Playing For Keeps: The Utah Jazz And The Need For A Number One Pick

NBA.com

via NBA.com

By Rami Michail (@RamiMichail)

With the Draft Lottery set for May 20th, lottery teams finally get some attention in the midst of one of the best NBA playoffs we’ve ever encountered. These teams have been drooling over the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Joel Embiid, and Julius Randle for quite some team, and will finally find out if their dreams will either come true or if this season was nothing but a nightmare. At this stage, we know that the Milwaukee Bucks (25%), Philadelphia 76ers (19.9%), and Orlando Magic (15.6%) have the greatest chances of locking up the number one overall pick, but there’s another team these rookies and fans should be rooting for to leave the lottery as champs.

The lottery has essentially been built to give bad teams a leg up, but what if I told you there is a team that, despite competing with the likes of the 76ers and Bucks all season long, is on the verge of being something special? A team that is already loaded with youth, talent and potential. A team that has a deep front-court, consisting of a 22 year old stud, a double-double waiting to happen who can play both the center and power ford spots, a bruising center with a baby soft touch that is only 21, and a raw but athletically gifted 7’2″ reserve. A team with a talented backcourt, led by a young combo guard who will put up points whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, a point guard of the future who has only just wrapped up his rookie season, and a 24 year old wing who has improved every season of his career.

Would you believe me if I told you this team already exists, and all it needs to put it all together is a final piece; someone who can be the face of the franchise? Well, it does.

The Utah Jazz, 25-57, finished dead last in the Western Conference this season — tied for the NBA’s fourth ugliest record — and as a result, have a 10.4% chance of snatching up the number one pick in the draft. Even with such a poor record, their foundation is already in place; with the likes of  Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Gordon Hayward already assembled. Even with the forgettable season, this team and roster has shown growth and development.*

* Scott Rafferty, editor of Crabdribbles and writer for Harwood Paroxysm, looked at why the Jazz may be the next Phoenix Suns here.

Hayward may never be an NBA star, but he can be one of the NBA’s best sidekicks. Even with his 3-pt shooting plummeting this season, he can still stretch the court, attack the basket, and make plays on both sides of the ball. Even with his impending free agency, it’s tough to see the Jazz letting him walk.

Favors, much like Hayward, has seen his number improve all across the board. In his fourth season in the league, he averaged 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1 steal per game, while tallying 25 double-doubles. Still improving, Favors can be a key cog at either the power forward or center spots.

At the point guard spot, the Jazz have Burke locked up for at least the next few years. The rookie guard missed twelve games to start the season, and the Jazz clearly missed him, evident in their 1-11 record without their lead catalyst. The tough minded guard saw his numbers improve as the season progressed, putting up 13.2 points and 5.9 assists after the All-Star break.

Of all the talent on the Jazz, the next two are the most intriguing. Alec Burks saw his scoring double from 7 points last season to 14 this year, and assists rise from 1.4 to 2.7 per game while in a reserve role. He’s shown he can play two, potentially three, positions with his 6’6″ frame. If he finds himself in a reserve role going forward, he has the potential to be a future Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Next in line is Enes Kanter. At 6’11″ and 245 pounds, he’s a younger and unfinished version of Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves. With decent range, soft touch, and a big frame, Kanter may be joining Favors as a double-double machine next season; he did, after all, total 24 this season in only 37 starts.

Finally, insert Rudy Gobert. At 7’2″, Gobert has the size and athleticism to succeed in the NBA. He didn’t play much his rookie season, but if the Frenchman can figure it out, the Jazz will have a three manned frontline most teams may not be able to contend with.

The talent is certainly in place, and whether that pick would be Wiggins or Parker shouldn’t be too much of a concern at this point. A starting lineup of Burke, Wiggins, Hayward, Favors, and Kanter with Burks and Gobert coming off the bench may be one of the most talented young cores in the NBA. Likewise, if the Jazz go with Parker, they can trot out Burkes, Hayward, Parker and Favors, re-sign Marvin Williams or another veteran to start at SF, and go with Burks, Gobbert, and Kanter off the bench. Either way, the addition would bring them a young prospect and bolster a position where they are currently thin. Wiggins and Parker didn’t blow away the competition in college, but they both showed they can fit in a team construct. Wiggins sacrifice his numbers and game with Bill Self in Kansas and Parker played with one of the best coaches in NCAA history at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.

Along with both being good fits, the Jazz would expect to improve in two other important departments. Averaging 100.6 points per 100 possessions, Utah were among the worst scoring teams in the NBA in 2013-2014. With Wiggins and Parker expected to be stars, the Jazz may finally have their go-to player, someone who can consistently take over a game and score in a variety of ways. The Jazz would also get a much needed improvement in the depth department. Richard Jefferson, Diante Garrett, and Jeremy Evans were key rotation players this past season, which leaves room for concern. With only six players with guaranteed contracts next season (Burks, Burke, Favors, Kanter, Gobert, Evans), the Jazz would need to continue to fill the roster with great talent and players to improve. Along with their own first round pick, Utah also has an additional first round pick courtesy of the Golden State Warriors and an early second rounder. Wiggins and Parker are expected to be studs, but the possibility of adding two other rotation players from this draft drastically helps the Jazz add depth in a much needed way. Also, with just under $30 million in cap space (Pre-Hayward extension), making a splash in free agency and hitting big in the draft can turn this young and depth deprived roster into a deep, talented, and playoff contending team.

Assuming the Jazz bring back Hayward, their next big decision will be who coaches and mentors this team. Tyrone Corbin was let go after four seasons, only one of which the Jazz made the playoffs. We just witnessed one of the Jazz’s very own, Jeff Hornacek, turn the Phoenix Suns from lottery bound to potential playoff team in one season’s work. Now, Utah must look to strike gold as Phoenix did. They won’t just need a coach on the sidelines; they’ll need a teacher and leader. This young team needs someone who will coach them up and implement the right system, preferably one where it allows this team to fly up and down as the Suns did. To place the same expectations on the next Jazz hire isn’t reasonable, but the blueprint has been laid out. No matter which coach comes in, the Jazz know that either Wiggins or Parker would fit right into an NBA system.

Finally, with a young team, they’ll need to bring in some veterans. Marvin Williams, Brandon Rush, John Lucas, and Richard Jefferson are options to bring back, or they can go in a different direction and bring in new pieces. Either way, this youthful team will need some wily vets to continue to show them the ropes and with ample cap room, this could be an easy fix.

The Bucks are desperate for talent, the 76ers are drooling over the idea of Wiggins, Michael Carter-Williams, and Nerlens Noel, and the Magic are looking to add to an already impressive core of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, and Tobias Harris. But the Jazz? They’re a step ahead of their competition, with only one major piece holding them back from making a big leap next season.

This franchise has witnessed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls tarnish something special during the Karl Malone and John Stockton era.

10.4% – That’s what it could take for the Jazz to climb back up the NBA ranks and atone those heart breaking seasons.

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