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Utah Jazz Preview - Taking It To The Rack

uth.gifUtah Jazz - Taking It To The Rack

Last year’s record: 51-31

Key losses: Derek Fisher
Key additions: Jason Hart, Ronnie Price, Morris Almond

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

From the standpoint of transactions, it is hard to imagine an off-season that could have been more eventful than the summer of ’07 in Utah. As a result of continuing issues with the health of young daughter Tatum, Derek Fisher was able to have his contract voided and subsequently took his services back to Los Angeles. On a largely young team, Fisher provided immeasurable veteran leadership down the stretch, and his return to the floor in the midst of Game 2 of the semifinals against Golden State was nothing short of chilling. He will most certainly be missed.

Hart, signed from the Clippers, is a six-year veteran who will be serviceable as a backup to franchise point guard Deron Williams. Price should provide some energy and the occasional highlight reel dunk coming off the bench. Almond, a first-round pick who lit it up at Rice last year (26.4 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting) could provide some instant offense off the bench. All the same, none of these acquisitions are deal-breakers. The core of this team – Fisher excepted – remains nearly a mirror image of what it was at the conclusion of last season.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Above all, this team’s strength lies in coaching and preparation. Simply put, Jerry Sloan gets it. A throwback to an older school of ball, Sloan’s teams are almost always scrappy teams that come to play and play hard each and every night. The Jazz play smart basketball and don’t back down from anyone. In many ways, the Jazz teams of Sloan’s tenure have been modeled after his style as a player, a style that has been very successful. He consistently gets more from his players than is expected, and he will continue to do so.

Beyond that, one would be remiss to omit the fact that this unit also has one of if not the best young point guard-big man combination in all of basketball. As the whole NBA community witnessed during the playoffs, Carlos Boozer is a monster all over the floor. Quick but tough, he can score inside and out, and he isn’t afraid to bang with anyone. The fact is that he spent the playoffs increasing his production beyond his season averages of 20.9 points and 11.7 boards per game. The boy can play. So can Deron Williams, who emerged as on the road to becoming a full-fledged star throughout the postseason. We won’t get too crazy with lofty comparisons here yet, but it’s safe to say that the days of unstoppably successful pick-and-rolls in Salt Lake City aren’t over.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

The overriding issue right now is chemistry. Basketball fans across the country are now for the most part acutely aware of this, as the Andrei Kirilenko saga finally hit the fan nationally towards the end of the summer. Less than two years ago, this guy was being hailed as a perennial MVP candidate if he could stay healthy. Now, he is the fourth option on this team, and, more significantly, he is the disgruntled man who could hold the linchpin to this group’s ability to cross the border between good and great. If Kirilenko is interested, he can be a force at both ends of the floor, particularly on the defensive end, where he has the quickness to play good perimeter defense, the size to play inside and the length to block and alter shots everywhere. This is where Jerry Sloan will be tested more than ever this year, as it will fall largely into his hands to forge a truce between AK47 and the organization.

Depth – or lack thereof – is also an area meriting wariness with this Utah squad. Matt Harpring remains a solid reserve, but questions abound after that. It is this writer’s contention that reserve power forward Paul Millsap is primed for a breakout second year as he sees more time on the floor. However, with Derek Fisher gone, guards Gordon Giricek and Ronnie Brewer will both be asked to play bigger roles than they did last year, and newcomer Jason Hart will need to contribute as well. This team didn’t get a ton out of the two incumbents last season, and how much Hart has to give remains to be seen. This bench will come under plenty of scrutiny this year, and it is hard at this point to levy a verdict on just how well it will hold up. As such, it remains a weakness until proven otherwise.

4. What are the goals for this team?

This is tough: The team comes off a trip to the Conference Finals in the NBA’s clearly superior Western Conference and an off-season fairly devoid of much player turnover. As such, the goal should probably be the logical next step, which is a trip to the Finals, and, as the West’s representative, a victory. When one simply looks on paper at 51 wins and a loss in the penultimate round of the playoffs, there isn’t really another option.

However, the fact of the matter was that last season’s circumstances were extenuating in many regards. Although this was a very good team, the Jazz still benefited enormously from the facts that the top-seeded Mavericks got dumped in the first round and that Phoenix and San Antonio – truly the two best teams in the conference – faced off the in the semis. Further, Utah was able to cruise for most of the year playing in a division with three teams (Portland, Minnesota and Seattle) who each lost 50-plus games. Denver, Utah’s best divisional competition, didn’t bring in Allen Iverson until late December and also lost Carmelo Anthony for 15 games due to his role in the brawl with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. With that roster together all year, the Nuggets will be primed to make a much more serious run at the division.

The point here is that the likelihood is that the road will be much tougher for the Jazz this year. So while the team should benefit from having a year under the belt together, if the competition rises proportionally, it is hard to realistically up the expectation. As such, the goal for the Jazz should be another division crown followed by another trip to the Western Conference Finals; in other words, a replication of last season’s success. As odd as that sounds, reaching that same level of success this year will demonstrate more about this team as a long-run contender than it did last year. If they can do it, it will represent an improvement.

5. Well then, will they do it? Or if not, what will they do?

The Jazz will win the division again. The Nuggets will be a driving force in the division, and last year’s lower-tier conference teams such as Seattle, Portland, Memphis and New Orleans will be much more competitive, making the schedule tougher as a whole. However, Utah is still the best team top to bottom in this division, and the Jazz easily have the best coach. Denver’s sheer dumbness (read: Melo and, at times, AI) will do in the Nuggets in the long run, and none of the other Northwest teams will make a serious run beyond that.

It is how far the Jazz will be able to go beyond another division crown that remains to be seen. At this point, one would be hard-pressed to say that San Antonio and Phoenix aren’t better, given that they are. For all their playoff failures, the Mavs are likely to have another stellar season, and the Rockets could get a real boost under new coach Rick Adelman. Of those four teams and the Jazz, at least one won’t make it to the second round of the playoffs. It won’t be the Jazz, who will survive the first round but also won’t make it to the conference’s final two either.

Predicted Record: 48-34

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