SALT LAKE CITY — Absent their leading scorer, cast as a team of defensive specialists, the Jazz open their 38th season in Utah on Wednesday.
This is what you do when you have (a) minimal firepower and (b) Rudy Gobert rerouting traffic. It’s a team that, like Marty Feldman, will be lovable because of its ugliness and uniqueness. This is no Karl Malone-John Stockton combination. No Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer or even Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap grouping, either.
It’s a team that will eke into the playoffs without a true go-to offensive player. That’s why, with the departures of George Hill and Gordon Hayward, their aspiration should be to imitate the 2003-04 Jazz.
Now that was a team that learned to live with its limitations.
It had no All-Stars going into the season. Stockton and Malone had departed the summer before. All the Jazz had was a freakishly productive Andrei Kirilenko, who was being promoted as the team’s star. Yet that team won 42 games, missing the playoffs by one victory. Had the Jazz been playing in the Eastern Conference, they would have tied for fourth place. As it was, the Nuggets — Wednesday’s opponent — edged them out for the last spot.
This year’s Jazz need to do what the coaches always say: look at the film. That 2003-04 team had only one player pushing to be an All-Star; nobody believed it could break .500. One West Coast writer predicted Jerry Sloan’s team would set the NBA record for fewest wins in a season.
This was the roster, in part: Kirilenko, Carlos Arroyo, DeShawn Stevenson, Greg Ostertag, Raja Bell, Matt Harpring, Mo Williams.
No hall of famers there.
If that team could (almost) make the playoffs, the Jazz of 2017 certainly can.
It’s not like the Jazz aren’t getting decent respect. Adding Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio has some national media believing the Jazz can live without Hayward. (Live, but not necessarily thrive.) Analytics-driven FiveThirtyEight gives them a 66 percent chance to make the postseason with a 46-36 record. Sports Illustrated has them in sixth — just one slot below last year’s playoff seeding. Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post expects the Jazz to finish last in the Northwest Division, yet still earn the final playoff spot, thanks to “possibly the league’s best defense.” Kevin Pelton of ESPN also has them claiming the last playoff spot, with 44 wins — seven fewer than last year.
The Kirilenko-led team was sixth in blocks, 10th in opponent turnovers and ninth in opponent scoring. Kirilenko finished fourth in steals and third in blocks. This year’s Jazz have Gobert, the league’s No. 1 shot blocker, and Rubio, who was ninth in steals last season.
Exactly whom the Jazz should finish ahead of is debatable. Denver got better with Paul Millsap. New Orleans has two All-Stars. Portland is expected to be slightly better than last year.
In other words, the Jazz will be in a fight for the last one or two spots. Their hope is in having more depth than most teams. In an 82-game season, it adds up. Last season the Jazz played just 14 games with their preferred starting lineup intact.
A website called ManGamesLost tweeted last April that the Jazz would have won nine more games without injuries — most in the league.
In the preseason, this year’s Jazz had five double-figure scorers: Gobert, Mitchell, Rubio, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks. If healthy, they can pool their resources and make the playoffs. But that’s their ceiling. Former Celtics great Paul Pierce says it takes three All-Stars to win a championship. Though this year’s Jazz are deeper than the 2003-04 version, both went into the season without an All-Star.
Gobert’s ticked-off leadership should be enough to get him an All-Star appointment and his team into the postseason. Barely. That alone would make it one-up on the last Jazz team to make something out of very little.