NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Utah Jazz
Coach: Quin Snyder (fourth year)
Last Season: 51-31 (fifth in Western Conference)
Notable Additions: Ricky Rubio (trade), Donovan Mitchell (draft-day trade), Jonas Jerebko (free agency), Thabo Sefolosha (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Gordon Hayward (free agency), George Hill (free agency), Trey Lyles (trade)
Vegas Over/Under: 40.5
Best-Case Scenario: Utah’s staunch defense and lack of #NightLife continues to be a struggle for opponents, defaulting the Jazz back into the postseason.
After Hayward and Hill departed in free agency, the Jazz looked like one of the few teams in the Western Conference that did not improve in the offseason. But on the end of the court where Utah feasted last season, the roster actually got deeper: Ricky Rubio, acquired from Minnesota or a protected 2018 first-round pick, breaks even defensively compared to Hill, and 13th-overall pick Donovan Mitchell is as aggressive and competent a wing defender as the team can hope for in a rookie. The Jazz also added veteran stopper and Nike Air Max enthusiast Thabo Sefolosha, who can match up against at least three positions.
Rudy Gobert will return not only as Utah’s headliner on defense, but also as the team’s biggest star, period. Gobert received first-team All-Defense honors last season and was the Jazz’s first player voted onto an All-NBA team since 2010, when Deron Williams was at the top of his career. Derrick Favors will be backed up underneath by a fellow mobile rim protector, EuroLeague Final Four MVP Ekpe Udoh, whom Utah signed in July. Even after losing two of their starters from last season, the Jazz are still equipped to foil the superteam offenses stacked around them in the West.
Worst-Case Scenario: Quin Snyder dips below 38 wins for the first time in his three-year tenure with the Jazz, impeded by a barren offense that eliminates any advantage gained on the other end.
With the Jazz losing their top-two scorers in Hayward and Hill, Utah will spend the first part of the season trying to find out who can fill the void. The Jazz had their best offensive rating with Hill on the court, and saw scoring drop off most drastically when Hayward went to the bench. Odds are, it won’t be Rubio filling in the scoring gap: In six seasons running point for the Wolves, the Spaniard averaged 10.3 points and never managed over 11.1 in a year. Even last season, in what turned out to be a pleasant shooting uptick, Rubio finished ninth in 3-point percentage on a Wolves roster that had only three players regularly shooting above league average from 3. His forays into the lane aren’t that fruitful, either: Rubio converted only 43.6 percent of his shots driving to the basket (one of the worst rates among starting guards who logged at least four drives per game). But the drive-and-kick game will be healthy in Utah with Rubio at the wheel — he passed nearly 56 percent of the time on drives, the highest pass rate in the league and more than five percentage points higher than Chris Paul’s. If Utah is looking for scoring, Rubio isn’t the answer — but having a willing passer is important in what looks to be a Jazz team that will have to rely on offense by committee.
Losing Hayward on top of Hill puts more pressure on Rodney Hood to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be-25-year-old put up capable numbers in Hayward’s absence in November, but spent far more time on the bench himself. Over the course of the 2016-17 season, Hood missed time due to a strained right hamstring, a hyperextended knee, a bone contusion, and a right LCL sprain. He’s not even completely in the clear this preseason, leaving a Lakers exhibition early with neck soreness.
Assuming Hood remains active, Utah’s off-guard rotation is still thin. And after Dante Exum suffered a possibly season-ending shoulder injury last week, relief for the entire backcourt is sparse. Mitchell, who had a stellar summer league, is capable of sliding over, and in the same preseason game that Exum left early, veteran Joe Ingles saw time at the point — though both, ideally, are needed elsewhere. (Is … is this a bad time to point out that Rubio is injury prone?)
TL;DR: “Defense wins ball games,” the old heads tell you. Utah is still hoping that’s all it takes.