Utah Jazz: 40-42
Key Additions: George Hill, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, Marcus Paige
Departures: Trevor Booker, Trey Burke
The Utah Jazz are going to be one of the most talked about teams in the league this year. For the past two seasons, the hype train for the Jazz has slowly been taking on more and more passengers. After dealing off Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City in February of 2015 and sliding second-year big man Rudy Gobert into the starting lineup, the Jazz became an overnight defensive dynamo. In the 2015-2016 season, the Jazz allowed the second-fewest opponent points per game behind the Spurs, who were touted as one of the stingiest groups in the history of the NBA.
Despite having one of the top defenses in the league, the Jazz still struggled to reach the playoffs. The offense was often bogged down with Gobert and Derrick Favors clogging the paint, and the Jazz finished 28th out of 30 teams in points per game. Gordon Hayward continued to morph into one of the better all-around players in the league, but there was only so much he could to generate offense all on his own. Regardless of the inability to make the playoffs in recent years, many NBA experts are picking the Jazz to have a breakout season, and not only make the playoffs, but potentially to be a top-five team in the Western Conference. The incremental improvement has been there, and the Jazz did make some moves in the offseason that addressed some of their problems, but how can them vault themselves into the top half of the very difficult Wester Conference?
The 2016-2017 campaign got off to a rocky start for the Jazz. Franchise player Gordon Hayward fractured a finger in his non-shooting hand and will have to miss an unknown amount of time at the beginning of the season. The Jazz have some pieces they can slide into the starting small forward position, whether that be Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood, or Joe Ingles, but there is nobody on that roster that can make up for the production of Hayward. Hayward averaged 19.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and 3.7 APG last season, and he was one of the only reliable outside shooters on the roster. The Jazz should be able to patch over the loss of Hayward for the beginning of the season, but the success of this team will depend on whether or not Hayward can come back from his injury and put up the same numbers that he has in the past.
Along with the top-notch defense, the Jazz are known for their young talent. In order for Utah to make a jump into the playoff picture, their young players need to improve as individuals. Rodney Hood came into his own as a knockdown shooter last season and is in the running for the starting shooting guard position heading into this season. Trey Lyles has shown signs of his ceiling over the past few months as well. Lyles, if he continues to improve the way people think that he will, projects to be a stretch four that Utah has been so desperately looking for. Alec Burkes, who isn’t necessarily a young player in his own right, is coming off of a two-year span where he only managed to stay on the court for 58 games. He suffered some long-term injuries, but if he can return to form then that will add another nice piece on the offensive end. The youth movement ends with Dante Exum. After an underwhelming rookie year and a sophomore year that never got started due to a year-ending torn ACL, Exum has a lot to prove. The Jazz used the fifth overall pick in the draft to take a chance on him, and they need him to produce.
While this team didn’t make any real splashes in the offseason, they did add pieces that will make them better. Boris Diaw is a nice fit as a playmaking big coming off of the bench, and Joe Johnson, Hood, and Burkes should add some outside shooting that will open up the paint for Favors and Gobert to go to work. Head coach Quin Snyder will have the defense in top form once the season rolls around, and Lyles and Exum could be X-factors depending on how they perform. The Jazz will make the playoffs this year, the first time since the 2011-2012 season, but they will be fighting for a sixth through eighth seed. They haven’t done enough to vault themselves over teams like Portland, Houston, and the Clippers.
Utah Jazz: 45-37