Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Utah Jazz: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: #5 seed; lost in Western Conference Semifinals to the Los Angeles Lakers in four games
Additions: Al Jefferson, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson
Key Losses: Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews
Projected Rotation Players: Deron Williams, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur (inactive until at least January), Andrei Kirilenko, Raja Bell, C.J. Miles, Ronnie Price, Gordon Hayward, Kyrylo Fesenko

After losing a lot of depth on wings and on the perimeter, look for the 2010-11 Utah Jazz, as currently constructed, to take a step backward.

Although Chicago-bound PF Carlos Boozer was this summer’s the biggest-name departure, it’s the loss of a three-headed perimeter monster that will haunt the Jazz in 2010-11. This is in no small part because the Jazz almost immediately filled (upgraded?) Boozer’s spot with the reasonably priced (two second-rounders and Kosta Koufos) acquisition of low post specialist Al Jefferson. When healthy, Jefferson’s one of the league’s few 20-10 locks, and he’s entering his second season following ALC surgery, which is typically when guys return to 100% effectiveness.

He should also benefit from playing alongside not only the best PG of his career, but one of the NBA’s two best, Deron Williams. Jefferson spends the majority of his time on offense on the inside, has a treasure-trove of post moves and is a skilled passer out of the post, making him one of the NBA’s few old-school big men. He’s also got excellent footwork and some range on his jumper (~15 feet), making him a weapon on the pick-and-roll/pop. This duo will immediately establish itself as one of the league’s top inside-outside combos. It would not be surprising to see a career year from Jefferson (25-12?) and a Stockton-esque 12+ apg from D-Will.

However, there are a variety of areas where the Jazz will suffer in 2010-11. With Mehmet Okur (38.5% on 3s) out until at least January, and the departures of Wesley Matthews (38.2%) and Kyle Korver (53.6%; seriously), this team faces a huge drop-off in the perimeter shooting, unless the aging Raja Bell and rookie Gordon Hayward (some people really like him; I’m in the “bust” camp) can catch fire from beyond the arc.

The Jazz will also have to make some serious repairs at the defensive end. The Jazz has been subpar in terms of interior defense for some time (Boozer is not a good defnder and Jefferson is worse), but last season boasted a pair of excellent perimeter defenders- the aforementioned Matthews (who looked really good in his Portland debut; maybe they should have ponied up the cash for him) and Ronnie Brewer- that made up for their shortcomings inside, both of whom are gone. Raja Bell is touted as a defensive stopper, but his athleticism has slipped with age, and his last memorable defensive play incuded an attempt to maim Kobe Bryant.

Bottom line: The Jazz does possess one huge asset, Andrei Kirilenko’s expiring $17.8 million contract, that could be used to acquire the supporting cast needed to compete. However, and with all due respect to one of the league’s best players in Deron Williams, as long Utah has these holes on the roster, it’s impossible to include this team among the contenders in the West.

With the said, the Jazz should be able to ride the considerable offensive talents of Williams, Jefferson and Paul Millsap- who’s game is somewhat complementary to Jefferson’s- to a winning record. Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Jazz at 49.5. This is probably a bit optimistic. Look for the Jazz to win 44-46 games and grab a spot in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs.

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