Hollinger's Team Forecast: Utah Jazz
Utah had the best point differential in the Western Conference last season and was lights-out in the second half of the season. Heading into the second round of the playoffs, they seemed to have a great shot at upsetting the top-seeded Lakers and making a run to the Finals.
They might have pulled it off, too, if not for a pesky rule that permits a player to shoot free throws if the other team fouls him. In six games, L.A.'s Kobe Bryant took an unfathomable 96 free-throw attempts; he made 80 of them. That, in a nutshell, was the series. Utah scored more than enough points to win and did reasonably well in other respects on defense, but the Lakers' parade to the free-throw line killed any hope of an upset.
W-L: 54-28 (Pythagorean W-L: 62-20)
Offensive Efficiency: 110.8 (2nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.0 (12th)
Pace Factor: 95.6 (11th)
Highest PER: Carlos Boozer (21.96)
The free-throw frenzy wasn't isolated to those six games. Bryant didn't get 96 free throws because of some conspiracy to favor the Lakers or a nefarious plot by David Stern to keep small-market teams out of the Finals; it happened because Utah really, truly fouled him on nearly every play, just like they did to most of their opponents all season.
That tendency has become a hugely important story, because in 2007-08 the Jazz were a championship-caliber team in virtually every other respect. The rampant fouling was really the only thing standing between them and a conference title at the very least.
And I do mean rampant fouling. Jerry Sloan's teams have posted ridiculously high foul numbers for most of the past two decades, and last season the Jazz redoubled their efforts. Utah led the NBA in both personal fouls and opponent free throw attempts, and did so by a staggering margin. Jazz opponents took .393 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt last season (see chart); not only was that terrible, but they're actually getting worse: Relative to the league it was a .05 increase from their league-worst mark of a year earlier.
Opponent FTA Per FGA: 2007-08's Worst
And it was hugely costly. Utah gave up 410 more points on free throws than it would have by fouling at the league average rate, or exactly five points a game -- an amount large enough to swing about 13 games in a typical NBA season. Granted, opponents would have taken shots from the field on most of those possessions and probably hit a solid percentage (fouls tend to come when the defense is at a disadvantage); but even if they'd made 55 percent of them Utah would have saved itself two points a game.
Those two points a game are worth between five and six wins for a typical NBA team, which for the Jazz last season was the difference between being the top seed in the West and having to play on the road every round.
More generally, the major hole they dig themselves into with the fouls makes it virtually impossible for the Jazz to have a championship-caliber defense; the only reason they were even in the hunt last season was because they led the league in offensive efficiency over the second half of the season. That's been the case for Utah ever since Sloan adopted the foul-on-every-play strategy near the end of the Stockton-Malone era (their Finals teams fouled at much less prodigious rates) -- the defense has been average at best every season, because you can't be at the top of the league giving away this many free points.
It's amazing that the personnel cost wasn't greater, too. Utah had a unique approach to avoid foul trouble to its best players -- the starters would play normal defense, and the bench guys would come in and just hammer people. While each of the starting five had reasonable foul rates, four Jazz reserves (Paul Millsap, Ronnie Price, C.J. Miles and Jason Hart) had among the highest foul rates at their positions, while Matt Harpring and Kyle Korver weren't far behind.
Korver, actually, is a great example of how this is clearly a tactical decision for the Jazz. He averaged 3.0 and 3.1 fouls per 36 minutes the two previous seasons as a member of the Sixers; in Utah that ballooned to 4.2.
The fouling at least had one positive: often the Jazz wrested the ball away and the zebras let the contact go. Utah had the league's third-best opponent turnover rate, forcing miscues on 16.7 percent of opponent possessions. Combined with a strong performance on the defensive boards, the Jazz were the toughest team in the league to get a shot off against (see chart). Utah opponents fired only 94.1 shots per 100 possessions, which was the main reason the Jazz were able to finish 12th in defensive efficiency instead of, say, 30th.
Fewest Opp. Shots Per Possessions, 2007-08
|TEAM||OPP. SHOTS* PER POSS.|
Speaking of Korver, it was Utah's midseason acquisition of him that helped turned their season around after a slow start. The Jazz started the year just 18-17, with Mehmet Okur in particular playing horribly, before snapping out of their early funk and rolling to the division title. That was around the same time Korver arrived -- after trading Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick to Philadelphia to get him, they went 38-16.
