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Monday, June 1, 2015

SDH's 2014/2015 NBA End of Season Worst to First Countdown: 20. Utah Jazz

2014/2015 Projection: 25-57, fourth place Northwest Division, fourteenth place Western Conference

Actual Finish: 38-44, third place Northwest Division, eleventh place Western Conference

2014/2015 Finish

Actual 2014/2015 Finish

Team Statistics and League Rank

  • Points Scored: 95.1 (26th)
  • Points Allowed: 94.9 (1st)
  • Team FG%: .447(19th)
  • Opponent’s FG%: .446 (14th)
  • Team FT%: .721 (26th)
  • Team Three Point FG%: .343 (19th)
  • Rebounds per game: 44.0 (11th)
  • Opponents rebounds per game: 39.2 (1st)
  • Turnovers per game: 14.2 (22nd)
  • Opponents turnovers per game: 12.6 (23rd)

Individual Statistical Leaders

  • Scoring (ppg): Gordon Hayward (19.3)
  • Rebounds per game:  Rudy Gobert (9.5)
  • Minutes per game: Gordon Hayward (34.4)
  • Assists per game:  Trey Burke (4.3)
  • Field Goal Percentage: Rudy Gobert (.604)
  • Free Throw Percentage:   Jeremy Evans (.830)
  • Three Point FG Percentage: Steve Novak (.485)
  • Steals per game: Gordon Hayward (1.4)
  • Blocked Shots per game:  Rudy Gobert (2.3)

SDH’s Hero to Honor: Quin Snyder

Here is a Cinderella story for the ages: a young rookie coach with no prior experience takes a team in which the majority of players have yet to reach their 25th birthdays and despite missing the playoffs, manages to shatter the expectations of not only his fans, but those who had overlooked them.  With the lack of both experience and maturity, the Utah Jazz were not even expect to reach 20 wins, let alone match the 28 they won last season; yet the team still managed to finish ten games ahead of their previous record while at the same time post impressive overall stats that would out-shadow even the most tested of veteran teams.  In spite of finishing with a losing record, the Jazz managed to finish the regular season among the top teams in the league in points and rebounds allowed, while at the same time managed to outscore their opponents, albeit by a rather slim +.02 margin.  Had they been in the Eastern Conference, they would have easily earned the seventh or eighth in the playoffs, but sadly they are in a heavily loaded Western Conference where 45 wins--which would have earned a team fifth place in the East--did not even manage to get in the door.  Regardless, Utah fans must not only be ecstatic about their team's surprising finish, but also jumping out their seats with excitement as this team will only get better in time and if it continues to improve, return to the post season might come sooner rather than later.     

SDH’s Face to Forget: +Dante Exum

So much was said about this young Australian kid that many had him in line to being possibly the next +Kobe Bryant, which ultimately led him to being selected fifth overall in last summer's draft; however, as with the majority of his rookie class, Dante Exum fell well short of expectations.  While many expected him to easily assimilate to the NBA style of plays because of his size, skills and superior basketball IQ, Dante seemed lost like a deer stuck in headlights and was unable to find any sense of rhythm and consistency as can be seen by his .349 field goal percentage.  And it was not as if he was not given an opportunity to succeed as he was able to appear in all 82 games and even managed to play an average 22 minutes per game, which is quite impressive for a player just coming into the league; yet, all he managed to produce a meager 4.8 points and 2.6 assists per game making some speculate whether or not he will even remain in the league let alone become the star that many have anticipated him being.  For now the safest response to Dante's less than earth shattering performance is that he is still a work in progress and at just 19 years old, he has plenty of time to evolve into a pretty decent player.  Fortunately for him, Dante will not have the pressure to shoulder the burden of leading a team as that title has already been given to Gordon Hayward and all he has to do is provide solid role support to assure the Jazz continue to march upward toward legitimacy.

It almost seemed improbable to think that a sports team situated in the middle of nowhere, with little of no access to any media exposure, would end up becoming one of the most successful professional franchises in modern sports history; however, that has been the case for the +Utah Jazz who for more than thirty years have defied all regular conventions and has become a model for building a winning organization.  In spite of not being around a major metropolitan area with little or no access to the mainstream media, the Jazz have garnered as much, if not more exposure and acclaim than team that have such advantages rivaling such storied franchises as the +Los Angeles Lakers+New York Knicks+Chicago Bulls, and +Boston Celtics. When even mentioning the Jazz in conversations, no one even points out that in having had 25 winning seasons in the past 31--16 of which they won 50 or more games and 14 in which they at least advanced past the first round of the playoffs--Utah did so without the good fortune of having the ability of attracting marquee free agents or the fact that two of the greatest players that have ever worn their uniform did not even get drafted in the top ten of their respective draft classes.  Even when the Hall of fame duo of Stockton and Malone bid farewell to Salt Lake City thus ending an glorious era in not only Utah basketball but also in +NBA history, the Jazz still managed to bounce back after a falling out of playoff contention for three years, and rebuilt itself into a contender once again, and used the same formula they did before despite the hurdles they had to overcome; however, that era has proven to be short lived and now the Jazz and their fans find their legacy on the verge of being swallowed into the void of irrelevancy as smaller market teams like themselves are now in threat of being swept under the rug.  2015 was expected to be the end of not only a franchise, but an end of an era where even a small team like the Jazz could make a grand mark on the world stage as it was going to be the first chapter of a once noble franchise's fall to oblivion.

