2014 is upon us but let’s take one last look back at 2013 – and the 5 biggest storylines for the Utah Jazz.
1. 2013 Draft – Jazz Trade for Trey Burke
The Utah Jazz packaged their 14th and 21st picks in a draft night trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves netting them the draft rights to Trey Burke - the 9th-overall pick and collegiate player of the year who was widely considered the top point guard available.
After missing the first 12 games with a broken finger, the early reviews have been terrific. Despite lingering questions after a rough summer league performance, Burke has made a seamless transition adjusting to the NBA 3pt-line where he’s shooting 38% from and playing against NBA length – where just 11 of his 284 shot attempts have been blocked. Burke has posted averages of 14.4 points, 5.5 assists and just 1.9 turnovers since taking over the starting position. His current season average of just 1.8 turnovers per game are the lowest by a fulltime Jazz starting point guard since Ricky Green in 1986-87. That average may not continue but it emphasizes (even with a recent rash of TO’s last week) how remarkably well Burke has been handling the basketball.
Burke’s biggest performance so far was a 3o point, 8 assist, 7 rebound night in Orlando), and has hit numerous clutch shots late in games (against Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, and Charlotte), and is now one of the favorites for NBA Rookie of the Year. The questions about Burke now have become how high is ceiling ultimately is, and that’s a great sign when you’re still talking about a 21-year old rookie.
2. Jazz retain Ty Corbin as head coach/Jeff Hornacek leaves for Phoenix
After failing to qualify for the 2013 postseason during a season in which the playoffs were identified as the ultimate goal – the Jazz opted to retain Ty Corbin after two-and-a-half seasons on the job. As an indirect result, bright and widely respected assistant Jeff Hornacek interviewed for both the Philadelphia and Phoenix openings before taking over as Suns head coach late in May.
Despite a roster possessing comparable talent and experience to Utah’s, Hornacek’s Suns have shocked the NBA by racing out to a 19-11 record playing a highly-entertaining style focusing on tempo, floor-spacing and shot-selection. Of all the attributes used in the glowing reports on Hornacek, the most common one is how he builds confidence in his players. In a season in which the Jazz have seen noticeable struggles from Kanter, Burks and perhaps most disconcerting Hayward – confidence-building appears to be a quality sorely lacking from the Jazz coaching staff. Hornacek also heeded his general manager’s advice, bringing in former Boston defensive assistant Mike Longabardi who has improved the Suns’ 2012-13 23rd ranked defense to 13th as of January 1st.
This blatant oversight can be smoothed over nicely if the Jazz land a potential franchise player in the heralded 2014 Draft while using the offseason to secure a quality long-term coach for the future. In the present, it continues to sting. As Hornacek has allowed young players such as Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Eric Bledsoe among others to flourish, the Jazz continue to marginalize the development and experience of 3rd-year lottery picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks while relying heavily on veteran pending free agents Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams.
Despite emphasizing improvement on team-defense entering the season, the Jazz’s defense has actually grown substantially worse – dropping from 21st in 2012-13 to 29th in 2013-14. 210 games into his head coaching career, it appears Ty Corbin will coach the final 48 games of the season as a “lame duck” coach in the final season of his contract.
3. Jazz Sign Derrick Favors to 4-year Extension
On October 19, less than two weeks before the window ended, the Jazz and Derrick Favors formally agreed to a 4-year/$47 million extension (plus incentives) to keep Favors in a Jazz uniform through the 2016-17 season. Not only is the longterm stability welcomed, the Jazz did it at a relatively low-risk cost that won’t hamstring their future flexibility (considering DeMarcus Cousins re-signed for $62 million) while allowing Favors to establish himself as a fixture on their frontline.
While Favors may have disappointed Jazz analyst Matt Harpring during the preseason, he has quietly pleased the majority of Jazz fans during much of the regular season. He’s averaging 13.4 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field and playing less than 32 minutes per game. In his last 25 games he’s shooting 55% from the floor and since the Jazz have mercifully altered his pick&roll defensive responsibilities, is averaging nearly 2 blocks per game.
Always a presence going hard to the rim via the pick&roll, Burke’s playmaking ability has showcase more of Favors’ developing catch&shoot mid-range game on high screen-roll to the point he’s now shooting 46.2% on mid-range shots down the lane (8-16-feet), up from 37.8% (on middle-of-the-floor 8-16 footers) in 2012-13.
