The Utah Jazz were clearly the biggest surprise among all 16 playoff teams from 2011-12. Given how hard Utah fell after trading Deron Williams for Derrick Favors and draft picks in early 2011, the quick rebound was astounding. (Ty Corbin's sixth-place finish in Coach of the Year voting last year is some kind of joke.) But the West is strong and churning, and it'll be a struggle for the Jazz to stay in the bracket ... won't it?
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Jazz made waves thanks to a top offense, ranking No. 6 in the league with high marks in turnover rate (No. 6), offensive rebounding (No. 2) and free throw rate (No. 6). Utah actually had mediocre shooting numbers (No. 18 in effective field goal percentage, No. 27 in three-point shooting), but did everything else important so well that the offense thrived.
Part of the key is that the two major scorers, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, combined to take about 30 of Utah's 83 shots per game while turning the ball over so infrequently. Jefferson boasted an astoundingly low 5 percent turnover rate, the lowest rate ever for a player with a usage rate over 25 percent. Millsap was quite good in this category, too, coughing it up on only 10 percent of his possessions. In fact, no one on the Jazz averaged so many as two turnovers per game. Point guard Devin Harris (since traded to the Hawks) averaged 1.9. Most teams, including other elite offenses like the Thunder, featured a player with more than three turnovers per game.
The Jazz are fairly similar to the Grizzlies, in that offensive rebounding is a strength due to a deep and/or powerful frontcourt rotation, and three-point shooting is de-emphasized due to, well, a lack of shooters. Is it philosophy or resource-based? That will become a legit question in Utah this season if Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, two promising young players, continue to develop their range. Hayward was Utah's No. 3 scorer last season, and his role should blossom. Burks is clearly a nice prospect, and understandably beloved in Salt Lake (by the front office and fans). In addition, the Jazz added veteran Mo Williams, who has never met a three-point attempt he didn't like. So the hardcore, Memphis-style inside pounding might not survive in Utah, despite its merits.
Utah was relatively poor on defense last season (No. 19), but did finish No. 11 in defensive rebounding. With Jefferson, Millsap, Favors and Enes Kanter in the rotation, rebounding dominance on both ends should continue or improve.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
But about that defense ... that's sort of the issue with a Jefferson-Millsap frontline. Both try, but neither can defend effectively against most West starters. Further, they aren't good help defenders. Guys like Williams and Hayward need help defenders behind them. That's what makes Kanter and especially Favors so important; when Utah needs stops, Corbin could call on the younger, more defensive-minded players. (He also has Jeremy Evans, a superlative shot-blocker and dunker.) You have to imagine that replacing either of the big men in the starting five with Favors would help. But of course, that hurts the offense. It's a tough balance.
If there's a bright light on defense, it might come in the form of Marvin Williams. Honestly, it's been difficult to get a good read on Williams' defense in Atlanta -- he was often assigned the Hawks' opponents' best wing, but was that because of talent or because Joe Johnson (usually the other wing) carried so heavy an offensive load? The Hawks have been stout defensively, but Josh Smith and Al Horford typically earn most of that credit, and the man Williams replaces -- C.J. Miles -- wasn't awful defensively. So it's likely an upgrade, but is it much of one? And is Williams going to start, anyway? It's a big question mark, and not likely a salve.
Altogether, this is a pretty good team with a really good future.
It will be miraculous if ...
Al Jefferson finally gets that All-Star nod.
Gordon Hayward does not get 2,000 percent more national pub than Alec Burks.
Enes Kanter fails to approach early JaVale status. (My strongest dream is that Kanter will eventually become a Fesenko/McGee hybrid off the court.)
Those Derrick Favors-Tim Duncan comps make a comeback.
"Marvin Williams did actually deserve to be picked over Deron Williams!"
"You know, Earl Watson totally saved our season."
Jeremy Evans repeats as dunk champ. #flightwhite
Kevin O'Connor gets the immense respect he obviously deserves.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Pal Jeffersap
Team X-Factor: Alec Burks
Team Finish: Thirdrd in Northwest | Seventh in West
Best Championship Hopes: If the playoffs move to best-of-19 series.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.