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2010-11 NBA Season Preview: Utah Jazz

Tim Chisholm
9/30/2010 2:11:27 PM
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While the Jazz may have looked to their past for inspiration for their new jerseys, they were focused squarely on the future when they remade key elements of the roster this summer.

When the Jazz received a sizeable Traded Player Exception from Chicago after agreeing to sign-and-trade All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer to the club, they set about spending it almost immediately on Boozer's supposed replacement, Al Jefferson. When healthy Jefferson has proven to be a beast on the inside, routinely posting 20-10 stat lines and efficiency ratings that rival those of Boozer at his best. While it remains to be seen how adept he'll be running the pick-and-roll with Deron Williams (he's far more comfortable setting up in the post and going to work one-on-one), point guards like Williams and head coaches like Jerry Sloan are adaptable enough to make the most of the talent they have been given in Jefferson. So long as he's able to stay healthy and engage on defense, the fit will work itself out.

However, it says here that Boozer isn't actually the player that Jefferson is meant to replace. It says that he was brought in to ease out starting center Mehmet Okur, not replace Boozer, and he'll even start the season in Okur's place while he continues to recover from his Achilles repair. After all, at 6-10 and 265 lbs., Jefferson has more than enough size to play in the pivot in today's NBA, and his last two years in Minnesota he's played there far more frequently than he did at power forward. Okur, while effective through most of his Jazz tenure, is now 31 and has had a hard time staying healthy through the duration of the season (he's played in only three Playoff games in the last two years). Both Jefferson and sometimes starter, Paul Millsap, have better Player Efficiency Ratings than Okur can manage, and in those years when Okur has managed to log minutes in the post-season he's been distractingly unreliable. With Okur possessing only this season and next season on his contract, it stands to reason that the Jazz are looking farther that just this one year as it pertains to their plans for Jefferson and the future of their frontcourt.

As it relates to the Jazz this season, though, the conversation extends much farther that just the loss of Boozer and the acquisition of Jefferson. Regardless of the details, the move is basically a wash, but it remains to be seen how the club transitions from losing sharpshooter Kyle Korver and defensive stalwart Wes Matthews and replacing them with Gordon Hayward and Raja Bell. Bell is a very well known commodity at this point as a stifling defensive presence and a capable long-range threat, but he's also been a little banged up these last two years and he'll be 34 by the time the season starts. His personality blends perfectly with the way Sloan likes to run his team starting on the defensive end (this is actually his second stint with the club), but he has to show he can stay healthy to make any of that matter.
 
Hayward, conversely, is a first-year pro coming off of a Cinderella season with Baylor that counts for exactly nothing in the NBA. While he's an aggressive player, he tends to look to get others involved more than he looks to get his own shot off. In Utah, that is a nice skill to have, but to get minutes he's going to have to prove that he will take open shots and make them consistently, because as a passer and defender the Jazz have players much more adept in those roles. The Jazz need Hayward to learn how to excel off of the ball like Korver did while punishing teams for leaving him open. His sophomore season saw a dip in his ability to hit open looks and so the jury remains out as to whether or not he can replicate Korver's essential role this coming season.
The Jazz, though, did well to retool in a summer when many thought they might fall back of the pack. Their willingness to spend to spend over the luxury tax threshold is both surprising and necessary if they want to have the arsenal it will take to compete seriously in the West. While injuries are still a concern the team shouldn't be worse off than they were last year and if all the pieces can stay healthy they may be a force to be reckoned with when the Playoffs roll around in April.

PROBABLE STARTING FIVE

PG – DERON WILLIAMS

One of the benefits of having an All-World point guard like Williams is that when you make a rather significant roster move (like switching Carlos Boozer for Al Jefferson), no one really worries too much about how it's going to work out. Williams runs this show in Utah, he's basically been good for 18-and-10 every game for the last three years, and whatever a guy like Jefferson can bring to the club is going to revolve around how Williams implements him. He'll get him shots where he wants him shooting from, he'll have him setting screens where he needs them and he'll do it in the best interests of the team because that's how Williams plays. It should have been huge news, but Jefferson heading to Utah was just assumed to work because they have key pieces to adjust to any new player in their system.

SG – RAJA BELL

Bell, despite being a somewhat injury-prone guard at this stage of his career, is a key cog for the Jazz this season. They need him to be a deadly outside shooter, which is career 41% three-point accuracy should guarantee, they need him to defend, which has never been a problem, and they need him to stay on the court for more than the six games he managed last season. For this team to take the next step as a franchise, they need guys like Bell to show why veteran savvy is considered such a premium in the NBA.

SF – C.J. MILES

This spot is a huge toss up. Andrei Kirilenko could start here, although for the last few years Jerry Sloan has preferred him as an energy player off of the bench. Kirilenko could also be traded, be it as a part of the larger Carmelo Anthony deal (that would bring Boris Diaw to Utah) or as a part of another deal with a team looking to acquire his $18-million expiring contract. They could opt to start the rookie Hayward here, if they feel his defense is up to snuff. Miles, though, has been a steady contributor to the Jazz for years, he's a low-maintenance player and if they roster goes unaltered into the regular season expect him to get the nod on opening night.

PF – PAUL MILLSAP

Two years ago, as a starter for 38 games, Millsap averaged 16-and-10 and had many pleading for his entry into the All-Star game. Since then he's been gifted with a lucrative contract, he's seen his primary competition for minutes relocate to Chicago and now we have to see if he can repeat the output of two years ago without the safety net of Boozer one day returning from injury. It says here that even when Okur returns to the lineup, if this frontcourt combo is working then perhaps a bench role is better for Okur both to maintain consistency but also to preserve his fragile body. This club already knows they can't depend on Okur as a major force in the post-season, so why not shift him to a reserve role where the pressure to perform might not be so intense and let a quality Playoff performer like Millsap (18-and-9 in ten games last year) start in his place. Makes sense to me.

C – AL JEFFERSON

It's still stunning that the Jazz got their hands on a 20-and-10 power forward by only offering cap relief in return. It's doubly-stunning that the trade was made within the division by a team so far below the cap that they didn't need to clear salary in the first place. Either way, the Jazz staved-off what could have been an embarrassing fall after losing Boozer in free agency and may have even improved in the transaction if Jefferson can stay healthy (he's averaged a respectable 68 games per-season). How he expectations of being a featured guy on a team with real expectations may be the most interesting aspect to this story. Jefferson has gotten used to play for nothing more than staving off embarrassment for three years in Minnesota, how will he respond to the pressures of Playoff basketball with all eyes on him to perform?



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