NBA Preview: Jazz set for (modest) upturn?

Let’s shoot straight here: The Utah Jazz are difficult to predict.

We know Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap form a dangerous one-two duo in the frontcourt.

We know second-year men Alec Burks and Enes Kanter are coming along.

And we know young guard Gordon Hayward is already steady.

So that’s a pretty good start. But what more do we really know?

Along with the aforementioned parts, the Jazz went out and landed what they hope will turn into viable pieces. Or maybe they just wanted more guys named Williams in the starting lineup.

Either way, the Jazz appear to have succeeded this offseason — trading for small forward Marvin Williams and signing free-agent guard Mo Williams.

Will this result in immediate improvement? Yeah. It could. Or it could lead to a whole lot of the same old thing. We won’t really know until we see how these guys click. There’s not really an NBA icon in the bunch, so it’ll have to be a whole lot of teamwork, desire and consistency.

And who knows? That might not even be enough to top last season’s first-round playoff exit.

Then again, you can put a positive spin on that playoff appearance, too. The Jazz remain relatively young. They got some decent experience by qualifying for the postseason one year after dropping into the lottery. Jefferson, Millsap, Hayward and several of the bench guys knows what’s expected of them.

Saying the Jazz will be the same would make sense. Saying they’ll be better would, too. The good news is they shouldn’t be worse.

That is, if you’re willing to take a bit of a risk and predict such things.

Last season: 36-30, lost to San Antonio in first round of playoffs.

Coach: Tyrone Corbin (third year, 44-50)

Top returnees: C Al Jefferson, PF Paul Millsap, SG Gordon Hayward.

Key additions: G Mo Williams, SF Marvin Williams, G Randy Foye.

X-Factor: Kanter. The Turkish center was so-so coming off the bench, spending most of the season looking like a rookie who didn’t play in college. And that’s OK. He was, after all, a rookie who didn’t play in college. Now, he’ll take the court 50 pounds lighter, his summer of intense exercise and kind-of-crash-dieting ideally offering his big frame increased mobility. His development is likely to play a large role is what type of season takes place here.

Strengths: Jefferson and Millsap are among the best center-power forward combos in the league. You won’t shut down both in the same game, and when they’re both producing at the same time, it makes their teammates that much more problematic. Both value rebounding, too, making them well-rounded and at the very least, solid in all areas. Along with that, Hayward is becoming more than just a shooter and Burks more than just a scorer. If both trends continue, the Jazz’s two-guard spot will have an answer for just about every challenge.

Weaknesses: None of the key newcomers — the Williams fellows and Foye – are exactly known for consistency. Just the opposite, actually. Add that to irregular youngsters such as Burks, Kanter and Hayward, and there’s no telling the depths to which the Jazz could sink on a nightly basis. As for the bench, man, it’s unproven.  

Outlook: In all likelihood, the eighth playoff seed is the Jazz’s to lose. Their young guns are another year older, their overall chemistry is just fine (and should only be enriched with the new blood), and their response to Corbin’s coaching is mostly on cue. Mostly, it doesn’t hurt that this is a determined unit, thanks largely to leaders Jefferson and Millsap. All of it should result in a slightly better season. But only slightly better.

Prediction: 44-38.

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