History suggests that you can’t really expect to rise from the lottery slums without a superstar taking the reigns. This appears true in almost every rags to riches story in the NBA. But just as hero ball and isolation post-ups are fading from the basketball vernacular, so is the skepticism towards the socialist strategy of team building.
This naturally brings us to the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic – two teams who are seemingly void of superstar talent, but dripping with intriguing young pieces.
San Antonio showed last year that winning more with less is possible, while Atlanta is only validating the superstar-less theory. But do the Jazz and Magic have enough going forward? If so, which team will climb the highest?
On one hand, Orlando has been a source of frustration this season. They’ve been underwhelming on both ends of the court and have struggled to establish any home court cohesion. The Magic boast a plethora of quirky utility types in an era of basketball where positions matter increasingly less. They should be better, or at least that’s how the thinking goes.
You can see the faint etches of something with real substance, only it’s more like a body on a curb waiting for formal ID at the moment. Jacque Vaughn could never quite figure out how he wanted the team to play, and this was probably why he is no longer coaching. Some nights there is a cool, funky pace to their games, with Victor Oladipo pushing the pace, rookie Elfrid Payton looking like good-Rajon Rondo, and Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris overwhelming opponents with their sheer athleticism and nose for hustle plays. Indeed, let’s not forget about Nikola Vucevic. PLEASE.
It’s not entirely illogical to think that the Magic could have been the Phoenix Suns of the East this year. But they weren’t. Instead, they’re without an identity and a head coach (although interim coach James Borrego is doing a nice job of late).
Meanwhile, Utah certainly isn’t suffering from an identity crisis.
Since the all-star break, the Jazz lead the league in defensive efficiency and opposition field goal percentage. That’s even more impressive when you consider that they’re one of the youngest teams in the NBA. Achieving defensive prowess is meant to come last in a young team’s growth chart. It’s never meant to be this easy.
Of course, we can funnel the praise towards Rudy Gobert, whose level of rim-protecting proficiency renders him a potentially transcendent force in the paint. If Gobert and the Jazz haven’t peaked defensively yet, then theirs is a future that should terrify the league.
Playing around with a player’s ceiling is tricky. And it gets even pricklier when we delve into a team’s projection. There’s just too many extraneous variables to consider. Heck, look at almost every team assembled Portland over the past four decades (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, Brandon Roy… and Wes Matthews?!?! Good Lord, no!!).
By all modest projections, Oklahoma City was meant to have captured at least one championship banner by now, but untimely injuries and the Harden disaster trade brushed them off course.
And so, there’s reason for caution here. Remember the bubbly, long-limbed, rim-guarding JaVale McGee of four seasons ago? He had us all gawking at the talent-projector just like Rudy Gobert does today.
But here’s the good news: Gobert boasts the kind of excellent defensive instincts (and maturity) that McGee never exhibited. And importantly – especially as we pin Utah and Orlando against each other – he’s the root to the Jazz’s identity.
But rebuilding is rarely about short-term results. Utah was 27th in defensive efficiency before the Enes Kanter trade and freaking number one since. So which sample size do you believe? Their post-all star defense feels sustainable with the Stifle Tower lurking, Derrick Favors’ fire and Dante Exum’s agility.
So I’ve got Utah, right? Not so fast, when you take into account that guards are still the engine too a humming NBA offense.
With the right coaching, Orlando can catch Utah in the identity stakes. This is a very good cast of youngsters who’ll only get better.Simply, Orlando’s backcourt is a surer commodity than Utah’s Exum and Trey Burke. Sure, Payton can’t shoot but he’s downright frisky on both sides of the ball and he certainly doesn’t back away from the big moments. He already owns two career triple doubles, and the Magic love his competitiveness.
But the real fun comes from its second year guard. Oladipo is a vicious dunker, with an improved shooting range, and he can keep an offense flowing with a madman approach to the rim. He is steadily working his way to stardom.
The potentially sticky issue here is whether ‘Dipo, who needs to dominate the ball, can ultimately thrive alongside a point guard who has limited shooting range. Having two guys constantly needing the ball can juke an offense’s flow, especially if the team is playing at a dim pace (tied for 16th in pace).
It’s unclear whether Payton’s stroke eventually spikes to respectable levels. But what’s clear is that these two dudes never stop competing. If nurtured in the right system, the Magic possesses a backcourt for the future.
Utah’s backcourt treads on shiftier sands. Exum is the key. In fact, like it or not, the Jazz ceiling is predominantly linked to the Aussie’s trajectory.
Gordon Hayward is a very nice silky player, and despite early skepticism, he has certainly proved worthy of his max-deal.
Executives around the league would surely be looking for the nearest bottle after passing up Gobert in the draft. But I’m not sure if the Hayward-Favors-Gobert trio is enough to send shockwaves through the bloody Western Conference in the future.
Even though Burke has looked zippy since embracing the sixth man role, he’s still shooting a troubling 37 percent on the season. He also doesn’t have Exum’s long frame or ability to disrupt opponents at the point of attack. A 6 foot 1 bomber that connects on less than 40 percent of field goal attempts is bound to have a shallow ceiling.
Again, we arrive at Exum.The general consensus in the Downtown office is that Exum’s exceeded expectations this year with his defense and perimeter shooting. Entering the season, most scouts identified the three-ball to be his most underdeveloped skill and while his 32 percent clip from beyond the arc seems pedestrian, he’s still a teenager and has improved to a very respectable 37 percent since the All-Star break.
Exum wasn’t drafted for this year or even for the next. When we rummage through the two competing rosters, he’s the one player whose ceiling is truly undefined.
The Magic, by the way, play in the East. There’s no real drama making the playoffs there, whereas the Jazz must contend with the usual suspects in the Western Conference as well as future MVP Anthony Davis.
That’s why Exum matters. In a vacuum, he’s the guy who has the length and quickness to defend three positions, and maybe one day, cause a bunch of brutal mismatches on offense. This is who he can become, despite the hordes of doubters surrounding him.
Team building is essentially predicated on asset acquisition and ‘fit’. We’re still not totally sure how Orlando’s young roster will blend together. In many ways, they’re the polar-opposite to the old taxonomy of basketball positions. Who should play alongside Vucevic in the frontcourt? And what position should Harris play?
As it stands, it just feels as if the pieces fit better in Utah.
In the meantime, we’ll watch where the Jazz and Magic go from here. You just never know what might happen. Nothing is guaranteed.
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