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Upstill: Shooters the Utah Jazz should target this offseason

Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard shoots a 3-point basket against the Orlando Magic during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Saturday, March 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard shoots a 3-point basket against the Orlando Magic during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Saturday, March 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Craig Mitchelldyer, AP

The NBA is a copycat league. So when teams look to improve, they study other successful teams to see what set them apart. This season, one of the traits all the elite teams had in common was shooting. In basketball you can never have too much shooting. Last year the Jazz were a middle of the pack team in both effective field goal percentage (averaging 50.1 percent) and true shooting percentage (averaging 54 percent).

The Cleveland Cavaliers have averaged 33.2 3-point attempts, making 14.4 of them per game during the postseason, which lifted them to the NBA Finals. In a game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavs made a record 25 threes. They averaged 43 percent from three during their run through the Eastern Conference. To put this in perspective, the leader in 3-point percentage for the season was the Golden State Warriors who averaged 42 percent. The Cavaliers can put out a lineup where they have five shooters (Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Channing Frye) on the floor without jeopardizing size. No matter the lineup they put out there they can have shooting at any position they need. The Cavaliers are living and dying by the three, and when their shots are dropping, they’re virtually unstoppable

One can’t talk about shooting without discussing the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. Right now they have arguably the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history, starting with the league’s first unanimous MVP, Steph Curry, who averaged 45.5 percent from downtown. He did this while averaging 11.2 3-point attempts per game. He broke his own record for threes made (402) and attempted (886) in a season. His backcourt mate Klay Thompson wasn’t far behind, taking eight threes a game while averaging 43.5 percent. The most impressive thing about the “Splash Brothers” is how fast they can get their shot off. Give them even a sliver of light and they will make you pay.

The Warriors also feature a five-man unit that contains shooters at all positions. This group is known as the “death lineup.” This unit averages 53.5 percent from three when they play together. When everyone can pass, shoot and defend on an above-average level, they win plenty of games and are on the verge of winning back-to-back championships.

Having the ability to shoot from any position is essential to having success in the NBA. Nine of the top 10 teams in 3-point attempts (not makes) made the playoffs. Shooting, and especially 3-point shooting, is changing the NBA game.

The question is how do the Jazz improve their team this offseason to help them keep up in today’s NBA? The answer is to add more shooting at all the positions. They shouldn’t break up the “Wasatch Front” in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors in the name of shooting, but need to add depth behind their big men so coach Quin Snyder can have more options. This past season, Gobert and Favors averaged 18 minutes of time on the court together, so the Jazz coaching staff has 20 minutes of game time to fill. This is why Trey Lyles, the modern-day play-making four, is so important to this team. His ability to spread the floor adds another dimension to this team.

A backup center who can shoot, a la Mehmet Okur, may be just what the shot doctor ordered for the Jazz. There’s a short list of “bigs” who can shoot that could be available in the offseason. The best option might be Houston Rockets’ Donatas Motiejunas. He struggled with his 3-point shot this season, averaging just 28 percent, but the injury to his back played a major role in this. It took till almost playoff time for Motiejunas to look like his old self, and it showed in the first round as he hit 44.4 percent from deep. In the 2014-15 season, he only missed 11 games and averaged 36.8 percent from three.

The big question on Motiejunas is whether his back is going to be an ongoing problem. It cost him 45 games this past season and made the Detroit Pistons so nervous that they voided the trade they had just made for him. The Jazz will need their doctors to make sure his back problems are behind him to even consider making him an offer.

This offseason, Motiejunas will be coming off his rookie deal and be a restricted free agent. This means that the Rockets will have the rights to match any offer. The Rockets did try to trade him during the season and might not be overly interested in retaining him. But Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey isn’t going to just give him away; the Jazz might have to overpay to dissuade Morey from matching. The Jazz will have around $28 million to spend this offseason, and a short-term but high-dollar deal might do the trick. A two-year deal that starts around $15 million a year might detour the Rockets and keep the Jazz out of salary cap purgatory.

Another option is Portland’s Meyers Leonard, who averaged 37.7 percent from long range while attempting 3.7 game this past season. Leonard is coming off his own injury, a separated shoulder, which caused him to miss 21 games. He is also a restricted free agent, and depending on if Portland can land a big-name free agent like Hassan Whiteside will determine how easily it will be to lure Leonard away from the Blazers. The downside of Leonard is on the defensive end of the ball. He isn’t a player who protects the rim and doesn’t move laterally well either.

