Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz won 43 games last year, which — in a stacked Western Conference — got them the privilege of finishing 9th, missing out on the playoffs, and placed them in the no man’s land of the late lottery. This offseason, the Jazz allowed their best player, along with another of their better ones to leave for nothing in return. I’m speaking, of course, about Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, respectively. Millsap went to Atlanta where he figures to make it back to the playoffs. Jefferson, bizarrely, was able to grab more years and money per year than Millsap, despite Millsap’s overall superiority. Jefferson, though, will have to accept not making the playoffs this year, and the strong possibility that he won’t see the postseason at all in the 3 years he’s now signed to play for Charlotte. The Jazz weren’t interested in committing the sums of money needed to retain either player, especially when the ceiling of that team was the Western Conference playoff bubble.

Utah also, understandably, wanted to use this year as an opportunity to find out exactly what they have in their young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, whose minutes were limited playing behind Millsap and Jefferson. The Jazz also declined to use their cap space to sign any free agents, instead opting to acquire assets to rent their cap space to the Golden State Warriors. The result is that the Jazz should be a fair bit worse on the court this year but have a clear plan for escaping their current state of non-contention. The plan is clearly to develop their young talent and acquire assets and then use that talent and those assets to form a group worth betting on. In the meantime, though, just how bad should we expect the Jazz to be- by the numbers?

After adjusting for next year’s projected league context, the Jazz’s projected Net Rating is -3.05. Such a projected Net Rating would make them, roughly, a 33 win team. It should come as no surprise, but Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and, rising star on the wing Gordon Hayward figure to do most of the heavy lifting for next year’s Jazz. Alec Burks figures to be a slightly below average, but well above replacement option at guard, but it remains to be seen whether Tyrone Corbin plays him the minutes he deserves. I’ve projected Burks to get less minutes than his relative talent on the team would suggest is optimal, but Coach Corbin has generally not played him as much as he deserves, surely much to the consternation of Utah faithful.

I’ve also projected rookie point guard Trey Burke to play quite a few minutes, as I suspect that the use of a lottery pick to draft him and the Jazz’s complete organizational lack of incentive or desire to win games this season make betting on Burke to play a lot of minutes a good idea. Burke figures to be solid for a rookie, with a projected -1.7 xRAPM, he should be solidly above replacement level. As a starting point guard, this year’s iteration of Burke will likely leave something to be desired, but this is a year for learning on the job and I expect Trey will eventually be a pretty good player.

The Jazz will be bad this year, but they should be a fun watch, especially for hoop heads who enjoy watching guys as they progress from prospect to their fully-formed, best selves. The Jazz feature players in various states of development, but most of them are closer to the prospect end of that particular spectrum. That reality will lead to some inevitably ugly basketball, but the talent level that Favors, Kanter, Hayward, Burke, and Burks possess should lead to some genuinely fun basketball at times. For now, those fun moments and the knowledge of the plan in place will have to be enough for Jazz fans.