and more drives means more collapsing by defenses, opening up outside shots for Hayward and Burks. This in turn should help boost the team’s three-point attempts.
The Jazz are in a bit of a bind with Burke out. On the one hand, the team isn’t trying to contend for the playoffs and there’s no point in investing too much in acquiring another point guard if Burke is going to be returning as the starter in a month or two. The team could also use Burke’s absence as an excuse to experiment with different line-ups and find out if Hayward or Burks can be more than part-time playmakers. On the other, the team is extremely thin at the point guard position and has plenty of assets to try and grab a veteran to fill-in and then move to the bench.
Burks: Alec Burks is good at driving to the rim and shooting the three, but as Zach Lowe points out, he has been too much of a black hole on offense. It remains to be seen if he is a willing/ good enough passer to be any more than a “break-in-case of emergency” ball-handler. With Burke out, Burks may see some starts at point guard, in which case we’d quickly find out. I am not overly optimistic on Burks playmaking abilities, and think he’s the most likely of the team’s new “core four” to end up with another team in the next few years.
Hayward: A lot of offensive focus is being placed on Hayward, the Jazz’s best player on that end of the floor. Hayward is obviously not an ideal number one scoring option. His strengths are scoring off spot-ups and cuts to the rim, both of which result from off-ball movement. It’s one thing to have Hayward lead the team in shot attempts, but if the ball gets put in his hands too often and tries to turn him into a shot creator, it won’t work out well. Unfortunately, with Burke out for the beginning of the season and the lack of a solid back-up point guard, there may not be any better options unless the Jazz acquire a point guard through a trade or free agency. As Andy Liu suggests in his Utah Jazz preview, Hayward will likely be tasked with the same role Kevin Durant was thrust into without Russell Westbrook. But even Durant, a more talented (though similar) player, struggled to carry his team alone.
Favors: Of the team’s new starters, Derrick Favors is the one with the most upside, which is a good thing since he is replacing the NBA’s most underrated star in Paul Millsap. Favors is raw offensively, but he could become a post-up threat. Currently his biggest value is his elite offensive rebounding and shot blocking. On defense, he is much closer to Millsap’s level and has the potential to surpass him on that end of the floor as early as this year. He can handle physical power forwards with ease, but struggles whenever he is tasked with chasing a stretch four around the court. This is an area where Favors can improve, given the issue is more conditioning himself to stay with them on the perimeter instead of gravitating back toward the paint. He will also need to improve his poor foul rate if he expects to see more than 32 or so minutes of court time a night.
Kanter: Utah’s center Enes Kanter has continued to bulk up and work on his offensive repertoire since coming into the league as a very raw prospect. Last year, the center was actually a solid mid-range shooter, hitting 40.7% of his 162 shots from that area (a higher percentage than Milsap and Hayward). It’s not exactly high enough to warrant him shooting from there a ton, but it makes him dangerous enough to help with the team’s spacing. Kanter may never become a great post defender, but for his experience level I think he’s already more than adequate. Plus, Favors’ defensive versatility should allow the team to have them switch defensive assignments if Kanter is getting abused.
The Coach: There’s one aspect of the Utah Jazz that has gone unmentioned so far: their head coach. Ty Corbin came under fire a lot last year for not giving more minutes to the team’s younger players. But ownership clearly wanted to chase a playoff spot, and Corbin likely figured sticking with the veteran players gave them the best chance to win games. A strong argument could be made that pairing Millsap and Jamal Tinsley with Burks, Hayward, and Kanter would have offered valuable experience while giving the team a better chance to win anyway, but the desire to preserve team chemistry by not disrupting the veteran hierarchy is understandable. Either way, this problem has effectively solved itself over the offseason. The veterans are gone, and the young kids will be given all the minutes they can possibly handle without having to constantly look over their shoulders in fear of being replaced by someone on the bench. Line-up management is Corbin’s biggest weakness, but this year the optimal rotation is clear. Another plus for the Jazz coach is that he finally started limiting opponent’s corner three attempts instead of leaving shooters wide open (now he just needs to get his own team more looks from those areas on the court). Corbin still has plenty to improve on, but it will be difficult for him to cost the team as many wins as he did last year.
Betting Advice: Take the over. The Jazz over was one of my favorite season total bets until Burke’s injury. I still think the over is a great value, but I’m a little worried how Hayward and Burks will adjust to being thrust into roles they likely aren’t suited for. Burke would have allowed Hayward and Burks to play off the ball and get open shots. But when he returns and gets some experience under his belt though, this team should be dangerous. The turnovers should increase and the offense will suffer plenty of dry spells, but I’d expect the defense, ball movement, rebounding, and three point attempts to all improve from last year. I see this team challenging for a win total somewhere around 35.