Utah Jazz: Northwest Division Comparison – November

Mar 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) fights for position against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With the month of October now in the books, here’s a look at how the Utah Jazz stack up against their Northwest Division foes as we start a brand new month.

Just prior to the beginning of the season, I posed the question, “Can the Utah Jazz Win the Northwest Division?” While it’s still much too early to accurately predict the answer to that question, the Jazz unfortunately sit currently at fourth in the division with a record of 1-2.

And though the month of October only had a handful of regular season games, what better time to reevaluate the Jazz’s divisional progress than at the onset of the new month of November! I’ll be checking in at the start of each month so see just how well the Jazz are stacking up against their rivals in the Northwest Division.

And although no team has played more than three games up to this point, the performances they’ve logged so far have still provided some insight into what we can expect from each squad during the 2016-17 campaign.

Oct 21, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Shabazz Muhammad (15) against the Charlotte Hornets at Target Center. The Timberwolves defeated the Hornets 109-74. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves

Current Record: 0-2

Standings: 5th in Division, 12th in Conference

Much like the Utah Jazz, the Minnesota Timberwolves were picked as many to be an up-and-comer this year that has the potential to grow into a legitimate threat in the West. In fact, in the recently released NBA GM Survey, the Wolves were picked as the team that would be the most improved in 2016-17.

While some have drawn comparisons between the Wolves and the Jazz, many have noted that though they have similarities, Minnesota is still likely a year or two behind what the Jazz’s young core has developed into.

They’ve surely shown that to be true so far given that in the Wolves’ first two contests, they’ve looked much like the Jazz teams of recent years in their inability to close out tightly contested games. Minnesota has lost to the Grizzlies and the Kings by four points and three points, respectively.

In both losses so far this season, Minnesota built huge leads in the first quarter only to falter in the subsequent periods and watch a fourth quarter rally fall short. Both games were on the road, however, and as this team grows and develops this season, we may see them become more and more dangerous as the year progresses.

Nevertheless, with so much development left to undergo, I still believe that Minnesota and Denver will be the two teams grappling for the fourth and fifth place spots in the division while the more experienced Jazz, Blazers and Thunder will do battle for a place at the top of the pack.

Oct 31, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Denver Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson (1) shoots for a basket past Toronto Raptors center Jakob Poeltl (42) in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Nuggets

Current Record: 1-2

Standings: 3rd in Division, 9th in Conference

Although the Nuggets currently sit one spot ahead of the Jazz (only by merit of a better conference record) in both the division and conference standings, I definitely don’t expect this to be the case throughout the season.

However, Denver surely deserves credit for what they’ve done so far as they beat a Pelicans team on the road that saw Anthony Davis post an incredible stat line of 50 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and five steals and also took two solid teams in the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers down to the wire.

Portland only just managed to escape in overtime thanks to Damian Lillard’s cold-blooded dagger and the Raptors needed a monster performance from their starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (62 points combined on 53.5 percent shooting) to stave off what was almost a jaw-dropping comeback by the crafty Denver squad.

Nevertheless, much like the Wolves, the Nuggets are still trying to build their way up to becoming something special. They have some incredible young talent and some formidable vets, but they seem more like the team that can compete against anybody, maybe even give them a run for their money, but that will struggle to truly seal the deal in the majority of their contests.

We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out for the Nuggets, but despite a discouraging start for the Jazz and a rough stretch of games ahead, I’m relatively confident that by next month’s analysis, Utah will have overtaken them in the standings.

Oct 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (3) celebrates after a basket by Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) late in the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Portland won 113-104. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers

Current Record: 2-1

Standings: 2nd in Division, 4th in Conference

I’ll be honest, it surprises me just how good the Trail Blazers are. They have some great players, particularly their backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but I truly believe their whole is significantly better than the sum of their parts.

This is largely due to the leadership of Terry Stotts, who I consider to be one of the most underrated coaches in the league. Utah battled hard in a back and forth bout against the Blazers in the season opener, but eventually Portland proved to be too much for them to handle.

The Blazers then went on to lose a closely contested game to the Clippers before bouncing back with a thrilling overtime victory on the road in a tough Denver environment.

