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Jazz vs. Bucks Preview | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all that Jazz

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
2013/2014 NBA Season
(21-38, 7-22 road)
(11-47, 6-24 road)
March 3, 2014
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
No Local | 620 WTMJ | Audio League Pass
Probable Starters
Trey Burke PG Brandon Knight
Gordon Hayward SG Nate Wolters
Richard Jefferson SF Khris Middleton
Marvin Williams PF Ersan Ilyasova
Derrick Favors C Zaza Pachulia
2013/14 Advanced Stats
91.4 (27th) Pace 91.8 (25th)
103.3 (23rd) ORtg 100.4 (29th)
109.4 (27th) DRtg 109.8 (30th)

On the Jazz: SLC DunkSalt City HoopsSalt Lake Tribune | The Taxi Squad

Jazz update. On January 2, the two worst teams in the league tangled in Salt Lake City. The 7-24 Bucks rolled into Utah to face the 10-24 Jazz, and 48 minutes later the Bucks had suffered a 96-87 defeat, the first of their 14 January losses. Since then it's been mostly rinse and repeat for the Bucks, but not so much for the Jazz.

It wasn't so much a turning point for Utah as a continuation of the good things that started with Trey Burke's return from injury in late November. At this point it's easy to forget that the Jazz lost 13 of their first 14 games, just as it's easy to look at the Jazz's 21-38 record and overlook that they've mustered a downright respectable 20-24 record since, including a 5-5 record over the last 10 games. You could of course argue they're peaking at a rather inconvenient time: Utah's on-court respectability has seen them "tumble" to 8th in the lottery standings, percentage points behind the Knicks (whose pick will head to Denver) and one win ahead of the 20-win Lakers, Kings and Celtics.

Winning formula. The Jazz aren't so different from the Bucks in most respects: they're young, they're not going anywhere right now, and success this season is thus a bit of double-edged sword. So in looking at their improved record, I couldn't help but assume that some of their young guys--Burke, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks--had to be making a big impact.  I mean, that's the only way to feel like this whole thing is worth it, right?

The Backcourt: Burke has generally been the guy most closely tied to the Jazz's turnaround, though his numbers don't exactly paint the picture of an impact rookie. His shooting has generally been woeful (37.6% overall, 34.2% from three), he doesn't get to the line, and his numbers are modest in terms of playmaking (5.4 apg in 31 mpg) and scoring (12.6 ppg overall, 10.7 ppg in the last 15). But to Burke' credit, he also doesn't turn it over (3.0 assist/turnover ratio) and the Jazz offense has been vastly better with him on the court (+7.9 pts/100). In other words, something is going right somewhere, though my hour of research on the subject hasn't been terribly illuminating thus far.

All things considered, don't count me among those expecting Burke to be a top-ten point guard or otherwise be a long-term impact player. As we've discussed dating back to last year's draft, there's just a little too much Brandon Jennings and Aaron Brooks in his game for my taste--ie tiny point guards who shoot first but don't score efficiently enough to be great. With so much point guard depth in the league, there just doesn't seem to be much room for smaller, slighter-framed point guards to be huge difference makers, though I'm admittedly rather biased by the Jennings experience in Milwaukee. Fortunately for Burke he'll have plenty of time to prove me wrong, but unless you're Chris Paul it's just tough to really matter in the league when you're that small.

Consider me a bigger fan of Gordon Hayward, though it's not to say this season has gone exactly how the fourth year pro had been hoping when he (and/or his agents) failed to agree on a new extension prior to the season. Carrying an increased scoring load, Hayward has seen his scoring efficiency plunge to a career-worst 50.5% largely due to a huge dip in his three point accuracy--from 41.5% last year to just 30.3% this season on nearly four attempts per game. But don't overlook everything else he does, something the Bucks saw first hand in Utah. Hayward's tremendous size caused Brandon Knight and everyone else who tried to guard him serious problems, and he added a pair of above-the-rim blocks to underscore how he's much more than a token white kid who can shoot. His 15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, and 5.2 apg would put him in a club of just six players to average 15/5/5 since 2010. The others: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Michael Carter-Williams. Not bad company, eh?

And not to be forgotten is Alec Burks, who is finally coming into his own even while coming off the bench for the third straight season. Burks is averaging nearly 14 ppg on career-best 53.5% shooting, and he's averaging nearly 18 points a night over the past nine games. Suddenly I'm not feeling so bad about preferring Burks over Klay Thompson leading up to the 2011 draft: though he's still fairly off the radar compared to Klay, Burks has a higher PER (15.8 to 13.5) and averages more pts/36 minutes (18.0 vs. 17.5).

The Bigs: As for the frontcourt duo of Favors and Kanter, the results have been rather mixed thus far. Kanter's net on/off differential remains an utter disaster--the Jazz are about even with him on the bench and -13 pts/100 when he plays--but he has picked up his individual scoring and efficiency (19.4 pts and 8.9 rpg/36 min and 58.3% true shooting over the past 20 games) notably over the past couple months. Favors wasn't having the same issues early in the season, and his splits suggest he's been the Jazz's Mr. Consistency this season. Though his per-minute numbers haven't improved notably since a year ago, a bump in burn from 23 to 30 mpg has meant career numbers in most major per-game stats (13.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg, etc) and his efficiency numbers remain quite good (18.1 PER, 55% true shooting, 0.110 WS/48). Also of note: he's killed the Bucks over the past two seasons even when Larry Sanders has been healthy, so that's something to look forward to.

Kareem. Two nights after Junior Bridgeman's bobblehead night, the Bucks welcome back the guy who's scored more points than anyone else in a Buck uniform--or any uniform for that matter.  Yep, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be back, though the game unfortunately won't be televised locally on the Fox Sports Wisconsin.

The kids are alright. The goal for the last six weeks of the season should be clear at this point: get all the youngsters regular minutes, hope they play well, and hope that by mid-April they haven't played so well that they've compromised the Bucks' top spot in the lottery rankings. That last bit may be challenged by the historic tank job currently underway in Philly, but otherwise it's difficult to imagine the Bucks catching anyone other than the Sixers, who for as bad as they are now still sit four wins ahead of the Bucks in the win column. Orlando is next up with 19 wins including a home win over Philly last night, so it seems highly unlikely the Bucks would finish anywhere other than first or second in the lottery standings. And if you're wondering what that means for the Bucks' lottery odds, check out JamesMB87's excellent post detailing virtually everything you could want to know about the statistical odds and what's actually happened in the lottery system over the past couple decades.