Not Everybody Can Make the Playoffs:Western Conference Edition
There is a famous quote about growth that goes something like this, “You’re either growing or dying and there is no in between.” While I am sure we can debate this meaning, in the NBA I feel that this is true. This is the reason that the Golden State Warriors despite cruising to the title last year went out and got players like Omri Casspi and Nick Young, this is why the Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul. Teams have to find ways to get better and that is often at the cost of other teams. There are other teams that stay the course because there are circumstances that prevent them from getting better. These two scenarios happen to many teams every summer and two of those teams from this summer are the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Utah Jazz are coming off an important season for their franchise. They won 50 games and made it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Unfortunately, what once looked like a promising team has been in some ways pushed back to the beginning again. They lost Gordon Hayward in free agency along with George Hill. Hayward, the 27 year old forward is coming off of his finest season as a pro averaging over 20 points per game for the first time in his career and becoming more of a playmaker for the Jazz. Hill, despite it being his 9th season had a career high in points per game at 17 and also served as a playmaker beside Hayward. According to Basketball Reference, the 10 best lineups in terms of point differential for the Jazz featured Gordon Hayward, George Hill, or both.
Where the Jazz will really miss Hayward and Hill is in their ability to make plays in the half court. Hayward really developed that part of his game and became such a safety valve for the Jazz and now that he is gone, they are going to need someone to step into his role and be able to create. While George Hill is not a great distributing point guard, he is a smart player and a great three-point shooter. The other factor is that Hill and Hayward were both great defenders. The Jazz have their work cut out for them in replacing them.
With the departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Jazz had a busy summer signing Thabo Sefolosha, a wing that played on those great Atlanta Hawk teams, Jonas Jerebko, a stretch four that had some good moments with the Celtics last year, and the 6th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Ekpe Udoh, who has spent the last two years playing overseas. Udoh is a big that never panned out in the NBA, spending some time with the Warriors, Bucks, and a season with the Clippers. The Jazz also drafted Donovan Mitchell, the two guard from Louisville with the 13th pick in addition to Tony Bradley, a big from UNC with the 28th pick. The Jazz also recently signed Naz Mitrou-Long, a four year undrafted guard out of Iowa State. In addition to these signings, the Jazz traded for Ricky Rubio.
Sefolosha, Jerebko, and Udoh will help the Jazz defensively in Hayward and Hill’s absence and it’s hard to predict what rookies will be able to contribute, but Rubio is going to be interesting for the Jazz. He has never played with a player like Rudy Gobert. He is going to definitely help Gobert get easy buckets. I do worry about Rubio’s fit with the Jazz and their system. George Hill was a volume three point shooter averaging five attempts per game at 40%. Rubio is a career 31% three point shooter and I do not see that changing.
The Jazz are going to need to score and I am not sure where they are going to replace the points they got from their two leading scorers that now play for different teams. Hayward and Hill averaged almost 40 points per game and the Jazz have to replace that. The Jazz did not really add anyone that can deliver a great deal on offense and I am not sure they have anyone from their team last year that can contribute that much night to night. I am not sure how much Rudy Gobert can increase his scoring because so much of his scoring is reliant on putbacks and rolls to the hoop. Rodney Hood could do more, he is a good shooter, but he is inconsistent. Hood and Gobert in addition to Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson will get more opportunities to get shots in the Jazz offense. Having said that, I am just not sure that they can put up enough points to win 50 games.
The Jazz are going to miss Gordon Hayward. Players like him do not come along very often and I feel that the Jazz do not have the guys to make it to the NBA Playoffs. They have a solid team with a lot of professional players, but without the talent of Gordon Hayward they are going to need so many guys to step up and have career years. They are just relying on too many unknowns in a much deeper and tougher Western Conference.
The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off two consecutive playoff appearances in years that many thought they wouldn’t. They have continued to be an average team in the Western Conference thanks to the continued brilliance of Damian Lillard and the emergence of CJ McCollum as a scoring machine at the two spot. The Trail Blazers made the playoffs last year, but they were quickly shown the exit by the Warriors and there is not much hope for me that the Trail Blazers are going to make the playoffs this season due to not much change in a roster that was able to go 41-41 and barely make the playoffs.
The Trail Blazers added two bigs from the draft in Zach Collins, 10th pick out of Gonzaga, and Caleb Swanigan, 26th pick out of Purdue. The Trail Blazers traded the 15th and 20th picks for Collins, who is coming off of one season in Gonzaga, where he played only 17 minutes per game. Swanigan had scouts buzzing during the season and is coming off of a monster year for Purdue averaging 19 and 12 per game. However, the Trail Blazers traded away Allen Crabbe in a salary dump. Crabbe was a good guard for the Trail Blazers last year and was one of the only bench guys that they could count on. He shot 45% from three on over 300 attempts for the year. They will miss his shooting.
The Trail Blazers are going to count on their amazing backcourt in addition to Jusuf Nurkic and hope that the 18-9 record the team had after making the trade for him can continue for a whole season. There is some concern with Nurkic in that he put up some amazing numbers for Portland, but in his time in Denver he was never able to sustain what he did the Trail Blazers. He also had a lot of injury issues last season that prevented him from playing in three of the four playoff games. If Nurkic can deliver with consistency for the Trail Blazers there is no reason to believe that they will not be a good team. In addition to the three players mentioned, the Trail Blazers will count on Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, and Meyers Leonard. Someone from that group is going to have to step up and I do not see it happening.
The Trail Blazers are going to struggle in a much tougher conference. They are capped out in terms of salary and they are just not getting enough from some key players for them. Lillard and McCollum will continue to be spectacular, but it is not going to be enough and this is going to be the year that the media are correct in saying that the Trail Blazers will not make the playoffs.