Considering all of their injuries last year, they did a great job of getting the most out of what they had, no matter the situation. The credit for that goes to Jerry Sloan, their system and Deron Williams, who had ankle problems the first half but got better as the year went on. As long as Williams is healthy, they'll have a good team.
From what I've seen, Williams is not looking over to Sloan for every little play anymore. He's running the team, he's the general out there. He has everything you look for -- shooting, penetrations, passing, defense -- and he's absolutely one of the best point guards. I love watching he and Chris Paul go against each other. They go hard at each other in a competitive way, and it's one of those matchups the league should promote a little bit more. Where he has grown is in his understanding of the system and in running the team within that system. He understands what needs to be done on the floor, and at the end of the game he's gotten a lot better on the pick-and-roll, especially the high picks. I see that as their main play at the end of games, and as good as he is now, he's going to keep getting better and better at it as the years go on. Williams is another example of something I like about their team: that they seem to develop their young guys as well as anybody in the league. They know what they need and want for their system and they do a good job of drafting to fit what they're looking for.
Paul Millsap is another young guy they identified who has obviously developed in their system. There was a lot of talk last year that they would be better off with him at power forward than Carlos Boozer, but you're not going to hear that from me. Millsap had a great year by his standards and showed a lot of improvement, but if I'm a playoff team I want Boozer in there for the big games. Boozer is a much bigger and stronger player, and he is going to carve out more space and knock down that shot at the elbow all of the time. Millsap has shown he can shoot it a little bit, but he has to rely more on hustle as a finishing role player. Boozer is by far the more polished half-court player, and he has the better game in the post too. You can make a very strong argument that they haven't gotten their money's worth from Boozer because of all of his injuries. Last year, if he hadn't been hurt along with some other guys, they might have had a chance to get to the conference finals.
Don't get me wrong: I like the way Millsap plays. He goes after his own misses and others' on the offensive glass. Defensively he's OK, though some people would argue with that assessment because he's not likely to change the shot of most of the power forwards he has to guard. But he holds his ground OK. The bottom line is that you go into a game that Millsap is starting with the expectation that he'll give you 15 points and nine rebounds, while for Boozer you're thinking 20 and 10.
Andrei Kirilenko looks like he has plateaued. He's a good player, but he hasn't taken it to the next level. He is limited by his shooting more than anything. Because of his [lack of] scoring, you cannot build a team around him, but he's a nice player to have as a fill-in starter on a good team because he's versatile enough to play a lot of positions. He remains valuable as a defender, but he needs to have good skilled players around him. He hasn't changed much over the years. Maybe you don't see him running the floor quite as much as he used to, but he still blocks shots, he still gets his hands on the ball and strips you low, he still gets into the lane and breaks up passes for layups, and he still makes those little dump passes on the move.
Ronnie Brewer had a very good year. He was showing great ability to finish on the break and he is a really good defender. He looks like a Utah guy with his finishing and his aggressive play -- all of the physical things you expect to see out of Sloan's guys. He still needs to develop his shot, however. I saw a little improvement in that area, but not to the point you have to be aware of him. I would suspect that's what they've been working on with him.
Mehmet Okur makes a lot of big shots for them. It's very interesting to me how Sloan has evolved from having the typical big, clogging center in the middle -- I'm thinking of Mark Eaton and Greg Ostertag in particular -- to now having Okur as a guy to pop it off the picks and extend the defense out to the three-point line. They've fully incorporated that weapon into their offense.
Okur isn't the perfect player, but as a coach you have to sometimes close your eyes to a player's weaknesses and focus on the strengths. Okur is not going to control the paint defensively from the center position, and so sometimes he'll switch over and guard the power forward. The typical things you're looking for from your center, you're not always going to get that from him. But the thing I like about him is that you can't just put a small guy on him because he's good enough to take the smaller guy into the post and score on him. It's so hard to guard him because the centers or power forwards are not used to going all the way out to the three-point line, and when they're out there, that means they're no longer in the paint to block shots or rebound. It was smart for them to re-sign him for what he brings offensively. Those strengths more than outweigh his weaknesses.
Kosta Koufos [No. 23 pick in 2008] and Kyrylo Fesenko [No. 38 in '07] are just a couple of very young backup big men, and you can't count on them for much. Fesenko has more of a chance to be a player because of his size, but neither one is a bad investment -- not when you think about how much has been invested in a guy like Darko Milicic in the hope that he'll turn into a player.
I've always liked Ronnie Price's heart. He's a competitor with a strong work ethic, which are the things that will help him be a good player in the league. I don't know how much of an instinct he has for passing the ball, which obviously is a setback for a point guard, but if somebody can learn and develop those skills, it will be him. In the meantime, he'll be challenged for backup minutes at the point by rookie Eric Maynor, though neither one will be asked to do a lot because Williams plays such a heavy load of minutes.
Kyle Korver had an inconsistent year, and he hasn't turned out to be as good as he was advertised shooting-wise when they got him.Another young guy who seems to be coming on is C.J. Miles [who will miss the start of the season after thumb surgery]. This will be the year he breaks through if it's ever going to happen. They've been patient with him while he has shown steady progress [in his first four seasons]. He is a good ball-handler and a smooth shooter, and his strength has improved over the years. He was one of those young guys who had some basketball ability when he came out, but physically he was a long way from being ready to play. He can knock down threes and space the floor, and he can also take it to the basket in the open court and make a play by getting it to the rim -- which gives him the advantage over Korver, who is not going to take it to the basket. Their approach on the break is they want their guys to go all the way to the basket. They don't want to shoot a lot of those early jump shots unless it's Williams pulling up at the foul line. That makes Miles a good fit for them.
With Matt Harpring's age  and the fact that he's starting out hurt again this year [with ankle and knee injuries], I wouldn't count on him for much.
This could very well be the last year with this group, with Boozer and Korver entering the final years of their contracts. It isn't going to be a lovefest year -- you won't hear a lot of sentimental talk about how this could be the end of the line -- but I expect to see them be professional and maximize what they're doing. Whenever you play Utah you have to expect physical play and hard play all of the time, and if you don't respond, you're going to get burned. If everything breaks right, I can see them giving the Lakers or Spurs a good run in the playoffs, but they just aren't quite good enough to get it done against the very best teams.
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