Thursday, October 25, 2007

Utah Jazz

Utah Jazz season preview

Projected starting line-up

G Deron Williams
G Ronnie Brewer
F Andrei Kirilenko
F Carlos Boozer
C Mehmet Okur

Jason Hart
Paul Millsap
Matt Harpring

Last year
Jerry Sloan proved that you can not keep him down for the count. Sure, Utah stumbled slightly once Stockton and Malone left, but just like that, the Jazz were once again a force to be reckoned with in the West. After 3 years of missing the playoffs, the Jazz stormed out of the gates in 06-07, winning 12 out of the first 13 games. The two players who lead this charge were Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Carlos Boozer had missed a majority of the previous season due to injury while Williams was the rookie point guard that was selected after Chris Paul. In fact, the leader of the team prior to this season was Mr. AK47 himself, Andrei Kirilenko. Ironically he was the only player on the team that took a step backwards compared to previous season. The reality is simple though for AK47, as Sloan loves the pick and roll and Boozer fills the Karl Malone spot much more effectively then Kirilenko ever could. Mehmet Okur was another player that stepped up, so far in fact, that he got a injury replacement spot on the Western all-star squad. Okur is one of the rare centers in the league that makes his money from outside the three point line. Now, everything was good for Utah. Great in fact. They were in the same breath as Dallas/S.A./Phoenix. But they took a step back from that group in the last month or so of the season as they started to struggle. Chemistry issues with Kirilenko could be part of the reason, although Okur also was not putting up the stats he was doing during the first few months. I am not saying that Utah fell apart completely, but enough so that they fell out of the elite standings. And it looked like they fell even further when they went down 0-2 against the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. The negative momentum was being carried over into the most important time of the season, and it did not look good at all for this Utah team. What turned them around though was one of the biggest strengths they had during the year, and that is playing in front of their home crowd. Utah had a great home record, and with taking both game 3 and 4 in front of the Utah crowd, they were able to build back up the positive momentum and win the series in 7. They also killed the good vibe Warriors in the second round, although with the huge weakness that was rebounding for Golden State, this was an emotional but easy victory for Utah. And finally, they proved that they were not in the elite class when the Spurs took them down just as easy as Utah did to the Warriors. Again, this is not a huge negative attached to the team. They might not have been a top 3 team in the league, but after missing the playoffs for a few season, turning around becoming the number 4 or 5 team in the league is still pretty damn impressive.

Released Derek Fisher
Drafted Morris Almond
Lost Rafael Araujo to free agency (I don't know if lost is the right word)
Signed Jason Hart
Singed Ronnie Price

They made the right decision (really the only decision) in allowing Derek Fisher walk away from his contract to be closer to his daughter. This would though leave a potential hole in the SG position. The bigger news of the off-season though was dealing with Andrei Kirilenko and his trade demand. After kicking butt in the Euro's, Kirilenko decided that he did not want to do another season under system used by Jerry Sloan. On top of this, Deron Williams and Kirilenko might not be exchanging birthday gifts any time soon as they have traded words during the summer. As we head into the season, everything seems to have been worked out, but 82 games in a long time.

They made a big move last year, but the goal will be to join the elite for this season. But with little moves done during the off-season, it will all ride on the continue growth of Williams, Boozer and Okur as well as Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap. This is a young team, but have they already hit the roof in regards to potential? They definetly won't be going down the rankings in the West, but does this team even have the ability to move up? Deron Williams, as strong as he was, still had a very high turnover number last season which is something he can improve on. Boozer is a power forward who gets tons of boards, but can't block any shots. Similar situation for Okur. All areas where this team can make improvements. And of course Kirilenko. If he can become happy in the system and provide the defensive stats that his teammates lack, then this team does have a shot at bigger things this year. But if he continues to be a distraction, this team will be stuck in the same spot it was in last year. The 4th or 5th best team in the league. And that's not a bad thing, but it's not the goal for this team ether.

Things to watch for
1) Obviously Kirilenko - 5x5 won't return. But can he become happy with his role?
2) The progress of Deron Williams - He made a big step up last season and in the playoffs. What will he do for an encore?
3) Utah's bench - With Fisher out and Brewer in the starting 5, the bench for Utah looks a little thin right now. Is that really the case?

They surprised us last season, but I don't seem the same surprises this season. In fact, with the improvements that Houston made, I see a slight drop for Utah. Again, they will be a very good team, but not great,

Between 47 and 51 wins this season with a 5th place finish in the West.

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