Jazz End Season On A High Note

The Utah Jazz entered the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA regular season without a whole lot of expectations from the basketball world at large. While die-hard Jazz fans were excited about 2011 draft picks Enes Kanter and Alec Burks and still buzzing over the acquisition of young post presence Derrick Favors and talented point guard Devin Harris the previous season, most pundits figured this season’s Utah team to be mediocre at best.

Utah finished the 66-game slate with a record of 36-30, edging out the Phoenix Suns for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference and being swept by the West’s top-seeded San Antonio Spurs — not a glorious season, certainly, but still a good lick better than mediocre.

So how did a team without a true center that finished the 2010-11 season with a dismal string of losses after the retirement of its Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and the trading of its All-Star Deron Williams turn itself around and earn a playoff spot?

Offensive production certainly played a big role. Fueled by a home-heavy schedule in January and peaking in April for a fantastic run to the playoffs, the Jazz finished the season with a team scoring average of 99.65 points per game, fourth-best in the league, and shot a solid 45.6 percent from the floor. They also posted a respectably low turnover average of 14.18 per game. Utah also excelled on the glass behind big men Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Favors and Kanter, averaging 44.18 boards per game, third-best in the NBA.

Defensively, Utah left a little bit to be desired. Behind the skills and muscle of its big men and rangy swingman Gordon Hayward, the Jazz blocked a lot of shots, 5.83 per game, fourth in the NBA. But going up against teams that had more actual length, the Jazz had nearly as many of their own shots sent back, an average of 5.68 blocks by their opponents. Behind Millsap’s career-high average of 1.8 steals per game, the Jazz were able to do well in that department with 8.26 steals per game. But the team allowed its opponents to shoot nearly as well from the floor as they did, with an opponent average of 45.3 percent, and the Jazz also gave up a higher percentage of 3-point shots than they hit, 34 percent to 32.3 percent.

While there are those who would vigorously contend this point, I maintain that Utah’s lack of a true center was one of the reasons it didn’t fare better this season. The 6-10 Jefferson was clearly the best and most consistent player the Jazz had this year, averaging 19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, and with his advanced post moves, deft shooting touch out to 18 feet and rebounding skills, he was often center enough despite giving up an inch or two. But also quite telling were his struggles against the L.A. Lakers, with two 7-footers on their front line in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the Portland Trail Blazers, first with Marcus Camby and then Joel Przybilla, and the Indiana Pacers and their big center Roy Hibbert. In three games against the Lakers, Jefferson shot 30 percent from the floor; against the Blazers, he shot 33 percent over three games. In Utah’s game against the Pacers, Jefferson was 35.3 percent from the floor.

Alongside the 6-8 Millsap in the starting lineup, the Jazz often found themselves giving up length. They made up for it with heart, hustle and a good deal of muscle, especially with Favors (also 6-10, but with an enormous wingspan, and I’ll grant that he may not be finished growing) and the 6-11 (in sneakers, 6-8 3/4 without shoes) rookie Kanter (who could also add an inch or two as he ages). But this season, there were times it just wasn’t enough, particularly in the playoff series against the Spurs. While pundits touted Utah’s size advantage, I maintain it was a myth. With 6-11 Tim Duncan (who used to be announced as a 7-footer when he played for Wake Forest, I swear), 6-7 muscle chunk DaJuan Blair, 6-11 (maybe 7 feet, depending on who’s doing the measuring) Tiago Splitter, and even 6-10 Matt Bonner, San Antonio didn’t have any problems complementing Tony Parker’s penetrating drives with some punch in the post and their own presence on defense and the boards.

Inconsistency at the point was also a weakness for the Jazz. Harris started the season poorly, improved greatly in February, dropped off a bit in March, then he picked up just in time with a stellar April that saw him come up with some big game-winning shots in Utah’s stretch run to the postseason. But it’s clear they needed more from their starting point guard than what they got, and that will be something for Harris to think about this summer.

Still, the future looks bright for this franchise. Young players Favors, Kanter, Hayward and Burks should just continue to improve, and Utah may be able to make a key addition or two in free agency. Despite not having a first round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, the Jazz will have their second-round pick, No. 47 overall, to pick up a sleeper or use on an overseas prospect, and I’m holding out hope that 7-2 center Ante Tomic decides to come over to Utah with his current contract with Spanish power Real Madrid set to expire.

These are all developments to keep track of this summer, because for a true hoop addict, there is no offseason.