How High Can Utah Fly This Season?


At the beginning of last week, ESPN published their Western Conference predictions for the 2012-2013 NBA season. I realized I had yet to comment on it and heard rumblings out there that I hadn’t shown up and given my take. Well, speak of the Devil and he shall appear. (Yes, I seriously made up all of the “rumblings” bit just so I could quote Bane.)

According to ESPN, Utah is expected to finish the season at 41-41 for an eighth spot in the West.

OK. Now, truth be told: I’m a huge believer that the Jazz are really going to surprise a lot of people this year. In fact, I’d say ESPN’s prediction is actually more of a compliment than a rejection. The problem many writer out there face at this juncture is this: no one knows what the hell the Jazz are going to do this season. We can gamely predict that the usual suspects will round out the top three – OKC, LA and San Antonio – and then improvise the remaining teams as we see fit (which a lot of sites are doing). But with Utah’s landscape changing so wildly over the past few weeks, it’s nearly impossible to get a read on them.

And so, one of two things will happen: 1) Coach Corbin and his squad of up-and-coming stars and vets will mesh comfortably with one another and finish the year with over 50 wins and a top four playoff seed, or 2) The entire team will implode necessitating the removal of Jefferson and anyone associated with them at the earliest possible convenience.

I don’t see a gray line here. As stated in previous columns, I think this season is an experiment ala Moneyball to see, specifically, which Big Guy holds the keys to our future. I really think the Jazz brass are looking at Big Al as a possible franchise centerpiece, with Favors and Kanter as likely contributors. Hell, Corbin more or less gave Big Al the team and politely asked him not to screw up – hence our very brief playoff appearance and subsequent no-show at this years draft. The problem was, last season Big Al wasn’t surrounded by enough talent to get the job done.

So what did Kevin O’Connor do? He went out and got a bunch of guys to compliment the big fella … Guys like Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye. Guys who can shoot from the outside and open up the middle for Jefferson (and, to some extent, Millsap) to work. None of these acquisitions is signed beyond the 2012-2013 season. And to me that says one thing: this is your last chance to prove yourself Big Al. No more excuses.

If he fails, we let everyone go and hand the reins over to Favors and Kanter (and maybe Millsap). And it wouldn’t take an entire season to see the results. By mid-year, er, the trade deadline, I think the Jazz brass will have a fairly solid understanding of Big Al’s skill. If he doesn’t produce, then we jettison him and anyone who doesn’t want to be apart of the Favors-Jazz combo.

On the other hand, should Jefferson succeed and help the Jazz get those 50+ wins then I think Utah retains its current core unit for some big playoff runs in the near future.

Now, going back to the original post: will Utah finish as a meager .500 ball club? Or are they destined for bigger things? I think this prediction is a safe one on ESPN’s part, mainly because the Jazz’s season could go either way. Sticking them at 50% keeps analysts from looking like chums come the end of the season should the Jazz win or lose. I think everyone is expecting some big things from Utah this year, but no one knows just how far they will climb.

I do think it’s asinine to suggest a team that entered the playoffs last season and then bolstered their offense/defense in every way imaginable during the offseason will finish in exactly the same spot as the year before. And make no mistake, Utah’s offense, while not staggering, is vastly improved entering the upcoming season.

For starters, our 3-point shooting went from basically zilch to something resembling a real NBA squad. Randy Foye shot 39% last season. Mo Williams shot about the same (during one of his weakest production years). Marvin Williams is right up there with roughly 38%, which contrasts dramatically with CJ Miles’ weak 30% offering. And don’t forget Gordy, who shot 38%. In short, we have enough outside production to at least keep teams from clogging the lane and triple, nay, quadruple teaming our big guys in the post. If Foye, the Williamses and Gordy match their outside shooting percentage from last year, then the Jazz will easily snag 50+ wins on the year.

Heck, Big Al may even be an All-Star since his now less staggering production will help the team rather than hinder it.

But if they don’t gel as a team and Mo Williams more or less matches Devin Harris’ awkward production from last season, and Williams and Foye do little but fill Miles and Howard’s vacant bench duties, then the Jazz will be lucky to squeeze out 30 wins. And Big Al will end up buying a house somewhere in the East coast. (Just imagine, though, if everything does workout … Big Al and Favors could be the next Duncan/Robinson combo … the next Gasol/Bynum duo … the next Batman/Robin John Blake dynamic … Seriously.)

And that, my friends, is why ESPN placed the Jazz smack-dab in the middle of the pack. Some mistook the prediction as another slap in the face to Utah.

Me? I think ESPN expects great things from our boys at Energy Solutions Arena. The question is: how high can they fly? (It’s all on you Big Al!)

Where do you think Utah will finish? Chime in below!