When Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap left Salt Lake City as free agents last summer, they took with them 33% of Utah's scoring and 39% of their rebounding from last season. But that doesn't mean they took away elements vital to a playoff contender. Even if they had held on to their two big men, the Jazz were unlikely to get a berth in the loaded West. In fact, letting Jefferson and Millsap walk now paves the way for reaching the postseason again.
A few stepping-stones are already in place. At 22, power forward Derrick Favors has improved slowly but steadily, his quick feet and 6'10", 263-pound frame helping him become a defender capable of guarding the perimeter and protecting the basket. Third-year center Enes Kanter's move into the starting lineup could offer one of the season's biggest surprises if the 18.8 points and 10.2 rebounds he averaged per 36 minutes last year hold up under his increased court time. (His summer sessions with new special assistant Karl Malone should help.) Another youngster, 23-year-old small forward Gordon Hayward, rounds out one of the league's most promising frontcourts with his ability to shoot off the dribble or from the three-point line, where he is a career 40.1% marksman. The Jazz are still a piece or two away, but they now have the flexibility to upgrade, thanks to a lot of money well unspent.
COACH TYRONE CORBIN (4TH SEASON WITH JAZZ)
2012--13 RECORD 43--39 (3RD IN NORTHWEST)
WHAT'S NEW Rookie point guard Trey Burke is in, while the two top scorers (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) are out.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG TREY BURKE (R)
18.6 PPG; 6.7 APG; 46.3 FG%; 38.4 3FG%
SG ALEC BURKS
7.0 PPG; 1.4 APG; 42.0 FG%; 35.9 3FG%
SF GORDON HAYWARD
14.1 PPG; 3.1 RPG; 43.5 FG%; 41.5 3FG%
PF DERRICK FAVORS
9.4 PPG; 7.1 RPG; 1.7 BPG; 48.2 FG%
C ENES KANTER
7.2 PPG; 4.3 RPG; 0.5 BPG; 54.4 FG%
SG BRANDON RUSH*
9.8 PPG; 1.4 APG; 50.1 FG%; 45.2 3FG%
NEW ACQUISITION (R) ROOKIE STATS *2011--12 STATS
RANK IN scoring and assists of Trey Burke last year in Big Ten games. The former Michigan star and No. 9 draft pick was just the third player to lead the conference in both categories.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE JAZZ
Sometimes it seemed like Derrick Favors was overthinking when he was playing, that he was moving at a slower speed than everyone else. The skill level always looked like it was there. He just needed to go through the maturation process. Last year he really turned the corner.... Whereas Favors is going to be a little more offensive-minded, Enes Kanter is going to be the interior presence and the rebounder. There's no question in my mind that Kanter averages double-figure rebounds this year and ranks in the top 10. He's big, he's strong and he's getting stronger.... Gordon Hayward really took a step forward last year. He showed the ability to put some pressure on a defense, making shots but also showing that he's more than just a jump shooter. He definitely is their best wing player. It would not be surprising if he leads this team in scoring.... The backcourt is the Achilles heel. To thrust any rookie into the position of quarterback is tough, especially when he doesn't have much behind him. But once he returns from his broken finger, Trey Burke is going to get significant minutes no matter the situation. In an ideal world Alec Burks wouldn't start either, but he's got some length and versatility, and he looks capable of making shots.... They're going to need someone to play minutes off the bench. The eldest statesman is Richard Jefferson, and no one knows if he has anything left in the tank. Andris Biedrins's confidence is completely shot.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (FAVORS)
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HAYWARD)