Once again the Jazz find themselves picking 12th in this year’s NBA draft. Players that project to be available at 12 are shooting centers like Marquette’s Henry Ellenson. He’s a 6-foot-11, 242-pound center/power forward who has an impressive offensive arsenal but has some limitations on defense, like Kevin Love. Another option is Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, who had an up-and-down freshman season that gave scouts plenty to worry about, but his talent is undeniable. He is a legit 7 feet, and like most college freshmen needs to add strength to his 216-pound frame to be able to defend and rebound at the next level. Labissiere has the rare ability where he can defend the rim and shoot from outside.

The Jazz could also use more shooting at the wing position; they already have Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Joe Ingles. They all averaged higher than 35 percent from three last season. When Burks was lost to injury, the lack of shooting and depth showed.

The Jazz could shoot the moon and sign Bradley Beal to a max offer sheet and see if Washington matches it. If the Jazz do this at the beginning of free agency it will force Washington’s hand to commit their cap space to Beal and hold them back on making a play for other big-name free agents, like Kevin Durant. The risk on this is that Beal has his share of health issues and it would completely mess with the Jazz re-signing their other core guys.

Other free agents of interest are Eric Gordon, who is also often injured, but coming off the bench and playing fewer minutes could keep him healthier. Courtney Lee is a good three and D guy and would require an overpay on a short deal. Adding a veteran and great locker room presence in Jared Dudley would be a nice signing. He has the ability to switch between playing either forward position.

A trade is something that the Jazz could consider too. They don’t have much to give up outside their core group but could take a flier on like Ben McLemore. He has been in a toxic environment his whole career and may need a change in scenery to help him find his way. It was rumored last February that McLemore had asked for a trade and the Kings tried to comply. The Jazz could swap their own lottery disappointment by sending Trey Burke and a second-round draft pick in exchange for McLemore. Burke would be insurance if Rajon Rondo leaves this summer and if Darren Collison’s newly found legal issues start causing trouble. Players who are drafted high but are disappointments often do well on their second team. The pressure from being a high draft pick is off them and they can just fit into a role. A great example of this is Toronto’s Bismack Biyombo.

Drafting a shooting wing is the other option for the Jazz. At the top of the wish list could be France’s Timothe Luwawu who shot 37.2 percent from three last season in the Adriatic league. He is 6-foot-7 and super athletic and has the makeup of a three and D player in the NBA. The other Euro player is Furkan Korkmaz, a sharpshooter who averaged 42.3 percent from three. Korkmaz is one of the youngest players in the draft and is a couple years away from being able to contribute.

A U.S. based player who would be available is Florida State’s Malik Beasley. He was one of the nation’s most productive and efficient freshmen last season. He put up 15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 38.7 percent from three. NBADraft.net compares him to former Jazzman Wes Matthews. The Jazz could also draft Michigan State’s senior Denzel Valentine, who put up very impressive stats (19.2 points, 7.8 assists and 7.2 rebounds) last season. Valentine struggled in his first two seasons in college but when he was older was able to dominate the younger players. This is a red flag and the easiest way to find a draft bust, kind of like former BYU guard Jimmer Fredette. Valentine also isn’t much of a defender.

The last position the Jazz need shooting improvement from is point guard, and this is where Dante Exum comes into play. Because of his injury, Exum has had an entire year to rebuild and improve his jumper. The Jazz already have plenty of depth behind him in Shelvin Mack, who isn’t known as a great shooter but did shoot 36 percent from three in his time in Utah. Raul Neto had a great rookie year shooting the three, hitting nearly 40 percent from all shots beyond the arc. Exum just brings more to the table with his superior defense and passing; if he can improve his shot, he will be an even greater help to the Jazz’s playoff hopes next season.

Shooting in this league matters more than ever, and the Jazz need to continue adding players who will help keep defenses honest to make life easier for Hayward and company. Adding depth with shooting will help the Jazz return to the postseason for the first time in four years.

Follow Kincade Upstill on Twitter @kincade12 or email him at kupstill12@gmail.com