In terms of shooting percentage – Favors has increased his accuracy from virtually every floor level this season, up to 58.8% from 0-8FT (from 55.9% in 2012-13), up to 42.5% from 8-16FT (from 31.5%) and 28.1% from 16-24FT (up marginally from 26.2%).
While Utah may still have longterm questions at other positions, it’s clear Trey Burke and Derrick Favors solidify 2/5′s of their starting lineup for the next 4 seasons.
4. Jazz Do Not Re-Sign Paul Millsap
In July Utah allowed 7-year Jazzman Paul Millsap to walk in free agency, where he signed a bargain-basement 2-year/$19 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks. This was done primarily under the pretense that the Jazz were serious about allowing both Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to develop and grow on the court together.
Instead the Jazz coaching staff concluded that their nightmare start (that was heavily affected by the absence of Trey Burke as well as the lack of an effective offensive system and bizarre defensive strategies) verified that Favors and Kanter simply could not play together. As a result, the Jazz are now starting 8-year veteran Marvin Williams at power forward. As a starter in the final year of his contract, Marvin is having a career year from behind the arc shooting 41% while averaging nearly 30-minutes per game. Conversely, Enes Kanter’s playing time has declined to 22.6 mpg when coming off the bench.
In Atlanta, Paul Millsap is playing at a near All-Star level averaging 17.8 points and 8.6 rebounds while averaging 2.6 three-point attempts per game on 43% 3pt-shooting despite attempting just 39 threes all of last season in Utah. In his last 5 games, Sap has been spectacular posting averages of 25.8 points per game to go along with 11.2 rebounds on 50% shooting.
There are valid reasons for starting Marvin at PF, but if any of those reasons meshed with Utah’s offseason goals just 6 months ago, then the Jazz made a clear mistake not re-signing Millsap - who would fit their “stretch-4″ role better than Marvin in virtually every facet. Not only are they currently starting the lesser option of the two, it comes at the price of marginalizing both the development and trade-value of the #3-overall pick in the 2011 draft while not providing any tangible short-term benefits such as a surprise playoff berth.
5. Jazz Fail to Qualify for 2012-13 Playoffs
A 3-12 stretch last March sabotaged the Jazz’s playoff hopes, as the Lakers narrowly limped by them for the 8th-seed on Kobe Bryant’s tired and eventually wornout legs. Following the 2011-12 season in which the Jazz secured the #8-seed before being swept by the Spurs, that step back along with the gradual assimilation of Dennis Lindsey into his general manager role sparked an apparent shift in Utah’s philosophy.
After looking to upgrade the PG position by acquiring veteran Mo Williams and opting to keep pending free agents Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson through the trade deadline, Kevin O’Connor’s 2012 win-now approach struck out which Dennis Lindsey has since hinted at as early as exit interviews last April saying, “We’re not collectively afraid if, that the best alternative is to go young, and be very patient with the flexibility that we built in. I’m not afraid of that. You know, so to speak, take a step back. If we need to do that, then we’ll do that.”
Lindsey’s preseason comments echoed the team’s approach the following summer, where he identified “3 D’s” as his goals for the Jazz – being establishing a defensive culture, development of young players and a disciplined level of play.
The Jazz currently have the 2nd-worst record in the league and appeared poised for a high draft choice. Had the Jazz secured the 8-seed and won a game or two, perhaps the franchise would have been more inclined to bring back Al Jefferson, Millsap, and Mo Williams which would have relegated them to middle-of-the-pack status and further stifled the development of their young core.
Their current blueprint hasn’t been perfect, and obviously retaining Corbin (which elimintated the possibility of considering Hornacek) appears to be a huge mistake, but this path still allows Utah to right that wrong in the 2014 offseason while perhaps also making a franchise-altering draft pick.
A new coach and the addition of a potential all-star (whether it be Jabari, Wiggins, Randle or Embid or a late-riser), would put some serious shine on the bright Jazz future that may have dimmed over the past couple seasons as internal growth was impeded. Nevertheless, I’m convinced this youth movement remains the best path for the franchise as long as all parties (ownership, management, and coaches ) are fully committed to it. Five years from now, I hope we look back at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season as impetus for a franchise course-correction, under Dennis Lindsey’s guidance.
For the Jazz, 2013 was a year of change, a year of frustration and a year of promise. Let’s hope it will ultimately be remembered as the first of several baby-steps in the right direction for the Jazz, as they look to once again build a potential title-contender.