There’s a lot of reasons why Portland is a good team, but the one that stands out the most in my mind is the fact that they have a true closer in Damian Lillard. Time and time again, he has proven that when the stakes are high, he can be relied on to will his team to victory. In case you needed a reminder, I’ve included my personal favorite example of that below:

While several teams in the division, namely the Jazz, Wolves and Nuggets, struggle to finish games, the Blazers are just the opposite. They excel at it. And they have proven that in their two victories so far this year.

That ability to close out tightly contested games is a reason why Portland has been able to qualify for and win in the playoffs in recent years. They currently hold the longest active playoff appearance streak in the division, having qualified the last three years straight (Oklahoma City missed in 2014-15 for the first time in six years largely due to Kevin Durant’s foot injury).

Thus, while Portland currently resides in second place in the division behind the Thunder (we’ll get to them next), I believe the Blazers’ recent playoff track record and their keen ability to close games will separate them as the top team in the division by season’s end. That projection could change as the year goes on, but thus far they’ve looked the part, despite OKC’s early perfect record.

Oct 30, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) yells to the fans in a break in action against the Los Angeles Lakers during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder

Current Record: 3-0

Standings: 1st in Division, 3rd in Conference

The Thunder currently sit atop the Western Conference as the only team besides the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers to have yet to lose a game. Some might say that this distinguishes them as the early favorite to win the division, but based on who they’ve played and how they’ve done it, I would definitely argue otherwise.

The Thunder have triumphed over three mediocre teams and with exception to their latest victory over the Lakers in which they won by 17 points, they have done so in less than impressive fashion. OKC barely sneaked past the hapless 76ers and were taken to overtime by the young and currently winless Phoenix Suns.

Of course each victory was essentially sealed by Russell Westbrook who is averaging a triple-double through his first three games with an out of this world 38.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 11.7 assists per game.

While in no way, shape or form am I questioning just how impressive of a start Westbrook has gotten off to, it’s also important to note that in the Thunder’s three victories, he has been matched up at the point guard position against the likes of the Sixers’ Sergio Rodriguez, the Suns’ Eric Bledsoe and the Lakers D’Angelo Russell.

None of these guards are considered lockdown defenders by any means. So before anyone gets too excited about how good the Thunder may be this year, let’s see how they fare against some of the elite teams and top-tier point guards in the conference first.

They’ll be tested right off the bat this week with tough road contests against the Clippers on Tuesday and the Warriors on Wednesday. (On a side note, who isn’t excited for the first Durant vs. Westbrook revenge match this week?!)

While the Thunder will still be a tough contender for the division title, their 3-0 record seems to be a little misleading given the caliber of the teams they’ve defeated. As teams with solid guard defenders (such as George Hill and Dante Exum, for example) begin to challenge Russell Westbrook, I expect the team as a whole will also struggle somewhat.

Before the season’s start, I predicted that the Jazz would finish ahead of the Thunder in the division. Although that could still be the case, thus far the Thunder have looked to be the better team. With Portland earning my early pick as the team to win the Northwest Division, I expect Utah and OKC to put on a tough battle for second place.

Oct 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe (23) drives on Utah Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (8) in the first half at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Utah Jazz

Current Record: 1-2

Standings: 4th in Division, 10th in Conference

Well, I won’t spend too much time beating a dead horse on this Utah Jazz team as I’ve already looked at how much they still have left to improve, how I think they’ll do this week and their keys to a victory against a tough San Antonio team.

However, one thing I will say is that November is sizing up to be a very tough, but very critical month for the Jazz. With nine of their 16 November games on the road and with Gordon Hayward out until about midway through the month, Jazz fans might be in for a brutal stretch.

Nevertheless, I for one, despite being admittedly a little concerned, am remaining cautiously optimistic. It’s a long 82-game season and there is still plenty of time for the Jazz to get on track.

Though the Jazz may be stuck around third or fourth in the division throughout the month of November, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to bounce back the following month where they’ll play 11 of 15 games at home.

By that time there should also be more cohesion, more chemistry and more familiarity with the offense. And with so much depth, a proven coach in Quin Snyder and a defense that has shown the past two years that, when healthy, it is one of the best in the league, all signs indicate that this is still a Jazz team that is primed for a playoff berth this season.

And though their early setbacks may prevent them from ultimately winning the division title, I expect them to be right there in the thick of things competing with the Blazers and Thunder for that top spot.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com

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