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.

Toronto’s Season A Step In Right Direction

I’ve taken my time in writing a year-end review for the Raptors because there are things that have already been said much better than I and at the end of the day I’m not really sure how I even feel about the way this season transpired.

The Raptors were not a great team.  They lost a lot of games.  Hell, they lost twice to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats (quite possibly the worst team in history).  They missed the playoffs again and did not secure a great chance at a top three pick.

Still, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of guy and I still feel the team had enough positive this season to be hopeful for the future.

While we saw problems with the club like the lack of a bona fide star, poor wing play for most of the season and a rash of injuries, we also saw marked improvement in a number of areas.  Our defence was much improved, some unexpected players stepped up to show they belong here and our coaching staff showed that they can strategize with the best in the league.

Overall it was a tough year, but one that has given the fan base reason to believe next year is going to be better.

My Captain, My Captain

It was clear early in the year that Dwane Casey was going to be the voice of this team.  He addressed the media at every turn and preached the same philosophies over and over.  He talked about “building a culture”, improving the team defence and to keep working hard.  His mantra, “pound the rock,” was adopted by each of his players and became a rallying cry throughout the year in the locker room, interviews and on twitter.

In wins and difficult losses his players continued to stick to the plan.

The turnaround in this team is most notable on the defensive side of the ball.  Last year the Raptors ranked near the bottom in all defensive statistics, but this year they finished 9th in points allowed, 8th in Opponents field goal percentage, and 5th in opponents three-point field goal percentage.  This was all with a back court that many thought was too weak on the defensive end.

Who then should be credited with the turnaround?  Look no further than the coach. Casey had a successful first year in charge of the Raptors because his message was simple and consistent and it stuck with his players. He was able to mask the defensive shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani (two players that everyone thought were hopeless on the defensive end) in his zone defense and turned the Raptors into a tough team to score against.

The effort Casey put forth helped make Bargnani a top-tier player during the first half of the season and helped rejuvenate the career of Jose Calderon.

Casey, for his efforts, has already had his contract extended and bigger and better things should be expected from the team with improvements to the roster.

Had Casey been on a higher profile team he might even be a candidate for coach of the year. His extended contract was a no-brainer and a bigger pay day may be coming if the team keeps heading in the direction it is currently pointed.

In this shortened Raptor season, Casey has given Raptor fans a reason to be hopeful for the future.

Jekyll and Hyde

No one knows on any given night which Andrea Bargnani or which DeMar DeRozan will show up.  Both had polarizing years, to say the least, and neither player could put it all together for an extended stretch of games.

Early on it looked as though Andrea Bargnani was going to bust loose on the NBA.  He was shooting the ball with confidence, driving the lane, hitting shots and playing with confidence on both ends of the floor.

For the first month and a half of the season all of the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were beginning to finally make sense.

Then he got injured.

Bargnani wasn’t the same player when he returned.  He was hesitant, lost his confidence and couldn’t find his rhythm.  Either the injury was not fully healed or opposing defenses made adjustments.  Either way he wasn’t a dominant player in the second half.

Raptor fans are now left wondering which player was the real Andrea Bargnani and which player is going to show up next year.

While Bargnani was having a great start and rough finish, DeMar DeRozan’s season was almost the complete and utter opposite.

DeRozan started the season terribly.  By the all-star break he was averaging 40% shooting and 15 points per game.  He was getting to the foul line five times a game.  He was sputtering and everyone in the city seemed to be noticing.  Journalists, bloggers, pundits, everyone was questioning whether DeRozan was going to be a significant part of this teams future. He looked like a player destined for a career off the bench.

In the second half, he spent a lot less time trying to shoot three-pointers and started focusing on getting to the foul line.  He was able to draw contact and get to the stripe a lot more. In December, Derozan averaged little over two free throw attempts per game.  Later in the year, he bumped that to as high as six attempts per game. A significant improvement.

DeRozan has begun to learn what he does well.  Casey had him attacking the rim, and allthough he didn’t always get the call, he kept attacking.

By the end of the second half of the year, DeRozan began to look a lot more like the player Raptor fans were expecting when he was drafted out of USC.

Now Raptor fans have to hope that ‘First half Bargnani’ and ‘Second half DeRozan’ are actually who these players are.

Supporting Players

The Raptors may not have a bona fide superstar at the moment.  They may have to steal that star from the draft or in free agency, but what the team does have a plethora of is character players.  Guys that come to the court and leave it all on the floor.  A squad of fighters that any coach would love to have coming off the bench.

Jerryd Bayless showed himself to be a very capable point guard and shooting guard this season and is perfectly suited to a bench role next season, if he stays in town. He can shoot, drive and dish and can potentially cause match-up nightmares for opposing teams.

James Johnson can play many positions and does a little bit of everything.  He can block, rebound, defend and occasionally score.  He plays the 3, 4 and occasionally the 5, and he has a high basketball IQ when he’s on the floor.  If he has not burned bridges with coach Casey he will be a valuable part of the team next year.

Jose Calderon had one of his best seasons as a professional basketball player in 2011/12.  He distributed the ball with ease averaging 8.6 assists good enough for fourth in the league behind only Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul.  He established himself as a team leader for this team going forward and one that Dwane Casey is not afraid to put full trust in.  He also became a much better defensive player under Casey.  Calderon may just retire here in Toronto and the fans, who have cheered and jeered him over the years, likely have no issue with him staying after the year he has had.

The Colangelo Factor

Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo. Though his star is not nearly as bright as it once was in Toronto, Colangelo has positioned his team to be a player once again in 2012/13.  The steady GM has cleared cap space for his team and has drafted a number of strong young players to build around.  He’s also got all of his players signed to team friendly contracts meaning that they are very tradeable.

This kind of flexibility has given the Raptor faithful some hope for next year especially with the arrival of highly touted 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas.  Jonas made Colangelo look even better this year by having a stellar year overseas and raising eyebrows with his strong play on both ends of the court in Lithuania.

Colangelo should also be credited with his very clever scouting of the D-league.  He brought over three players (Anderson, Uzoh, Dentmon) and  in the final two months of the season and all three played valuable minutes and showed they belong in the league.  Uzoh and Anderson may actually have a shot of sticking with the club next year.

No Raptor player, outside of maybe Bargnani, has been as often criticized as Jose Calderon. This season may have helped to prove all the negative voices wrong once and for all.

If that doesn’t prove to people that Colangelo has got some skill as an executive, then hopefully his off-season moves will.