It seemed that if you looked around the NBA last season, there were an unusually large number of teams that were in rebuilding mode. The Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, even the venerable Los Angeles Lakers all appeared to give up on the 2013-14 season before it even really started, deciding that the 2014 NBA Draft was the best way to ensure a future that included championship rings and banners.The Utah Jazz were another team that was in the beginnings of a rebuild, going 25-57 on the season a year after just missing the playoffs and saying good-bye to Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. All that losing enabled the team to get the No. 5 pick in the draft and, when the Orlando Magic surprised everyone by picking Aaron Gordon, it allowed Dante Exum to fall into their lap.
Somehow they got lucky again and against all odds they were able to grab Rodney Hood out of Duke with the No. 23 pick.
You would think with the addition of those two to an already young, hungry core that includes Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Trey Burke, most would be predicting solid progress from the Jazz this season. But instead, ESPN just released their Summer Forecast of their projected standings for the NBA and have the Jazz coming in second to last in the West with only 26 wins and a return to the draft lottery.
Personally, I think that may be a gross misjudgment of where this team is at right now.
Hayward has just been signed to a massive max contract worth $63 million and every indication is that he will be anxious to prove to everyone he was worth the faith the Jazz showed in him by signing him to that deal. Exum showed glimpses during the summer leagues of why, despite never playing basketball at the college level, so many thought he was worth taking in the top five.
Even though he has said he prefers playing the 1, Exum has also shown a willingness to learn from head coach Quin Snyder, telling Jody Genessy of The Deseret News:
“He’s taught me a few things that I’ve taken into consideration. I’m definitely going to look to add it to my game.”
Most important, you just have to look at a stretch during the middle of last season to see what this team might be capable of. After starting the year 4-19, the Jazz went .500 over the next 34 games, putting up a fight every night and showing other teams that they just wouldn’t go away.
Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed and fixed by Snyder, including a serious lack of defense and, possibly most important, getting Derrick Favors to step up and become the leader this team needs.
It’s not that Favors had a terrible season last year, averaging 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but more that he was expected to be much better than his stats indicate. When he signed his contract extension last year for $49 million, the organization thought he would become the leader of this very young team, taking on much the same role that Al Jefferson filled when he was with the Jazz.
If Favors steps up and Snyder can fix the team’s defensive woes, there is no reason at all the Jazz can’t be a 30-35 win team. If they played in the hapless Eastern Conference, that would be good enough for a playoff berth, but in the intensely competitive West, it will probably mean a return to the draft lottery.
But with the rebuild going so well and coming together so fast, fans should have no doubt that of all the teams that went into rebuilding mode over the last few seasons, the Jazz will be the first to leave the lottery behind and return to playoff glory. Possibly as soon as next season.