Preseason Promise And Questions For Utah

We’ve all heard it over and over: The preseason doesn’t mean anything. But is that really true? With the 2012-13 NBA regular season set to start, is there anything that we’ve learned about the Utah Jazz from their preseason performance? I think there’s plenty.

For starters, the offseason move the Jazz made to acquire Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye will pay dividends.

With Mo Williams at the point, Utah was consistently able to push the ball up the floor quickly, allowing for more easy transition baskets. Also, his 3-point shooting should give the Jazz a potent option on offense in the halfcourt that they just didn’t have last season.

Marvin Williams gives Utah plenty of athleticism on the wing, and he’ll have the opportunity to do things with Utah he never had with Atlanta.

Foye’s shooting came on later in preseason, and Jazz coach Ty Corbin was able to use Foye and sophomore guard Alec Burks in a combo-guard backcourt in reserve that showed some interesting results and could prove quite handy while reserve point guard Earl Watson continues his rehab.

Also, the work Enes Kanter put in during the summer was for real. My concern with Kanter ever since he was drafted was whether or not he was worth a No. 3 overall pick over Toronto rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, and Kanter’s rookie season didn’t fill me with confidence. I also thought Kanter should’ve join Turkey’s national team for Eurobasket qualifying. But the workouts he did to get in shape for the season and the skills he picked up working with NBA legend Kiki Vandeweghe really showed during preseason. He averaged nearly a double-double in Utah’s eight preseason games, playing hard in all of them, and showed improvements in defense, rebounding and offense, particularly with his mid-range jumper. Now my biggest worry about Kanter is whether or not Corbin will play him 20 minutes per game in the regular season like he did in preseason.

Fellow big man Derrick Favors had a slower start to preseason than Kanter did, but he defended well throughout, and by the last few games of exhibition, his offense looked more ready for the start of the season as well. Again, with veterans Al Jefferson, Utah’s best and most consistent player last season, and Paul Millsap both looking to take a major share of minutes in the frontcourt, playing time for Favors may also be a challenge.

While the start of the regular season brings promise, it also brings questions. With regards to Jefferson and Millsap, both will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With their contracts, among others, coming off the books, the Jazz will be looking at a lot of salary cap space next summer. But Jefferson and Millsap will also be among the top free agents available on the market, and Utah may not be able to retain both players.

A trade during the season for either player is a real possibility in order to ensure getting value in return, and it’s a situation that will bear watching between now and February.

Also, Utah is going to need to get more from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward this season. Hayward has shown incredible potential, and his defense is particularly underrated. But just as it was with C.J. Miles, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, consistency will be Hayward’s challenge. He has the ability, but he needs to be assertive with his role on the court, and performing well consistently, particularly on offense, will help him define that role with this team.

On Wednesday, when Utah opens the regular season agains the Dallas Mavericks, we’ll see what carries over from preseason and what questions start to get answered — and what new questions might emerge.

Ferry Quick To Leave His Mark On Hawks

Danny Ferry has been in charge of the Atlanta Hawks for less than a month, and already he’s stamped his indelible mark on the team with two huge trades.

It started out like a fairly normal week for the Hawks.  Just a few days after the NBA draft, most fans and analysts were pontificating and arguing about whether or not Atlanta had gotten themselves any help with their draft picks.

Then it started.

A few whispers and rumblings, using words like “discussions” and “ongoing talks” in regards to Joe Johnson being traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Most figured it was just foolish gossip.  There was no way Atlanta was going to be able to convince any team to take on Johnson’s cap space eating contract.

And then in an interesting twist, Joe Johnson signed up for the social media photography service called Instagram, under the name “imstartinova2″.

Maybe the rumors and stories had some merit?

Apparently so, because before Monday was over the Hawks looked like a completely different team.

Ferry did what most said couldn’t be done and traded Joe Johnson to the Nets, and he didn’t end up with pie in the face while doing it.

Atlanta unloaded Johnson and his enormous contract to Brooklyn in exchange for the expiring contracts of Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, and Sean Williams, and get free-agent DeShawn Stevenson via a sign-and-trade. The Hawks will also get a lottery protected first round pick (via Houston).

The deal is set to be finalized on July 11 when the free-agent moratorium ends.

So the Hawks dump nearly $90 million they were going to have to pay Johnson over the next four years, and they get some players to look at, and a pick?

Score: Danny Ferry – 1, Doubters – 0

But the new Hawks GM wasn’t done yet.  No sooner had the Joe Johnson deal been solidified and writers filed their stories, Ferry pulled the trigger on another deal. The Hawks are sending seven-year veteran forward Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz for point guard Devin Harris, who is in the final year of his contract.

Williams was the number two overall draft pick in 2005, and has spent his entire NBA career with the Hawks, averaging 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists.  He was due to be paid $8.3 million in 2012-13 and $7.5 million in 2013-14.

In return, Atlanta gets a dynamic point guard with starting experience for at least one season, and who will provide a great complimentary teammate for the Hawks’ incumbent point guard Jeff Teague.

Score: Danny Ferry – 2, Doubters – 0

When you take in to account the trades of Johnson and Williams, and add in the fact that Atlanta had nine unrestricted free agents on the team, you could be looking at nearly a completely different roster by the time training camp rolls around.

But the question of what will happen with star forward Josh Smith still remains.  Smith’s future will likely depend on how his meetings with Ferry go, and if he gives a definitive indication on whether he plans to re-sign after this season or go elsewhere.

If Smith tells Ferry that his plan is to leave Atlanta after his contract expires this season, Hawks fans may see yet another big deal go down.

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.