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Utah Jazz 2015-16 Season Preview

The Utah Jazz surged post-All-Star break last season, posting the best defensive numbers in the NBA behind the emergence of center Rudy Gobert. Can they continue their development this year and get closer to the playoffs?

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Utah Jazz 2015-16 Season Preview

2014-15 Record : 38-44, No. 3 Northwest Division, No. 11 Eastern Conference

Roster Returnees: Trevor Booker, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Jack Cooley, Bryce Cotton, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Grant Jerrett, Chris Johnson, Elijah Millsap

Roster Additions: Treveon Graham (rookie, undrafted), Trey Lyles (rookie, no. 12) Raul Neto (rookie, 2013 draft no. 47), J.J. O'Brien, Tibor Pleiss (rookie, 2010 draft no. 31), Jeff Withey

Roster Subtractions: Jeremy Evans

SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk

2014-15 Season

While it is often difficult and unfair to pin the failure of a team on a single individual, occasionally the quirks of an NBA season will reveal a player who deserves the scorn of being labeled a "team killer." Last season, the Detroit Pistons 11-2 record after waiving malcontent Josh Smith provided a perfect example.

Similarly, the Utah Jazz saw a massive transformation of their on-court product last season after trading Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder during the all-star break. Utah's record before the trade: 19-34. Utah's record after the trade: 19-10.

Kanter's toxic effect on the locker room was made public when he went full pro wrestling heel and declared that he was frustrated with "almost everything" during his time in Utah.

And the feeling was mutual. Trevor Booker publicly ripped his former teammate, suggesting that Kanter was hungry for stats at the expense of wins. Other Jazz players made it clear that the entire locker room was happy Kanter was gone.

But beyond the improved chemistry, trading Katner also freed up playing time for defensive sensation Rudy Gobert. After the All-Star break Gobert was inserted into the starting lineup and saw a 50 percent increase in minutes from 21.9 per game to 34.4.

Gobert is a physical outlier in a league made up of physical outliers; he stands at 7'1" with a 7'9" wingspan, one of the longest ever recorded in the NBA. Gobert uses that absurd wingspan and his great athleticism to act as an ultimate defensive player. Last season opponents shot only 40.4 percent at the hoop and scored only .56 points per possession on pick-and-rolls against Gobert. He also had an individual defensive rating of 93 after the all-star break and defensive box plus/minus of 5.1 for the season. Taken together, the stats show that Gobert is a monster on defense.

Importantly, Gobert's elite defensive skills raised the level of play of the entire Jazz team. In a classic example of the importance of a defensive "backstop," he allows his teammates to be more aggressive on the perimeter because he can erase many mistakes that they make. And that impact was seen on the Jazz's overall defense - after the All-Star break the Jazz had a defensive rating under 95, which would easily be the best in the league if sustained for an entire season.

On offense the Jazz could be described as middling last season. Their ranks on most counting stats and advanced stats rarely surpassed the league average and they are glacially slow, finishing dead last in pace. Utah does not have a lot of outside shooters, a problem exacerbated by an early season injury to Alec Burks, and prefers to pound the ball inside to Derrick Favors or let Gordon Hayward create opportunities to get to the rim. As a result, they struggle with spacing and their shooters get few open looks.

The Jazz also had a problem at point guard last season, relying on young players Dante Exum and Trey Burke to fill the role. Unfortunately, both players turned the ball over frequently, and, while showing promise, did not always initiate the offense well.

Consequently, even more pressure was placed on Hayward to act as the primary playmaker on offense. Hayward did as well as could be expected in the role, finishing the season with an average of 19.3 points per game, and career highs in shooting efficiency. Hayward is an athletic wing player who can score in a variety of ways, and has the passing and ballhandling skills to be the centerpiece of the Jazz's offense going forward, but with only Favors acting as a complementary threat he could not fully compensate for Utah's shortcomings.

2015-16 Season

The Jazz return virtually their entire roster this season. Jeremy Evans, who played a total of 266 minutes, was the only departure. Utah's only notable offseason acquisition was no. 12 draft pick Trey Lyles. Given the complete continuity of the roster, expectations are that Utah will continue to be a great defensive team with a meandering offense.

The biggest question for this team is whether or not they can maintain the high level defense from the end of last season. Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder has already voiced confidence that they will be as good as last season, and given the continued presence of Gobert and the young age of most of his players there is little reason to doubt his optimism.

Offensively, the Jazz will have to hope that some of their players develop 3-point shooting to help space the court and take some offensive pressure off Hayward and Favors. Promisingly, Burks has recovered from injury and shot 38.2 percent from deep last season. Rodney Hood may also play a key role on offense, after showing promise by averaging 12.7 points per game on 38.6 percent 3-point shooting in 21 late season starts last year.

The Jazz offense was dealt a major blow when Exum went down with a torn ACL while playing for the Australian national team this Summer. Exum will miss the entire 2015-16 season. He was expected to continue learning to helm the offense for the 2016 season and hopefully take over as the full time starting point guard. Without him Snyder and the Jazz may have to continue to rely on Burke at that position.

Key Matchups

The Jazz are expected to compete with the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and possibly Sacramento Kings for the final two playoff spots in the western conference. Games against those teams will be key matchups for Utah all season.

Despite their status as a front runner for one of the bottom playoff spots in the west, the Jazz will only be making three appearances on national TV. ESPN will be covering their Feb. 19 game against Boston, and an April 13 conclusion to the regular season at the Los Angeles Lakers, while TNT will air a Feb. 25 contest against the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers visit Utah on Nov. 4 for the Jazz's home opener, and again on New Year's Eve. The Jazz will come to Portland on Jan. 13 and Feb. 21.

Yesterday's Preview: Detroit Pistons
Up next: Charlotte Hornets