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Former NBA coach Saunders: 'Utah teams always play extremely hard'

Denver • The Jazz are among a group of about five teams that will compete for the final two spots in the West, one former NBA coach said this week.

In Friday's game against the Denver Nuggets, the Jazz make their ESPN debut. Former NBA head coach Flip Saunders, now an ESPN studio analyst, told The Tribune that while the Jazz and Nuggets are very similar, he believes Denver is closer to cracking the West's elite top six.

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"I have them a little bit ahead of Utah right now," Saunders said, "because they have some veteran-type players that have been through some long playoff type stretches, in Utah they have some players that are just getting there."

However, Saunders, who was a head coach in the league for 16 of the last 17 years before being fired by the Wizards in January, thinks the Jazz are building toward something good.

"I like the interior depth they have," Saunders said. "Their bigs. ... I think it's notorious for your Utah teams to always play extremely hard. I think Tyrone has got those guys to play hard. As with most teams in this league a lot of the success is going to be determined by how healthy you're able to stay."

Saunders elaborated on the Jazz's big man rotation.

"They all bring something different to the table," he said. "I think there's no question that Al is a different player and he's by the best low-block scorer of any of the guys. Millsap is a phenomenal rebounder. Favors, of course, has great athletic ability and size and runs the floor. Kanter is more of a bull in the china shop."

Saunders was impressed by the Jazz's 36-30 finish last year in the lockout-shortened season, and said it help lay the foundation for a better year this year and to use it "a springboard and try be a team that jump into that top six."

Saunders coached Jazz guard Randy Foye in Washington in 2009-10, and said Foye was thrown into an "unfair" situation that led to the second worst scoring season of his career.

"We went through the gun situation," Saunders said. "We had [Gilbert] Arenas and [Javaris] Crittenton, they were both kind of our point guards at the time, then both those guys had that situation."

Foye was moved from a backup combo guard to the starting point guard. Saunders said Foye is most effective at point when he can play 10 to 15 minutes off the bench, but that when point becomes his primary position it hurts his scoring and ability to utilize the pick and roll as the off guard.

"Then what happened," Saunders said, "was we had to play him so many minutes that he was hurt about the last six weeks of the season, which really hurt him and hurt us too."

Signing with Utah, Saunders said, was a good move for Foye.

"I think he's the ultimate third guard," he said. "You can put him in as a starter at times, but you bring him off the bench, you play at the two, you play him at the one, he's got the ability to score. Most importantly with Randy, he's a great character person."

— Bill Oram

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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