Dec 31, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) brings down a rebound against the Portland Trail Blazers at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
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With fans expecting a breakout season on the horizon, how will the Utah Jazz fare against the tough competition in the Western Conference?
This week, Purple & Blues contributors Jared Woodcox and Karthik Narayanan have both looked at how the Utah Jazz stack up against their rivals in the Northwest Division. Given the offseason influx of talent via free agency and trades, as well as the return of key players from injury, the team has a chance to make some noise in the division this season.
It’s the first time since Jerry Sloan was on the sidelines that such an opportunity actually existed.
But where do they stand in the grander scheme of the Western Conference? Will they challenge for a top four seed in the NBA Playoffs and home court advantage in the first round or is it bound to be another battle for No. 8 spot?
These are the questions I’m looking to answer today in an examination of the different tiers of the Western Conference and where exactly the Jazz fit into the equation.
I’ve split up the conference into four groups based on talent and how I believe they will play next season. They are as follows…
May 30, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates after scoring a three point basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game seven of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 96-88. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Golden State Warriors: As much as Jazz fans will hate to admit it, the Warriors were close to unstoppable last season. Even with the addition of a superstar in Kevin Durant, the Warriors will find it immensely difficult to come close to the 73-9 record they set during the 2015-16 campaign.
Nevertheless, Golden State should still be the team to beat next season.
San Antonio Spurs: Despite the loss of Tim Duncan to retirement this past summer, San Antonio always finds a way to fill the void. That’s exactly what they have done by signing Pau Gasol and David Lee.
For reasons that are unknown to me, many hoops pundits have written them off when it comes to winning an NBA championship next season. But make no mistake about it, the Spurs will be a true threat to the Warriors in the 2017 playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers: I’m sure some readers will question my mentioning of the Clippers in the same breath as the Spurs and Warriors, and given their playoff performances in recent years, I don’t blame you.
Last season, the Clippers looked to be in firm control against the Portland Trail Blazers in round one of the Western Conference playoffs before the downfall of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin due to injury.
But the team’s All-Star duo will be back this season and one thing that really works in the Clippers’ favor if they come up against the Warriors in the playoffs is match-ups. Golden State will have to keep DeAndre Jordan off the glass with Zaza Pachulia, and guard Blake Griffin with Draymond Green, using Durant to double-team.
Feb 3, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives past Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the fourth quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Teams Threatening to the Elite
Portland Trail Blazers: The battle between the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers could be one to a standstill. This makes the season series as interesting as any in the league, and provides some extra juice for the opening night match-up between the two on October 25.
If it wasn’t for the Splash Brothers, the Blazers would have the best starting backcourt in basketball. C.J. McCollum is a great young player and his new 2K rating doesn’t do him justice, but Damian Lillard is my pick to shock the world and come away with the Most Valuable Player award when all is said and done.
The additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli will certainly help move things along and Maurice Harkless is one of the most underrated talents in the NBA. With the guidance of head coach Terry Stotts, this Blazers team could make big headlines this upcoming season.
Utah Jazz: I’ve said before that the Jazz will be around that 50 win mark next season, and that could be good enough for the fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs. If the Jazz are to exceed the already high expectations in the playoffs and knock off a good team in round one, or possibly two, Rodney Hood will be the man to make it happen.
Hood is one of NBA’s rising stars that has the potential to put a team on his back. However, with so much talent elsewhere on the roster, it certainly shouldn’t come to that. A big question still remains; can Gordon Hayward be even more productive than last season with the talent the Jazz have added?
If he can, the Jazz will have the second-best starting wings in the NBA, closely behind Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant leaving has been at the center of attention for Thunder and NBA fans all offseason. Oklahoma City will likely win less games than last season, but I still consider them a lock to make the playoffs.
The promotion of Enes Kanter to starting power forward will pay instant dividends on the offensive end and Victor Oladipo will be fun to watch alongside MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. The development of Steven Adams will also be key if the Thunder come up against the Warriors or Spurs in the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies: Looking at the Grizzlies’ roster, they have great individual defenders everywhere, two of the best post-up players in the NBA, and most importantly, now they have Chandler Parsons.
The Ex-Maverick really came on in the latter half of last season and will fill a huge hole in Memphis’ lineup at small forward. If the Grizzlies can stay relatively injury free, they could be very dangerous to the top teams throughout the season.
Apr 13, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) backs up to the basket against New Orleans Pelicans forward James Ennis (4) in the second half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
The Playoff Hunters
Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota may have the most exciting young team in the NBA, and they are poised to have a breakout year similar to the one Utah had in the 2014-15 season.
Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be a beast on both ends of the floor, and with a supporting cast of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, the T-Wolves could be the favorites to grab the eighth seed.
Dallas Mavericks: Getting Andrew Bogut will be a slight upgrade for the Mavs, but they lost too much in Chandler Parsons to pose any kind of threat to the better teams in the conference. However, they may just have enough experience and three-point shooting to push for the playoffs once again.
The player to watch out for in Dallas this season is Justin Anderson who could have a breakout year in a bigger role.
New Orleans Pelicans: The health of Anthony Davis is obviously the deciding factor in how the Pelicans season will span out. Losing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will put a dent in their playoff hopes, but they have done well to replace them with Terrence Jones and Solomon Hill.
Buddy Hield’s three-point shooting could also give Davis more room to operate down low and that offense could potentially be very difficult to match up with.
Phoenix Suns: You may be surprised or even shocked to see the Suns up this high, because you’re probably forgetting that they have one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Thats right, a backcourt of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis is possibly the deepest one in the league.
We all know about the talent of Bledsoe, Knight and Booker, but I believe Ulis has the potential to make his way into the starting lineup in the years to come. Taken at No. 34 in this year’s draft, Ulis was a steal. After watching his last tremendous college season at Kentucky, I am confident in saying that Ulis will turn out to be one of the five best players in his draft class if he stays healthy.
Can four really good guards be enough to make the playoffs? It’s unlikely, but the Suns will surprise a lot of people next season.
Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets have added some pieces this summer in Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley via the draft. With the development of Nikola Jokic in the core which already consists of Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay, the Nuggets may have a chance to sneak into the playoffs.
Even if they can’t perform well this season, they need to keep the team together because the young core could turn into something special down the road.
Houston Rockets: The Rockets really fall in the in-between range; they aren’t a beat-up team because they have James Harden’s offense, but their defense is dismal, which gives them little hope to make the playoffs.
Their defense will almost certainly be the worst in the NBA with Patrick Beverley being the only above-average perimeter defender and no rim protection with Howard moving to Atlanta.
Jan 14, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated Utah Jazz 103-101. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Lakers: Lakers fans will have to suffer through another season of losing games, but D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram give hope for the future. Production from big men will be hard to come by with Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov starting, but a fast-paced offense with flashy guards will be very entertaining to watch.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins has to carry a lot of weight and play great basketball for the Kings to get to 18 wins. Losing Rajon Rondo may also make it hard to stay competitive next season.
Willie Cauley-Stein could be the biggest win for the Sacramento Kings next season if he plays how his raw skills and physical attributes suggest he will.
There we have it. The Jazz fall in the fourth to seventh range next season, but it will likely be at the top end of that spectrum. However, if they can re-sign the core over the next two seasons, the Jazz could improve a lot beyond this year.