The Utah Jazz are the perfect example of an under-the-radar team. While I'm not sure the Jazz can return to the playoffs again this season, they'll definitely be in contention. I won't be shocked if they miss the playoffs, but I also wouldn't be shocked if they landed with the 6 or 7 seed in the West. They have good pieces, even if they lack flashy names.
If I asked you to name Utah's starting point guard, or their starting small forward, you might be able to. But all that would mean is that you're a bit of a basketball nut. No casual fan can answer those questions. But the answers are Mo Williams and Marvin Williams, both acquired in the offseason. Mo Williams replaces Devin Harris at the point for Utah, and should be an immediate upgrade. Marvin Williams, forever a victim of Atlanta's stupid choice to draft him over Chris Paul, is a serviceable wing and will provide stability to a position that was in constant flux for the Jazz last season. Both players are the perfect epitome of what this team is. Neither name jumps off the page, but both players are solid starters. I like what Mo Williams brings to the table in terms of shot creation. Marvin Williams, meanwhile, is quietly coming off the best season of his career. Marvin will never be a star, but he's a guy who plays well and doesn't require a lot of touches.
Joining the Williamses in the back court is Gordon Hayward. Last season I incorrectly pegged Hayward as a player better suited to coming off the bench. In fact, Hayward has shown himself to not only be a deserving starter, but also the best wing player on the Jazz roster. Hayward proved to be a solid three point shooter (particularly after the All-Star break, when he shot 42.2% from three), a skilled penetrator, and a willing and adept passer. A true breakout star for the young Jazz, and a big part of their future.
Aside from Hayward, the strength of the Jazz is their front court. The Jazz actually have too many skilled big men. It'll be interesting to see how second-year coach Ty Corbin manages the minutes. Al Jefferson is pretty much a known commodity at this point in his career, but he's nothing to scoff at. Jefferson actually had the best season of his career last year, and demonstrated a patience and understanding in the post that makes you realize that he finally gets it. Big Al has a couple of go-to moves, but more importantly he takes great care of the ball. His turnover rate is ridiculously low considering his usage rate. He's Utah's anchor, and his development is a key reason Utah has emerged as a legitimate team.
Paul Millsap joins Jefferson in the starting front court, and has been pointed to as a possible trade candidate. Not that the Jazz want or need to get rid of Millsap. He was excellent last season, and his current contract is a bargain. The problem with Millsap is that he's entering a contract year, and Utah has a crowded back court already. If Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter begin to deliver on their potential, I could easily see Utah swapping Millsap for other assets rather than paying him or letting him walk in the offseason.
I should mention that part of the problem is that Favors has already started to deliver on his potential. As Utah's third big last season, Favors made a significant improvement over his rookie season. He showed the defensive ability that made him such a highly coveted player. Favors needs to improve on the offensive end, but he's already an incredibly talented defender.
Kanter seems unlikely to force Millsap out the door at this point, but the same could have been said about Favors last year. I'm intrigued to see what Kanter does in his second season, particularly considering the circumstances around his first year. If you'll recall, Kanter had been away from organized basketball for a full year thanks to the hypocrisy of the NCAA. Rather than being yet another stellar prospect out of Kentucky, Kanter was left to work out on his own. He then entered the NBA with no training camp, and a rushed schedule. Now, with an NBA season under his belt, an offseason working with the team and his teammates, and excellent role models in Jefferson and Millsap, I really like Kanter's long-term potential.
Utah is very well established for the future. They have a solid core of young players, and a nice mix of veterans for the time being. As I said before, I could see Utah missing the playoffs this season, but that's more of a comment on the strength of the West and the fact that there are three or four teams vying for that last spot. But I won't be the least bit surprised if Utah is once again in the post season.