Thursday, November 27, 2008

10 Things Jazz fans should be thankful for

It's genocide day turkey day here in America, and one of the most gluttonous days of the year. (nothing says 'thanks' like your body physiologically shutting itself down so you do not eat anymore food) Anyway, so far this season the Jazz aren't one of the top 5 teams in the league (percentage-wise, the best teams are the LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns), but they Jazz very well could have been one of the bottom 5 teams if they felt sorry enough for themselves. There are a number of things the Jazz fans should be thankful for. Here they are:

1. Despite all the injuries/absences, the Jazz are still in it

Deron Williams approves

I felt as though the Jazz could hold then own in the chance that Deron Williams had to miss 6 weeks of action. Little did I know that he really WOULD be gone for almost that long. Even more upsetting was the fact that as a team, the Jazz lost quite a few players over that same time frame: Deron missed 13 games, Harpring missed 9, Collins more than 7, Okur missed 5, Boozer and Kover both missed 4 each, Brevin Knight and Andrei missed two games each as well. That's about 45 missed days of action, in only 16 games. The Jazz still managed to win 10 games and are only a win off of last year's pace. (Though, I thought that the Jazz would be 12-4 at this point in time this season, without Deron's injury)

Aside from shitting the bed against the Knicks, Wizards and Bobcats on the road, and the ridiculous loss to the Bulls (on our homecourt) the Jazz have played pretty well in every single game. Utah is 8-1 versus the Western Conference this season so far, and while we currently sit half a game out of 1st in our division, the Jazz are undefeated in games against division opponents this season. The Jazz are still in this, and if the playoffs started today we'd face off against Houston again. Don't tell me that wouldn't be a favorable match up?

2. The schedule

They suck, but we only played them half the time

This is an easy one as the Jazz have a record of 10-6 even though they were a walking M*A*S*H unit for most of the season. We Jazz fans should be thankful for the schedule makers and the schedule they gave us. Our first five games were comically easy -- especially when combined with the fact that we played clubs that were either not very good, or without key players in the first few games. (E.g. Denver without Carmelo Anthony due to a suspension, the Clippers without Baron Davis and Marcus Camby for one game, Portland without Greg Oden, etc).

Aside from the brutal 5 games in 7 nights Eastern Conference road trip (where the Jazz limped home going 1-4), the schedule has been pretty favorable early. Sure, this means that we have a brutal finishing schedule -- but I'd rather have it easy now when the team is trying to form an identity through all the injuries. If the Jazz had a brutal schedule now we may have 5 wins instead of 10.

3. Internal Development

Nov 17 2008 [AP Photo] Sap slaps Shaq

Regardless of who you play, you have to still be good enough to win games -- which the Jazz have been doing. The Jazz have been playing a kinds of crazy line-ups this season due to injuries -- and it's worked so far because of the internal development of the younger players. Paul Millsap, Ronnie Brewer, Ronnie Price and C.J. Miles have played in every game for Utah this season. They average between 21.8 mpg and 31.9 mpg -- and three of the four are averaging over 10 ppg. (Price is scoring the least, with only 7 ppg) Taking Deron Williams out of the equation (he's just as young as those guys), that's a pretty solid core of 4 young rotation guys.

Two or three seasons ago if you told me that Millsap would be using dribble spin moves in the lane to score on his man, Ronnie Brewer would be hitting threes, C.J. would be taking it strong to the rim, and our point guard (Price) would be dunking with two hands I'd call you crazy. Even our really young (in terms of NBA experience) guys aren't doing that bad. Morris Almond (for all of his flaws) is shooting 53.6 fg% in the NBA against NBA defenses, Kosta Koufos had a series of games where he was a shot blocking force and Fesenko (all of 18 minutes played total this season) showed that he can play -- in 12 minutes of action against Tim Duncan and the Spurs he had 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and made all of his shots. We should be happy our kiddy corp. is doing so well. They are a big reason why the Jazz are winning.

4. Team play

Nov 11 2008 [Tom Mihalek AP Photo] AK and Booz win on the road

Without Deron Williams (out of 13 of the first 15 games), the Jazz have had to rely on each other more. This is no more apparent than the number of people who have played point guard for the Jazz so far this season: 5 (Deron Williams, Ronnie Price, Brevin Knight, C.J. Miles and Andrei Kirilenko). Everyone seems to be pretty pass-happy though, and the Jazz are still among the league leaders in some offensive statistics.

For example, the Jazz worked the ball around so much that they still managed to be shooting the ball extremely well, 48.4 fg% so far, which is good enough for 3rd best in the league. The team is working well within the system, and it shows, as the Jazz are leading the league in assists per game (24.9 apg), even without a guy who averaged over 10 apg a game. Utah's also tied for 4th best in the league in assist to turn over ratio. Moreover, the Jazz have 6 guys who are averaging over double digits in points per game this season -- with Deron being close to making it seven (he's currently averaging 8.7 ppg in only 3 games).

Defensively the Jazz have been working better as a unit as well -- finally being able to actually execute a good zone defense at times, and helping one another -- which has resulted in getting 9.1 steals per game (3rd best in the league). Imagine how much better it'll get with Deron stopping penetration, now that he's healthy again!

5. The Coaching staff

Scott Layden, Phil Johnson, Jerry Sloan and Tyrone Corbin on Jazz media day (photographed by Melissa Majrchzak for NBAE/Getty Images)

Not only are the coaches a huge reason why the Jazz have weathered the storm early, but they are a huge reason why the Jazz have been in games at all. Who developed our younger players? The coaches did. Who has been making smart substitutions this season? Again, the coaches. Remember a few games back when we actually saw Ronnie Brewer play in the 4ht quarter, and how amazed we all were? Now we see that every game, and it's normal for us. That's a coaching decision that has paid off. Another happened to be taking Andrei out of 'observer mode' as a starter, and put him in 'active mode' off the bench. Speaking of our bench . . .

