Kings Blog

NBA Beat: Surging Utah upbeat about future

Rodney Hood, left, and Rudy Gobert are two reasons Utah is tied for the NBA’s sixth-best record since the All-Star break.
Rodney Hood, left, and Rudy Gobert are two reasons Utah is tied for the NBA’s sixth-best record since the All-Star break. The Associated Press

The final standings will show the Utah Jazz was another team below .500 and not good enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.

Still, the Jazz can head into the offseason feeling better about its prospects for next season.

Utah entered Saturday tied for the sixth-best winning percentage since the All-Star break with a 17-9 record; the five teams with better marks all made the playoffs.

The post-break turnaround begins with Utah’s defense. The Jazz (36-43) is holding teams to 41.9 percent from the field over that span, lowest in the NBA. The 87.2 points allowed are also the lowest in the league.

That’s helped the Jazz win even though offense is often a struggle. Utah’s 44.1 percent shooting since the break is tied for 19th.

The Jazz is averaging 92.9 points since the break, ranking 29th during that stretch.

Offensive struggles could be expected with an inexperienced backcourt of starting point guard Dante Exum and wing Rodney Hood, both rookies.

The Jazz also traded center Enes Kanter, a skilled offensive player, to free up more time for second-year center Rudy Gobert.

What Gobert lacks in offensive skills, he makes up with defense and rebounding.

The development of young players, and the success they’ve enjoyed, has made it easier for first-year coach Quin Snyder to get his young team to buy in to the plan.

“I think we’ve been just very honest about what we’re trying to do with them,” Snyder said. “I think there’s reinforcement that occurs. The sales component for me, I feel fortunate I haven’t had a hard sell, so to speak. But the work that they have put in – when you do have success, there’s no question it’s easier to re-up when you see that progress. It’s just human nature.”

Snyder is looking forward to seeing how his young players develop over the summer.

Hood has shown promise. Limited to 47 games this season due to injuries, he’s averaging 14.6 points on 48.7 percent shooting his last seven games.

Hood’s size (6-foot-8, 215 pounds) makes him a tough cover and a capable defender at multiple positions. Pairing Hood with Exum (6-6, 190) gives the Jazz a big backcourt that can cover a lot of space defensively.

Alec Burks will return from injury next season, and last year’s first-round pick, guard Trey Burke, is still in the mix as Utah’s sixth man.

Add Gobert, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, assuming the Jazz re-signs him in the offseason, and this is suddenly the core of what could be a good team in the near future.

Those days of being a below .500 team could be in the past for Utah.

Trending up

We all knew at some point they’d be coming, and the rest of the Western Conference would have to be on high alert.

The San Antonio Spurs, who looked worn out at the mid-point have put together their best stretch of basketball this season, winning 10 in a row.

And their unassuming star in the making, Kawhi Leonard, is a big reason for the recent success.

The fourth-year forward is proving he’s more than just a defender, averaging 19.3 points in 29 minutes during the winning streak. Leonard is shooting 56.6 percent over that span.

Trending down

A couple of weeks ago, it seemed possible LeBron James would have to face his old team, the Miami Heat, in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But the Heat has lost seven of 10 and has endured several injuries to fall out of the top eight in the East.

A healthier Heat team might meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs next season.

Last words

“I guess that’s possible … we are not here trying to go from 15 to 36 (wins). That’s just not who we are. So it can turn around quickly. It will turn around quickly.

“But we don’t really have to put a number on it. We are 6-21 in games (decided) by six points or less this year. So we lost 21 games on two possessions. So we don’t have to go from 15 to 36 next year. We can go from 15 to 63 if we really want to. But that is up to us.”

New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher to local media when asked about the Milwaukee Bucks’ improvement and if his 15-win Knicks could do the same next season.

Follow The Bee’s Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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