After Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics, there were questions about how good the Utah Jazz could be. They had no clear star player but still had a good roster. Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles all remained with the team. They also traded for veteran point guard Ricky Rubio and drafted shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. But was it enough for Utah to realistically compete in a loaded Western Conference? Turns out it was. The Jazz claimed the fifth seed and finished with a 48-34 record. Mitchell established himself as a star in his first season, and Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year. They then went on to defeat Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games. Utah lost their second-round series to the Houston Rockets 4-1. However, it was still a great season for the Jazz. Here’s a look at the 2018-19 Utah Jazz Season Preview.
Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Utah Jazz Season Preview
What Worked Last Season
As mentioned before, going into the 2017-18 season there were doubts the Jazz could compete with the elite teams without a star player. However, Mitchell quickly filled that vacancy and established himself as an elite player in this league. He averaged 20.5 points per game in the regular season and an even more impressive 24.4 points per game in the postseason. Mitchell scored 55 points in his first two playoff games, which was the most ever by a guard appearing in their first two postseason games.
Veterans players such as Gobert and Ingles continued their strong play last season. Gobert showcased his elite rim protection and rebounding ability, en route to winning his first Defensive Player of the Year award. With Gobert anchoring the middle and a number of players including Rubio, Jae Crowder, and Royce O’Neale providing strong perimeter defense, the Jazz finished tied for 1st in opponents points per game. Outside of Mitchell, scoring was a team effort. The Jazz finished with five players averaging double digit points per game. Ingles shot 44 percent from three for a second consecutive season and even averaged a career-high 11.5 points per game. Rubio, who has always been known for his passing ability, averaged a career high in points (13.1 ppg), field goal percentage (41.8%) and three-point percentage (35.2%).
Last year, the Jazz proved that they could compete with anyone. They finished fifth in points differential behind only the Warriors, Raptors, Rockets and 76ers. They even won the season series against Golden State three games to one. Regular season wins against the Celtics and Cavaliers and postseason wins against the Thunder and Rockets are only further evidence the Jazz should not be underestimated.
What Needs Improvement
Despite their great season, there are still areas that need to be improved for Utah to become a legitimate title contender. They finished only 19th in points per game last year. Part of that is due to their pace of play. They were 25th in possessions per game. However, they still finished 13th in field goal percentage as a team. It is by no means a bad idea to play a half court game when you have an elite defense. Nevertheless, they still need to become more efficient scoring the basketball to maximize their potential.
According to Basketball Reference, the average field goal percentage in the NBA was 46 percent last season. Mitchell’s field goal percentage could increase from the 43.7 percent it was last season now that he is no longer a rookie. Although Rubio improved as a scorer, 41.8 percent is still not a great field goal percentage when you are averaging double-digit shot attempts. Alec Burks has shown potential as an offensive option, but once again 41.1 percent is not ideal. Hopefully, internal development from young players such as O’Neale, Burks and Dante Exum will catapult this offense into the top 10.
The Jazz had a relatively quiet off-season. They drafted guard Grayson Allen 21st overall. Allen should be able to contribute immediately as a scorer and passer. Exum was then re-signed to a three-year deal worth $33 million. This will be a big season for Exum. He appeared in only 14 games last season and has struggled with injuries since being drafted 5th overall in 2014. He still has a lot of potential and could be a major contributor for the team if healthy. Additionally, they re-signed Favors. His deal is worth $32 million over two years, but the second year is non-guaranteed. This gives the Jazz flexibility next off-season. Point guard Raul Neto was re-signed. Then, Georges Niang was signed after playing with the Jazz on a two-way contract last year.
2018-19 Season Prediction
After overachieving last year, this team will have even greater expectations coming into this season. Last season we projected the Jazz to win 45 games. I expect them to have a win total similar to the 48 they had last year and grab the fifth seed in the West once again. Their strength on defense will help them defeat the four seed Rockets in a seven-game series. I do not expect them to get past the Warriors in the second round. Although, I learned to never count the Jazz out.
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