Jazz season preview: Can they finally get over their playoff slump?

Jazz season preview: Can they finally get over their playoff slump?

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Jazz season preview: Can they finally get over their playoff slump?

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The Utah Jazz enter the season as a team with something to prove after falling short in the last playoffs.

There is nothing easy about what Utah accomplished last year. They finished with the best record (52-20) in the league and outscored opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions, nearly three points better than what any other team achieved. How were they able to do that? Why didn’t it work in the postseason?

Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Jazz campaign.

Roster changes

Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs

Returning: Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, Udoka Azubuike, Miye Oni, Elijah Hughes and Trent Forrest

Additions: Rudy Gay (San Antonio), Hassan Whiteside (Sacramento), Eric Paschall (Golden State), Marques Bolden (Canton Charge), Malik Fitts (LA Clippers), Jared Butler (Baylor), MaCio Teague (Baylor), Derrick Alston Jr. (Boise State) and Justin James (Sacramento)

Departures: Ersan Ilyasova, Derrick Favor (Oklahoma City), Georges Niang (Philadelphia), Matt Thomas (Chicago), Juwan Morgan (Boston) and Jarrell Brantley (UNICS Kazan)

Strengths

Ja Morant vs. Rudy Gobert

* Championship teams start on the defensive end… When you remove garbage time from the equation, per Cleaning the Glass, the Jazz finished 2020-21 with the best defensive rating in the NBA. Their defensive anchor, Rudy Gobert, has won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in three of the past four seasons. While his insane wingspan allows him to be one of the NBA’s premier shot-blockers and rebounders, his impact shows up even if he isn’t forcing turnovers. His presence is on the defensive end is unquantifiable and is a major factor in Utah’s past, present and future success. If he is able to win another DPOY, he will tie Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutumbo for the most in NBA history.

* Utah has a star on the rise and he is only getting better… People may not realize this because he is about to enter his fifth year in the league but Donovan Mitchell was only 24 years old last season. As he continues to get more experience, though, he has been getting more and more dominant. He made that loud and clear while under the bright lights of the postseason. Mitchell never failed to score 20 points during the 10 playoff games he played in 2021. He reached 30 points seven times and scored at least 37 points, including a 45-point game against the Clippers, four times. The league has a ton of talent but Mitchell could be an All-NBA candidate if his progression continues.

* They’re a force to be reckoned with from beyond the arc… When you think of three-point shooting, do you first think of the Jazz? If you’re like most fans, you more immediately think of the Splash Bros on the Golden State Warriors. But in 2020-21, believe it or not, Utah set the records for the most three-pointers made per game. They also set the record for most three-pointers made in a single half (18) and most three-pointers in back-to-back NBA games (50) as well. As we wrote back in February, the Jazz created a ton of easy looks that were either wide-open or from the corner.

Weaknesses

* What happens to this team’s confidence during the playoffs? Utah had a seemingly easy matchup against the Clippers, who were without Kawhi Leonard down the stretch. The Jazz had a menacing defense in the regular season, assuredly, but somehow allowed a career-high 39 points to Terance Mann in an elimination game. They somehow blew a 25-point lead in that match, which was their fourth loss in a row after securing an early two-win lead. That came just one year after they blew a 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in 2020. Will they be able to shake that monkey off their back come next postseason?

* They may not have the depth to survive injuries… One of the reasons they fell short in the playoffs is because Mitchell had an ankle injury and veteran guard Mike Conley had a hamstring injury. Conley’s impressive bounce-back season was incredibly valuable to their success this past season. But he will soon turn 34 years old and he is not getting any younger. Injuries may be a bit more prevalent for him as he enters the later stages of his career. Unless rookie guard Jared Butler is more NBA-ready than typical first-year players have been for the Jazz, their backcourt may not be deep enough to survive health issues.

* Turnovers are a problem for this roster… While the Jazz have one of the best defenses in the league, they have struggled with defensive playmaking. Only one team recorded fewer steals than this roster did (474) in 2020-21. Meanwhile, on the other side of the floor, only one team in the NBA recorded more turnovers on lost balls than Utah did (215) this past season. It was one of the glaring issues the team faced in their losses.

Depth Chart

Possible moves

Kris Dunn, Memphis Grizllies

* The Utah Jazz tweaked the end of their bench but are mostly betting on continuity to get them over the playoff hump. They may keep things quiet from here on out as they are already sitting on $186.5 million in combined payroll and luxury tax payments. They currently have one roster spot open and they could keep it open throughout the season to maintain flexibility, keep expenses frozen, and pursue a veteran in the buyout market. If the Jazz were to make a significant change to their lineup, ideally it would be to add a defensive-minded, versatile forward, Such a move could come at the expense of shooting, but unless every starter not named Rudy Gobert starts to pick up the defensive slack, Utah could get exploited again in the playoffs.

* Utah still has the flexibility to improve on the margins. For starters, they have some young players on low salaries they could consolidate into another rotation player without increasing payroll significantly. For example, last year they took a shot on defensive specialist Shaquille Harrison. What if they were to parlay Udoka Azubuike and another minimum-salary player into a better version of Harrison in Kris Dunn?

* Being able to add more talent to the end of the bench is very possible. Also, they have $7.5 remaining in a trade exception they generated from trading Derrick Favors. It seems more likely that the Jazz would let it expire after trading a first-round pick to reduce their tax bill significantly, but it can be viewed as an emergency resource in case of a major injury.

* While it seems likely that the Jazz will hold onto all their rotation players, one guy worth keeping an eye on is Joe Ingles. The seven-year veteran is entering his age-34 season and while his game has aged well, and should continue to, Ingles’ name has been in the trade rumor mill this past offseason. His $13 million salary is very moveable and the Jazz could look to capitalize on him if they don’t view him in their long-term plans. Ingles becomes extension-eligible on October 1, so it will be interesting to see if the Jazz want to keep the Ingles-era going past this season.

– Yossi Gozlan

Salaries

Prediction

1st in the Northwest Division, 2nd in the Western Conference

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