After the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz were one of the best teams in the league. They started the season 19-34, but then managed to go 19-10 down the stretch once they traded Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As it turns out, trading Kanter was huge to Utah's turnaround because it allowed Rudy Gobert to thrive defensively. The second-year player anchored a defensive unit that was the best in the league after the trade. Along with Gordon Hayward, Gobert helped make the Jazz one of the most dangerous teams in the West.
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Jazz are once again dangerous. But after three straight seasons of missing the postseason, will they threaten to make the playoffs in the loaded conference? While teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers reloaded, the Jazz didn't make any big moves this offseason. They're sticking with their current hand, believing that 19-10 finish was no fluke. And the Jazz did improve in some areas -- they drafted former Kentucky star Trey Lyles, and Alec Burks is coming back from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the majority of the 2014-15 season.
The Jazz have the tools to make a jump into the West playoff race, but will this be the year they do it?
Gobert and the defense are here to stay
After Kanter's departure, the Jazz defense was impenetrable. In the final 29 games of the season, the Jazz led the NBA by a wide margin in defensive rating, giving up just 94.8 points per 100 possessions. The Spurs were second-best in that span with a defensive rating of 98.9. In the 53 games prior to that with Kanter, that number was a whopping 106.1.
Most of that had to do with Gobert moving into the primary role on the block. The second-year player blossomed into a defensive menace, anchoring the Jazz's stingy effort. He averaged 8.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in his sophomore season, but it was the 29 games after Kanter left where he made a huge impact. After averaging 6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 21 minutes per game before the trade deadline, Gobert averaged 11.1 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 34 minutes per game after.
There's no reason to think the Gobert and the Jazz aren't going to be able to have an elite defense next year, too. Sure, 29 games isn't a huge sample size, but it's not a small one, either. Gobert is a beast down low. Players shot 11.5 percent worse than they normally did from within 6 feet with Gobert on them -- he makes that big of an impact defensively.
The Jazz were so much better than the rest of the league on defense after the All-Star break that there would have to be a huge falloff for the Jazz to turn into a mediocre defensive squad. Teams will develop schemes to attack the Jazz, but with Gobert down low, the Jazz have an anchor to keep their defense in line for years to come.
What about the offense?
Simply put, Utah needs to improve on offense to contend in the Western Conference -- its stout defense could not overcome the middle-of-the-road offensive rating of 102.5 last season. The Jazz count on Hayward, who averaged a team-high 19.3 points per game, to lead a balanced attack. But the offense was too stagnant at times. For the Jazz to turn the corner, they'll need more contributions from players other than Hayward, and they have several options.
For one, the Jazz hope Dante Exum can evolve into a legitimate offensive weapon. The rookie had a solid showing in his first year and showed a few flashes of brilliance, but the hope is that he can become the go-to point guard that Trey Burke has yet to develop into. Exum averaged just 4.8 points and 2.4 assists in 22.2 minutes per game, but the lottery pick in 2014 has the tools to lead the Jazz offense. Exum is the future for the Jazz, but it will be even better for Utah if he can be the present, too.
While the Jazz didn't chase free agents, they still made a few additions. Burks is coming back from a shoulder injury and they nabbed Lyles with the 12th pick in the draft.
"Our best free agent is Alec Burks," general manager Dennis Lindsay told the Canadian Press. "It's like he's a new addition. We're very excited that his progression with his shoulder injury has gone without any hiccups. ... It's almost like he needs to be reintroduced to Quin [Snyder] and the coaches system."
Burks shut down his season after just 27 games to have shoulder surgery. He was starting for the Jazz, averaging 13.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game before the injury. His should help the offense as he could win that starting position back quickly.
Lyles won't be expected to contribute right away, but he'll be learning under two great players in Derrick Favors and Gobert. The Jazz have built a young, powerful frontcourt that is going to overpower a lot of smaller teams. With his offensive skill set, Lyles should be great off the bench for the Jazz.
Can the Jazz make a jump in the West?
After finishing off the season on such a high note, the Jazz weren't very active this summer. But that doesn't mean they didn't make upgrades. Gobert is going to have even more responsibility, Hayward and Exum should improve, and Burks and Lyles will add depth and offensive firepower.
The Jazz didn't sign a LaMarcus Aldridge or a slew of role players, but if they play at the same level they did to close out the 2014-15 season, they will challenge for a playoff spot.
It's not easy to interrupt the status quo in the West. The Golden State Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets are all coming back as good or stronger than last season. The Thunder are going all-in with Kevin Durant back and healthy, and the New Orleans Pelicans brought in a new coach. But the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks took a step back. That eighth spot is attainable.
Look for Utah to be in the mix. With a stout defense and an improved offense, no one is going to want to face the Jazz in the West.
All statistics from NBA.com/stats.