Around the halls of the Zions Bank Basketball Center this weekend, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation, perhaps more than ever before. It’s with good reason: Jazz basketball is back.
The team’s annual ritual of media day is Monday afternoon, when the entire roster will appear in uniform together for the first time. Then, work begins in earnest on Tuesday, with two-a-day practices leading up to the team’s first exhibition game on Saturday against the Perth Wildcats.
Thanks to the shortened preseason schedule, head coach Quin Snyder and his staff are working around the clock to prepare every minute of these practices, trying to get the most out of every instant.
When Snyder joined the Jazz, these training camps were about establishing principles. Before installing a full playbook, he had to build habits. For example, former coach Ty Corbin usually had chosen to funnel offenses to the middle of the court, a Jerry Sloan standby that looked increasingly stodgy as the league moved to pace-and-space ball. Snyder wanted — and still wants — offenses trapped along the sidelines and baselines. It took real time for the Jazz to adapt.
But with the most roster continuity in the NBA, Snyder’s training camp this year will be about next-level adjustments: specific answers to challenges elite teams present. The Jazz showed at the end of last season they could count themselves among the league’s elite with a 29-6 record to finish the year, and now it’s about climbing up that hierarchy.
While we know a lot about this Utah Jazz squad, that’s not to say there aren’t unknowns in the next few weeks before the regular season begins in Sacramento on Oct. 17. Here are five questions that the Jazz will be looking to answer before then.
Who plays backup guard minutes?
Given their importance to the Jazz, it’s probably reasonable to pencil in Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell for at least 32 minutes a night. That leaves 32 minutes of guard minutes left in the deepest part of the Jazz’s rotation.
Dante Exum signed a 3-year extension this summer, and he’ll likely start as the team’s backup point guard and fight to show he can be more. He can also play minutes at the two, thanks to his size, but the competition there might limit him to his preferred point guard spot.
Royce O’Neale comes into the season with confidence. He finished the playoffs in the starting lineup against the Rockets and thinks he can use that experience to springboard himself into becoming one of the best role players in the league.
Alec Burks impressed in the playoffs, too, though hasn’t really earned the continued trust of the Jazz’s coaching staff since returning from injury. And now add new competition for the spot: first-round selection Grayson Allen, who seems to have impressed coaches through open gym sessions. With a good training camp, he could solidify a spot in the rotation to begin his NBA career.
Raul Neto and Naz Mitrou-Long are on the roster, too. How will the coaching staff split up a half-hour of playing time between these six players?
Who comes off the bench first?
And despite that bench depth at the guard position, it’s likely to be one of Thabo Sefolosha or Jae Crowder who comes off the bench first as the sixth man for the Jazz. That rotation allows Derrick Favors to come out of the game earlier, giving him touches and minutes as the Jazz’s backup center.
Crowder’s toughness and energy fit well on the Jazz right from the gate when they acquired him at the deadline last February, and the lineups that featured him as the small-ball four were some of the league’s best. In fact, the Jazz’s usual starting lineup with Crowder in for Favors outscored opponents by 27.4 points per 100 possessions.
But Crowder didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last season (just 38 percent from the field), and sometimes lost his place in the system. He returns this year slimmer and more conditioned, with more knowledge of the playbook.
Sefolosha is now 100 percent healthy after knee surgery, and has also played well during the Jazz’s open gym sessions. He played a big role on the team in the season’s first-half, and was on pace for what would probably have been the second-best season of his long career. If he can knock down more open shots than Crowder, plus add more playmaking, he may win the sixth-man spot.
How do the Jazz replace Igor Kokoskov?
The new head coach of the Phoenix Suns was Quin Snyder’s right-hand man last season, playing an important role in X’s and O’s development and taking the clipboard if Snyder had to leave the game. He also played a huge part in the development of the Jazz’s point guards, working with Rubio, Exum, and Neto.
Snyder doesn’t give his coaches a place in the hierarchy, he prefers a staff of equals. Former University of Utah player Alex Jensen is slated to be the man who paces the sidelines if Snyder is ejected this year, but Jensen, as good of a coach as he is, can’t replace Kokoskov’s pivotal role behind the scenes.
The Jazz have hired Greek coach Fotis Katsikaris to join the staff, but didn’t announce what role he’ll play. Will he work with the point guards, as Kokoskov did? Is his role more of a tactical one? Or does he have another specialty in mind? We’ll learn more in the coming weeks.
How do the Jazz attack switching defenses?
It’s been two consecutive years, two consecutive losses in the second round to the No. 1 seed of the Western Conference for the Jazz. While the main factor in the losses in both seasons was just a deficit of talent — Golden State might be the best team ever assembled, while Houston might have the game’s best-ever backcourt — their unique style of defense didn’t help either.
As much as any team in the NBA, the Rockets and Warriors switch on the defensive end, preferring to give up mismatches rather than screen-created advantages. The Jazz’s offense, though, is built on “the blender”: turning small advantages into big ones through movement, passing, and screening. Against switching defenses, the blender can stall out, and the simple one-on-one play that results minimizes the Jazz’s strengths.
Most elite teams turn to multitudes of scoring stars to attack switches, but the Jazz only have one talented scoring weapon there: Mitchell. Finding ways to adapt the Jazz’s blender system to be able to fire against these teams is one of Snyder’s priorities for this training camp.
Who is the leader of this team?
Snyder’s meticulous presence and rapport with his roster makes the role of “locker-room leader” perhaps less important on the Jazz than many other NBA franchises. But when obstacles arise — and they will over the course of an 82-game season — who will lead the Jazz back into the light?
Leadership by committee was the reality of last season. Veterans Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh brought wisdom, Rubio and Crowder brought toughness, Rudy Gobert brought determination, and Mitchell brought camaraderie.
But as Mitchell and Gobert fly further into the spotlight, they’ll be trying to put their stamp on this team to a larger degree. Does Mitchell — just a second-year player — have the experience and status necessary to ask for more from his teammates at times? And will Gobert relish his role as defensive leader, which is equally important but less heralded than Mitchell’s spot in the stars? It will be a give and take for both, but most around the team they’ll be able to find a happy medium.