Utah Jazz: Stacked Western Conference leaves no room for error
Fair doesn't exist. Not in life. Not in war. Especially not in the NBA Western Conference.
The Jazz exceeded expectations during the lockout-compressed 2011-12 season, banding together to win seven of their final nine games and earn a surprise postseason spot.
Utah's reward? A 4-0 first-round shellacking by San Antonio, which embarrassed the Jazz and never let Tyrone Corbin's struggling team breathe.
The 2012-13 campaign could be even crueler.
Oklahoma City only will be stronger, buoyed by an appearance in the 2012 NBA Finals and strengthened by the knowledge that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the premier scoring duo in the league.
The Spurs are eyeing redemption, attempting to ride Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker for one last hurrah into the San Antonio sunset.
The Los Angeles Clippers are deeper, despite watching Randy Foye and Mo Williams move to Utah. Dallas is sharper, overcoming an initial stumble during free agency to again surround superstar Dirk Nowitzki with playoff-caliber talent. Denver is dangerous, armed with Andre Iguodala's multi-tooled touch. An exciting Minnesota squad highlighted by young stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio added everyone from ex-Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko to former Portland standout Brandon Roy.
Then there's Memphis. And much-improved Golden State. And a quiet, little-known team from Los Angeles, which already featured Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol before adding unknowns Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the drive to return Showtime to the Lakers' stage.
Think the Jazz are deep? The Northwest Division is deeper. And the Western Conference is deeper still.
It won't get any easier for Utah in 2012-13.
Welcome to the new, unrelenting NBA world order, Jazz fans. Get ready for the grind.
"We started that [as] our mentality the first day of practice," Utah power forward Paul Millsap said. "Nobody's going to feel sorry for us whatsoever. So we've just got to set the tone early and do what we do."
What the Jazz do has been proven effective. In the ever-changing NBA, Utah has become synonymous with consistency, even with key recent departures such as Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. But while the Jazz have made the playoffs 25 out of the last 29 seasons, Utah hasn't been to the Finals since 1998 and never has won a championship.
Jazz in 2013? Don't get your hopes up.
The Lakers are primed for gold, posting a starting five that features at least three likely Hall of Famers and a threatening fifth piece in small forward Metta World Peace.
The Thunder finished 47-19 last season, then blitzed the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, making a San Antonio team that looked title-bound when it whipped Utah suddenly appear its age.
Stacking the deck even taller: The Jazz play in the toughest division in the NBA, with Oklahoma City, Denver, Minnesota and Utah possessing realistic playoff chances. Even Portland will be a factor, since the Terry Stotts-coached Blazers still feature All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge and will be run by former Weber State point guard Damian Lillard.
Wrap it together, and the West continues to be the best. For the past 10 years, the conference has been loaded, with playoff spots six through eight regularly going down to the buzzer. The 2012-13 campaign could be the toughest in recent memory. The rich kids got richer, the best ballers have yet to hit their prime, and bottom-feeders such as New Orleans and Sacramento are lined with lottery talent.
The Jazz exceeded expectations to earn a 2012 postseason berth. They'll have to do it again just to stay relevant.
"I remember playing in a division with San Antonio and Dallas when I was in Memphis, and we would win 55 games and still barely make the eighth spot," Utah veteran point guard Earl Watson said. "The West is going to be similar this year. You're going to have to win a lot of games to just creep into the playoffs, but you won't be that far behind the fourth spot. So it's critical."
1. Oklahoma City
1. Oklahoma City
2. L.A. Lakers
3. San Antonio
4. L.A. Clippers