by Fox Doucette
Exum? I hardly even know him!
The Utah Jazz, the only team in the NBA today to play at a pace slower than the league average of the wretched 1999 lockout season that almost killed basketball after Jordan retired, the plodding but defensively excellent (7th in Defensive Rating despite missing Rudy Gobert for a good chunk of the season) bunch of guys toiling for Quin Snyder...and a team that fell short of its projected win total (per Basketball Reference) by six wins, which would've made them the 5 seed (they played like a 46-36 squad; Portland won 44 games), a team that missed the playoffs entirely when they choked away the 8 seed when they lost four of their last five games.
So which is the true measure of this team? The advanced stats (which say they're the team most likely to demonstrate massive improvement)? Or the eye test (they lose when they need a win most, and they are to the NBA in April what the Seattle Mariners are to MLB in September, giving away a playoff spot to less-talented clubs)?
Well, regular readers of this site, or even anyone paying attention to the tagline, you know where we stand on this. Utah is going to be better than anyone thinks this year.
For starters, they upgraded the point guard position from a giant crap sandwich (Raul Neto, who can't shoot, can't pass, and can't play defense, and Shelvin Mack, who is in the “if he's your primary ballhandler, you're screwed” tier of NBA talent) to a competent and occasionally damn good NBA-level point guard (George Hill, who at 40.8 percent was 13th in the league in three-point accuracy and who put up 6.2 Win Shares while being a plus defender despite minor injury woes during the season.)
That upgrade alone should be worth at least six wins by itself. If Hill is able to elevate the play of the guys around him—and he's entirely capable of doing so, as Hill was the glue guy who kept the Pacers from imploding completely after Paul George got injured in 2014, enough so that the team nearly snuck into the 2015 playoffs—he's going to win Most Improved Player and get Quin Snyder in the Coach of the Year conversation.
Meanwhile, these guys added Boris Diaw to a roster that includes Gobert, Gordon Hayward, and Derrick Favors. They brought Joe Johnson in for microwave offense and veteran savvy and leadership. They brought in Hill—note that they've added a ton of playoff experience in their veterans, guys who have won titles or gone to conference finals or otherwise made major playoff impacts.
Dante Exum, who was utterly wretched as a rookie in 2014-15 but returns from a season-killing injury older, wiser, and presumably stronger, gets to take another crack at the spotlight to fulfill the promise he brought when Utah drafted him.
Seeing a pattern developing yet? Everything Utah has done between last year and this year has been united toward the goal of becoming a better basketball team. They were flat unlucky last year in terms of performance compared to stats, and even if you believe the losses were a matter of “heart” or “guts” or other intangibles, they just added three guys who know how to win in the playoffs and who will not accept a half-assed job from their teammates; you'd almost think the guys were ring-chasing the way they gravitated toward Salt Lake City until you remembered that one guy's already got a title.
This team looked a little Magic 8-Ball on the surface...but in point of fact, this is the strongest roster Utah's thrown out there since Stockton and Malone.
So is this team any good? Worst-case, they get closer to the 46 games they should've won last year based on their stats. Best case, this team gets a “wait until next year, these guys are legit” piece written about them after they give the Warriors all they can handle in the conference finals before just getting overpowered by Steph, Kevin, and the rest.
No. Scratch that. Best-case, Utah, a team that seems purpose built for stopping the Warriors' strengths the way the Thunder almost did a year ago, wins the damn title. This team is Confirmed.