Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 6
Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were meant to be the new age Stockton and Malone. They complemented one another so well, as Malone and Stockton did two decades ago – with Williams the distributor who ran the pick and roll to perfection and Boozer the great finisher in traffic with either hand. They were a match made in heaven and should have finished their careers together. Each were featured in the offense and got ample touches – they were the go-to guys on the Jazz.
However, for whatever reason Boozer could never be a completely content employee. He was seemingly constantly unhappy and rumors of possible trades surfaced during many of his years with the Jazz. By the middle of last season, it was a foregone conclusion that he would defect as a free agent in the offseason, which was a shame. I don’t know how the relationship soured, and although both sides were outwardly optimistic, no deal could be struck for an extension.
But for all of the distractions with Boozer last year, the Jazz played out the season as they had always done – excellently at home and mediocre on the road. Boozer put up great numbers, to the tune of 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Deron Williams cemented himself as a top point guard in the league. The Jazz bounced back somewhat from a season earlier when they had scraped their way into the Playoffs as an 8th seed and were finished off quickly by the Lakers.
In the 2009 Playoffs, the team won in the first round against the favored Nuggets, as Williams abused Chauncey Billups and exposed Denver as a team in flux and without leadership in the absence of George Karl. The Jazz and their excellent 53-29 record were then beaten by the Lakers handily, with Boozer consistently bothered by the length of LA. Heading into the offseason, Boozer’s lame duck status signaled a roster turnover which was sure to affect the Jazz of norm.
As expected, Boozer left, signing with the Bulls in free agency for a bloated $80 million dollar contract which, compared to Amare’s, was a pretty good bargain but still too much for the Jazz to contend with. They also lost Kyle Korver, their designated sharpshooter, to the Bulls as well, in addition to Wesley Matthews, who signed an overpriced contract with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Jazz instead restocked by acquiring Al Jefferson, an ultra skilled big man with a wicked pump fake and decent jumper. He had been on the upswing a few years before on the Wolves but blew out his knee and wasn’t quite himself a year ago. He was a steal for the Jazz who just gave up a few draft choices and Kosta Koufos for him. The team also drafted Gordon Hayward in the first round of the draft and signed Raja Bell.
The Wolves stupidly traded away their best player, and now the Jazz have a capable replacement for Carlos Boozer, who is four years older and has some significant injury concerns. Jefferson has lots of value, and his ability to coexist with Williams will go a long way to determine the Jazz’s fortunes this season. But although he is very skilled and has lots of post moves, I don’t know whether he can fill the shoes of Boozer completely – he is more capable of scoring and creating for himself, but I’m not sure whether he is as good of a finisher around the rim, which is a prerequisite for the Sloan offense revolving around pick and rolls. He also isn’t as agile or mobile as Boozer was, making for a less effective pick and roll. However, his low block presence with be a helpful source of offense because he is a half-court post player with traditional big man skills. Although he may not fit in as well with the normal Sloan offense, he has great upside and a potential to average around 22 and 11, no small feat. What he lacks in pick and roll abilities will most likely be supplemented by his spectacular individual post moves and interior scoring.
But although the Jazz have found a replacement for Boozer, their addition of Bell and Hayward may not offset the departure of Korver and Matthews. Bell has just returned from injury and probably won’t be as effective as he once was – he is an ideal Sloan player but is a bit old and rusty from almost a year off. And Hayward remains a question mark. He wasn’t a big name in his first two years of college, but when Butler made a surprising run to the NCAA title game, he became more well known and hyped. I don’t believe he will succeed in the NBA, especially when adhering to the principles of not allowing a few game stretch alter perceptions about a player’s actual abilities. Hayward played well in the NCAA tournament, but that was a small sample size which could just be attributed to a hot streak. He was pretty good for his college career and in his sophomore year, when he averaged around 15 points a game, but I am skeptical that his skills will fully translate to the NBA.
He isn’t all that athletic and although scouts boast about his ability to handle the ball as a forward, I don’t think he will be able to compete in the NBA against superior athletes and longer players, who will be able to more effectively guard his moves. He isn’t particularly quick or fast, or strong, and so it remains to be seen how he will be able to score. I don’t believe Hayward will be a star, but he can still contribute to the team.
This season, I see them being slightly worse than a year earlier, mostly because of their new additions, which I think don’t completely outweigh the losses in free agency. Williams will get better and take the mantle as sole leader, and he should have a career year, but the team won’t be quite as good as in 2009. I think they will win somewhere in the range of 50 games, and garner a 6th seed in the Western Conference, down a bit from a year ago. They will enter the Playoffs squaring off against the Thunder as a 3rd seed, and with their lack of Playoff experience from their 2nd banana, Jefferson, I don’t think they can make it through, especially when considering the Thunder’s rapid improvement.
With their roster turnover, the Jazz must rebuild in some ways and gear up for the future years, hopefully adding pieces to the puzzle throughout. This season won’t be all that successful, but you can never count out a Sloan coached team, which will always be tough, strong, and disciplined. They will always have a shot to make noise in the Playoffs.