His impact was more the threat of his shot than the reality of it -- he only made 38.8 percent of his 3s for the Jazz. But on a team devoid of his shooting, his presence loosened up packed-in defenses -- especially when Okur was off the floor -- and allowed the other guys to do their thing.
As I mentioned, Utah ranked first in offensive efficiency for the second half of the season, and second for the year as a whole. They were second in the NBA in field-goal percentage, 2-point shooting percentage, true shooting percentage, and free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt (Jerry's teams get it as good as they give it when it comes to fouling). And although they still rarely took 3-pointers -- they had the fourth-lowest rate of 3-point shots -- Korver led them to a solid 37.2 percent.
Like I said, it was a championship-caliber offense. And hopefully they'll stop hacking long enough to prove it.
Biggest Strength: Interior scoringThis team is a layup machine, plain and simple. Williams is among the best point guards in basketball and always delivers it to the right spot, and starters Boozer, Kirilenko and Brewer are all outstanding finishers around the basket.
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Additionally, Utah's offensive system is an unorthodox one by NBA standards, relying heavily on off-ball screening and cutting to get players open near the rim for short-range shots. It produces lots of layups and free throws, especially for players like Brewer and Harpring who excel at moving without the ball -- Williams will always find them, and Kirilenko is a good passer too.
Off the bench, the Jazz don't lose a lot in this regard. I mentioned Harpring above, but Millsap is also very effective around the basket, and Price, the backup at point guard, is a good finisher when he gets to the rim. With layups coming in waves, the Jazz don't need a whole lot of shooting to be among the league's elite offenses.
Biggest Weakness: Interior defenseA big reason the Jazz sent opponents to the line so often was because the backline bailed them out so rarely. The combo of Okur and Boozer up front is brilliant offensively, but at the defensive end their weaknesses are more easily exposed. Okur is indifferent at best as a help defender and can't get off the floor to block shots at the rim, while Boozer's explosive leaping at the offensive end doesn't seem to translate into quality defense.
Off the bench it doesn't get too much better. Millsap is incredibly active but incredibly foul-prone, while Jarron Collins is a spent force whose offensive limitations prevent him from playing much. Harpring, when used at power forward, is of limited utility as a help defender and worthless as a shot-blocker.
For those reasons, some wonder if the Jazz would be better served by trading one of their bigs for a wing player and moving Kirilenko to power forward. He was one of the league's leading shot-blockers from that position until two years ago, and might be a highly effective help-side flyswatter if returned to that role. With both frontcourt starters potentially entering free agency after the season, it's food for thought.
OutlookOK, they foul on every play. The good news is that if they just cut the foul rate a little bit, they can be good enough defensively to allow the offense to win games for them. And we have reason to suspect they can pull that feat off. Between Brewer's emergence as a stopper on the wings, a likely reduction in playing time for high-foul players like Harpring and Collins, and, more hopefully, some recognition by Sloan that this state of affairs must change, it seems plausible for the Jazz to improve here.
If so, it's hard to argue with them in the West, because they've got everything else. The Jazz have go-to stars in both the backcourt and the frontcourt, have multiple scoring weapons surrounding them, and have arguably the deepest team in the conference. That last point is important, because this team is tailor-made for the regular-season grind --it can easily survive minor injuries and slumps and has no player who is too indispensable.
Additionally, they're still on the upswing. Williams is 24, Boozer is 26, and every key player except Harpring is in his 20s. Okur and Korver are both likely to have better years than a season ago, but nobody except perhaps Harpring projects to sharply regress.
Add it all up and the Jazz, perhaps a bit surprisingly, came out with the top record in the West when I projected each team's outcome -- beating out the Lakers by a single game. L.A. has the higher ceiling, and arguably so does Houston, but the Jazz have a far better likelihood of getting close to their roof.
Taking things a step further, picking the Jazz to have home-court advantage by virtue of the best record in the West means one almost has to pick them to win the conference, too -- between the altitude and the crowd's impact on the zebras, this team is nigh unbeatable at home. It's a crowded race and they're one of three teams I see as having roughly equal odds of making it out, but if I have to pick a horse out West, this is the one.
Prediction: 58-24, 1st in Northwest Division, 1st in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
HOLLINGER'S TEAM FORECASTS
Utah JazzTRAINING CAMP
Sept. 29: Salt Lake City
Oct. 7: at L.A. Lakers
Oct. 29: vs. Denver
TRAINING CAMP INDEX