That 25-57 season is behind the Utah Jazz. It was a season of frustration, disappointment, tanking-not-tanking, a yeoman season to do what needed to be done to set up the franchise for the future. And so far, one thing they’ve done is get even younger. Lest we forget, Richard Jefferson was 3rd on the team in total minutes played last year. No one over 30 is going to crack the top seven for minutes played this year. Maybe that’s because Steve Novak is the only player on the roster over 30.
But this will not be a second season of 25-57. The roster is pretty much set, and while it doesn’t seem like they got better, they actually have. Here are five ways they’ve improved:
1. NEW HEAD COACH – New coach! New coach! New coach! Everything is awesome now that we have a new coach; everything is cool when he coaches this team. Coach Quin “Mayhem” Snyder has years of experience with several teams; he’s a “Dennis Lindsey guy.” With Eric Stoltz’s eyes and Lou Diamond Phillips’ voice, he will command the floor and make everyone better. Every scheme will inspire, every play will entertain, all is the right with the world. (Cue heavenly chorus).
While it miiiiiight take a little bit longer than that, we’ve already evidence in summer league of Mayhem’s new system, there’s going to be more motion, more passing, and better rotations on the defense. This team was last in defense last year; they can only move up.
2. THE ROSTER TURNOVER – The Jazz lost a few players, but the only ones who played more than 500 minutes were Marvin Williams, Jefferson, Diante Garrett and John Lucas III. Garrett and Lucas have been replaced by Dante Exum. Now there’s a chance the Jazz will pick up a third point guard, probably Toure Murry or some other D-Leaguer looking for any chance he can get. Exum is young and raw, but he’ll benefit the Jazz in a few ways. First, he’s going to challenge Trey Burke. Burke knew his job was never in danger with Garrett and Lucas as his backups. It still isn’t, but Exum’s going to push him in ways those other guys couldn’t. It also means this team can have 48 minutes of quality PG play. Now Diante did fine in his time here, but rare was the night when he and Trey were on, and both had to be on for the Jazz to win.
On the wings, the Jazz had RJ and Marv. Those vets could push Hayward and Burks, and mentor them, but their void is being filled by rookie Rodney Hood and veteran Steve Novak. Hood and Novak are both perimeter players but so were RJ and Marv. Hood’s a wild-card. Right now he seems like a one-dimensional player, but he’s already stated his goal is to become one of the best perimater defenders in the league, and the Jazz haven’t had good perimeter defense in a long time. One reason Enes Kanter’s defense looked bad is because Burks and Hayward were the only guys in the backcourt who’d try to defend.
Hood and Novak are better 3-point shooters than RJ and Marv, so if that means they can keep defenses honest and give Favors and/or Kanter more room to work inside, then the Jazz scoring should increase. Jazz were 29th in points last year.
Also joining the roster are Trevor Booker and Carric Felix. Booker should be a good practice guy, and he’ll provide some down-low physicality that the 2014 squad sometimes lacked. Felix is going to be a DNP guy, insurance for injuries. And gone are the salary-suckers in Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush.
3. IT’S ALL ON THE PLAYERS – Last year, it didn’t all feel like it was on the players. The local media might’ve blamed the players, especially the younger guys, but now is the time for them to show that with a better coach, they really are better than they showed last year. It’s summer league, but Rudy Gobert showed very encouraging signs of improvement.
Hayward’s not going to have the pressure of feeling like he has to do everything. Favors is going to have more space down low to work as the offense is more spread. Favors and Kanter will have to show more willingness to pass, because ball movement will be key this year for their success. Kanter especially was unafraid in the exit interviews to express his displeasure with how 2013-14 went. Well, this year, they’re going to get their chance to put up or shut up.
4. SALARY STRUCTURE – Generally a team does best when its best players are paid the most. You have studs on rookie deals, sure, but it’s just better for the chemistry of the team when the salaries are more balanced. Last year the top two salaries went to RJ and Biedrins. Now the top two will be Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, with their other key players all still on their rookie deals.
5. NO MORE TANKING – The players don’t tank, the coaches don’t tank… but it still loomed over the franchise all season. After their Trey-less 1-14 start, many fans were all-in with the tank, with visions of Wiggins and Parker dancing in their heads. Tank time is over. These guys are our guys; our future starts now, and no one is going to complain if Burke makes a last-second shot in 2014-2015 because it hurts our ping-pong chances. We want to win! Time to bring back the enthusiasm when John & Karl were hunting for a ring, or D-Will & Booz were overachieving. No more conflcting turmoil over what a win or loss means. Screw that. We want to win. All the time now.
Now the Jazz were the worst in the West last year. That won’t happen this year. they won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll do better than people think. Last year I thought they’d go 31-51, and if Trey had been healthy all year, they probably would have. This year, barring health catastrophes, I’ll picking them (in July, mind you) to go 37-45.