6. The Bench

 Kyle Throws it down [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty]

. . . our bench is awesome this season. Sure, injuries have taken a bite out of our bench recently (Millsap has to start, Brevin is hurt, Kyle is hurt, Harpring is playing again, etc), but our bench has a lot of firepower. We actually won our first 5 games of the season because our bench was so much better than the other teams' bench during that span: +57 points, +34 rebounds, +27 assists, +16 steals, -4 blocks. (again, in just 5 games) The disparity would be even larger had guys like Baron Davis or Marcus Camby started in their games.

In previous seasons our hope as fans would be that the bench doesn't lose too much ground during their time on the floor. Now we have the opposite expectation of hoping our bench extends the lead during games. This is further constructed by the belief that all of our early season challenges with injuries will only further season our bench guys. During the last 16 games we've had crunch time line ups made of up Ronnie Brewer and 4 bench guys. This is the silver lining of having so many injuries though, our bench guys are stepping up and can contribute.

7. Defense

Brevin Knight makes life hard on other PGs

If you ever listen to our head coach Jerry Sloan you would come away with an integral understanding that the Jazz never ever *ever* play defense. This may very well be the case in Jerry's eyes, but when compared to the rest of the league the Jazz do not look too shabby on defense. Utah is allowing 95.9 ppg (even with all the injuries), which is good enough for 11th best in the entire league. We're doing better than noted defensive clubs like the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and under-rated Dallas. (At least when Avery was there) Furthermore, teams are shooting 45.3 fg% against the Jazz . . . while only being 17th best in the league, it's still better than a lot of clubs out there.

Lastly, the Jazz are very stingy when it actually comes to letting the other team get a number of possessions. The Jazz have shown a better tenacity for the ball than I can remember (thanks to, early on, Brevin, Brewer, AK and 'Sap getting a lot of minutes -- the Jazz force 16 turn overs per game, that's tied for 4th best in the league). If you keep this in the perspective of how many actual possessions this is, this is a greater feat than other teams that play a quicker pace (like the Nuggets, who are 3rd with 16.4 turn overs forced per game -- but play a game with way more total possessions).

8. Andrei is playing great

Oct 9 2008 [Steve C Wilson AP Photo] AK blocks Matt Barnes

Can you imagine how poorly we'd be floundering if it wasn't for his all-around (dare I hint at a performance that's near all-star level) game this year? Sure, statistically he's achieving stats that ARE comparable to what he used to net as an All-Star, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the coaches will notice this, and put him on the team. For the record, though, he is playing 30.1 mpg and shooting pretty well (save for from deep -- but everyone's had this problem with Deron out so long). He's giving the Jazz 13.3 ppg (48.3 fg%, 82.7 ft% on an average of 6 fta per game, tops on the team); 6.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.6 spg and 1.4 bpg. He's down from his 14/9/3/2/2 first week of the season, but it's still pretty good. Statistically, he's having the 4th best season of his career -- and he's doing it off the bench!

I've actually been more impressed with the stuff that he does that does not get much notice in boxscores. Specifically with the second unit he is always pointing and directing players to where they are supposed to be. It's a level of command and control that he deserves (as being the longest tenured player on the team) and finally gets, as the leader of the 2nd unit. It makes him happy, and he plays better when he's happy. He's had 15 points and above 8 times this season so far; last season he had 15 points or more 23 times the entire season including playoffs. Getting the ball in scoring position also fuels him on defense. Remember back when he had two blocks on Shaq with the game still in the balance? That happened in a game where he shot 50 fg%, nailed all of his free throws and finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds & 3 steals to go with his blocks.

9. Love him or hate him, Boozer is getting 20 and 10

Boozer had a wickedly quick spin move on this play to get open

Now that everyone is back on the "I Love AK" bandwagon, and no one is even talking (for better or worse) about Fesenko, it's Boozer's turn to be hated on again. He's injured right now, and has missed the last 4 games (games in which Millsap has occasionally produced some really crazy numbers), but day in and day out, Boozer has been a key component in 8 of our 10 wins. Forget that, Boozer has come to play (on offense mostly) every game. Here's his stat lines in losses:

  • 19 points, 18 rebounds;
  • 20 points, 7 rebounds;
  • 26 points, 15 rebounds;
  • 17 points, 9 rebounds (in the 5th game in 7 nights)

He's averaging 20.5 ppg and 12.3 rpg in our losses, so it's not like the losses are his fault. (per se) Dude is in a contract season, and we can't worry about what's happening this off-season right now. Right now wins are important, and Boozer's play so far has been quite positive. His defense still leaves something to be desired, but his numbers are hard to dismiss entirely. For those interested, Millsap's numbers in the last four games (all without Boozer) have been 15.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg. Clearly there is still a significant difference between the two, and we should be thankful that Booz has been so consistent so far this season.

10. Deron is finally healthy

Nov 26 2008 [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty] Deron go to move is the step back jumper

Sure, his minutes may be graduated right now, and he may play less in the second game in a back to back set than normal, but he's back. For good. Having him on the floor really made our offense look 'back to normal'; and Brewer's sharp cuts near the basket are useful again with Deron's passing ability.

I'm thankful for him being back, as he elevates the team from being a 'good team' to being a championship contender.

There are many things we all can be thankful for, as Jazz fans, the best is yet to come for our team this year. (Even some of the talk heads at ESPN have already admitted in their chats that the Jazz are the team to watch for the 2nd half of the season, or alternatively, the team to watch in 2009, depending on the guy chatting)