As we emerge from the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz remain a bit of an after-thought in the NBA landscape. It probably relates to the lack of an identity that this team has had over the past couple of years. The last time that the Jazz had a true identity was when the legendary duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone graced the court together but that ended in 2003. During the ensuing ten years the Jazz have had some success as they qualified for the playoffs in five out of those ten years and had some very good players and coaching continuity with Jerry Sloan. However, the Jazz chose to do another reset, coinciding with Sloan’s retirement in 2010-2011, and establish a new identity.
This became very clear when the Jazz traded Deron Williams (their best player at the time) in 2010-2011 to the now Brooklyn Nets for a young and upcoming Derrick Favors. They also acquired Gordon Hayward via the NBA draft during that same season, and those two players are the young core of the current team. The Jazz added to that core depth by drafting Trey Burke this last summer who appears to represent the future at point guard.
Despite having a trio of young and exciting players, the Jazz are still not a very good team right now as you can’t hide from a record of 19-33. They are last in their division and far out of the playoff race. This is buttressed by the facts that they are 28th in the numberFire team power rankings, and they are also 28th from a team efficiency perspective with a nERD rating of 28 (far below the league average of 50). The real question, however, is how close are the Jazz to reemerging as a potential threat in the Western Conference.
Potential All Star
In my opinion the future of the Jazz should be built around Gordon Hayward. Now in his fourth season and still under the rookie contract that he signed, he’s improved his scoring every year and made significant progress as a rebounder and passer. He has solidified the shooting guard position and is averaging 16.3ppg, 5.6rpg and 5apg so far this season.
Now, the question is whether Hayward can take the next step forward and become a true super-star. Individually, this may largely end up being based on whether Hayward can find his shooting stroke. This season he has been mired in a slump and is shooting 40.2% from the field and 30.3% from three point range. The most disturbing part is that as Hayward’s volume of shots has increased his overall shooting percentage has dropped every year (from 48.5% as a rookie). To emerge as the go to guy, this facet of his game will have to improve.
When Hayward does shoot the ball well, it seems like the rest of his game gets picked up as well. A perfect example of his tantalizing talent is the game that he played on January 7th against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Most importantly, the Jazz won and he put up 37 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 block and 2 steals. Ultimately, winning (or losing) will guide how Hayward is viewed, but it is clear that he has the size, talent and youthful experience (he’s only 23) to become a franchise cornerstone. Statistically, he’s not very far from being a Paul George type of player. There may be a slight gap in sheer athleticism but with improved shooting and a few more shots per game he can match or exceed him statistically.
Building a Winning Team
The other potential super stars on this team are Derrick Favors and Trey Burke. Since Favors became a member of the Jazz in 2011, he’s grown into a starting power forward (although the Jazz are currently using him as a center). Now in his fourth season, Favors is finally getting the chance to put up solid numbers. He’s averaging 12.9ppg, 9rpg and 1.4bpg. On top of that he’s only playing 30.4mpg. There is room for growth and the best part is that he’s 22 years old.
In addition, the Jazz have added Trey Burke (a point guard from Michigan who also had a very good run in the NCAA tournament last year) with the ninth pick in last year’s draft. After missing the first month of the season due to an injured finger, Burke has stepped right in and taken over the starting point guard duties. As a starter, Burke has averaged 12.7ppg and 5.7apg. He can’t shoot a lick right now, 36.8% on the season, but that is not uncommon for a lot of NBA rookies.
The silver lining is that he’s close to respectable at home, 39% from the field, and he’s an excellent free throw shooter. My belief is that guards with solid free throw percentages always have the opportunity to become high percentage shooters from the field because they have a solid foundation (which is reflected in their free throw shooting stroke) and good mental strength to make free throws at all times during the game (which is reflected in the high percentage).
The Jazz have a number of expiring contracts (e.g., Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrens and Marvin Williams among others) and most importantly have two first round draft picks this summer. Most prognosticators think this will be a very good and relatively deep NBA draft in 2014. The Utah Jazz with one of the worst records in the NBA should end up with a high pick (Jabari Parker anyone?) and a deeper first round pick that they previously acquired from the Golden State Warriors. In addition, they have a few other young players that may or may not continue to be part of the rebuild going forward such as Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Burks in particular has started to show signs of growth this season.
However, the key at the end of the day is locking up and investing in Gordon Hayward. Hayward with Favors should form a fearsome duo for years to come and the Jazz have at worst a complementary piece in Trey Burke. The real unknown quantity is what the Jazz might uncover this summer through the draft and whether they’ll be willing to take some of their cap space and add a veteran presence for the team.
It will be fun to see if this franchise can reemerge as a threat to win a championship. They look like a team that is starting to accumulate the right pieces.