Not many gave the Jazz a chance as the team came into the 2015 regular season with a roster where the majority of the players were under the age of 25 with less than five years of experience and a rookie head coach whom no one had even heard of; however, what was supposed to be a wash of a season ended up to be one of the year's biggest and most pleasant surprises.  Instead of allowing themselves to be rolled over by the rest of the league, this team of young adults actually competed giving even the best teams a run for their money thanks to their surprisingly mature and cohesive style of play as well as an even more remarkable performance on the defensive end that would even put some of the most hardened veteran teams to shame.  Even though they did not make the playoffs, the Jazz, despite all their youth and inexperience, managed to defy all expectations finishing third place in their division behind the +Portland Trail Blazers and +Oklahoma City Thunder and with a record of 38-44, would have earned the team a playoff berth had they been playing in the much weaker Eastern Conference.  What made this season even more amazing was not just their record which blew away possibly even the most optimistic expectations from sports pundits, but the numbers that the team produced as whole where upon seeing them, would make many wonder how they did not manage to have a better record or make the playoffs in the first place.  Not only did the Jazz finish the season among the league's top teams in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage allowed, but they also managed to outscore their opponents--albeit by a rather slim +0.02 margin; yet, in spite of such a strong showing, they neither managed to earn themselves a winning record or come near to making the playoffs.

From watching this team play, no one would have even fathomed that a group of twenty somethings would be able play with such focus and disciplined ball that it held NBA teams down to an average of under 95 points and forty rebounds per game as well as out-rebounding them by a plus five margin and holding them to a field goal percentage of under .450; yet in doing so, Utah proved to not only the league, but the world that news of its demise were completely overblown.  In fact, with such a impressive performance, especially on the defensive end, this team will most certainly bounce back much faster than the majority of basketball fans, media, even the team itself had ever anticipated in their wildest dreams as the Jazz can no longer be considered as a lumbering dinosaur on the verge of extinction, but now can boast of being one of the league's up and coming teams with possibly the deepest treasure trove of under 25 talent in the league. With their young ages and the limitless high ceiling of each Utah Jazz player , given a year or two, they might just upset the balance of power in the Western Conference finally breaking the stranglehold of the few teams that have remained in the Western Conference Playoff picture which can best described as cruelly oppressive for the past few years.  To witness a team so young connect so quickly and execute with such cohesion and discipline on both ends of the floor is almost as mind-boggling as the fact that this is the team who for more than three decade have defied the odds and so openly questioned conventional basketball wisdom where successful teams has to come from large and more lucrative markets.  By putting forth such an impressive performance, Utah has once again put itself in a place where they can bring itself back into the spotlight thus silencing their critics and doubters.

To prove how stacked with young talent this Jazz team is, one can point out how it simply traded away +Enes Kanter, a player that many see to be potentially a future All Star, to the +Oklahoma City Thunder for nothing more than a couple of garbage players, a future first round pick that would at best be in the late twenties, and a veteran in which they later waived.  Kanter was selected third overall in the 2011 NBA Draft and over the past four years had been developing into a rather impressive player as can be seen by the steady improvement of his numbers; however, in spite of that, Kanter's minutes were being squeezed thanks to the presence of equally talented teammates +Derrick Favors and +Rudy Gobert which frustrated him to a point of demanding a trade.  The Jazz were more than happy to oblige with Kanter's demand sending him over to Oklahoma City without a second thought and he would go on to put on a career performance posting an average of 19 points and 11 boards in the 26 games he playing in OKC; however, that did not phase the Jazz one bit as Kanter's replacement in the starting lineup, Rudy Gobert, would go on to finish the regular season with 8 points, nearly 10 rebounds, and over two blocks per game in just over 26 minutes of playing time.  Although many criticized letting go of Kanter for so little in return after finishing so strongly in the Thunder, Gobert might prove to be just as good if not better than Kanter as can be seen by his continual growth over the course of the season to the point where in the last two months he was averaging a double double in points and rebounds while blocking over two shots per game.  That is just one example of how bottomless the depths of the talent in Utah's roster and how limitless high their players' ceilings are and as time passes there will be even more controversies such as the Kanter affair if rookie Dante Exum progresses to develop and take minutes away from +Trey Burke and +Alec Burks, who are currently ahead of him on the roster chart; however, with such a luxury of having such a wealth of talent, do not expect the Jazz's coaching staff or its front office to worry about it.        

With so much talent that has yet to reach its full potential and from what the players have shown thus far with their overall discipline, defensive intensity and solid offensive execution, it will not be a matter of if the Jazz will overtake on of these teams, but only a matter of when as Utah looks to return to prominence once again as on of the Western Conference's elites and that time may come sooner rather than later.  Right now no one has yet to pay attention to the Jazz since most of it has been spent on focusing on teams such as the +Golden State Warriors+Houston Rockets+Los Angeles Clippers+Memphis Grizzlies+Dallas Mavericks+Portland Trail Blazers and +San Antonio Spurs since they currently hold the balance of power in the Western Conference; however, no team can afford to sleep on the Jazz, especially the Blazers and the Thunder--two team who have essentially owned the Northwest Division for the past three or four years. This team is too simply good to be underestimated and it might just pull off an equally implausible performance as the +Atlanta Hawks did this past season; however, unlike Atlanta, Utah has far more talented players who have a far higher upside.  Many had the Jazz pushing up daisies when legendary head coach Jerry Sloan resigned after over a quarter century of service four years ago, but it seems that the team has potentially found a new coaching legend in Quin Snyder--someone who virtually flew under the radar and turned about of raw, green behind the ear whipper snappers into one of the league's fast rising teams.  After this season, the next one will certainly be one of excitement for Jazz fans as they enter a new era with such hope for the future and once again prove to the world that an NBA team does not need to be in a big market of it wants any chance at a championship.