Following their unceremonious elimination from the most recent postseason, the Jazz’s front office came to the inevitable conclusion that significant changes must occur if the organization truly sought championship contention.
The resulting makeover has been almost universally lauded for accomplishing that, with most observers believing the Jazz’s primary flaw of insufficient outside shooting has been corrected.
The thing is, given how crazily the summer unfolded across the league, it’s not entirely clear how much progress the team made with all those moves. On the one hand, Zach Lowe of ESPN believes the Jazz to be among the top-tier teams in the league, calling them legitimate title contenders. John Hollinger of The Athletic, on the other hand, is more enamored with what other teams have done. He predicted the Jazz would actually take a small step back this coming season — regressing to 49 wins and sixth place in the Western Conference.
And in all honesty, who’s to say at this point which of them is more right? Even if the Jazz have improved, that simply may not be enough against a conference full of teams that swung for the fences this summer. With that in mind, let’s examine five of the Western Conference squads that figure to make it toughest for the Jazz to make their first NBA Finals appearance in 22 years.
Los Angeles Clippers
For anyone waking recently from a long-term coma, the news that the Clippers may well be the favorites to win it all might prompt disbelief that reality has indeed been re-entered. But here we are.
The early July announcement that reigning Finals MVP and self-proclaimed fun guy Kawhi Leonard was joining the Clippers was surely a shock to many. The minutes-later revelation that Paul George had forced his way out of Oklahoma City and would be joining him was an absolute bombshell.
While PG13’s recovery from shoulder surgery and Leonard’s anticipated “load management” are issues to be dealt with, seeing those guys join a plucky cast that includes Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell has sent expectations through the roof. The defense will be nasty, the scoring will be plentiful and Doc Rivers seems capable of keeping it all on track.
Los Angeles Lakers
Though the Lakers ultimately missed out on Kawhi, Anthony Davis is not a bad consolation prize. LeBron and The Brow have already displayed the dynamic on-court chemistry that could end L.A.’s streak of playoff futility at six seasons.
The ability of James and Davis to stay healthy will be one key to that. Another will be how much depth they can get from the pieces around them. Can Kyle Kuzma take that next step and improve his efficiency enough to make him a viable third option? Are the Lakers getting the Raptors or the late-Spurs-era version of Danny Green? Can Dwight Howard leave the circus behind and focus on providing rebounds and defense? And can a suspect backcourt assembly of Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, etc. perform better than most critics expect? If a few of those questions are answered affirmatively, the Lake Show will be a force.
While the Jazz’s inability to get past the Rockets sparked a rebuild in SLC, the Rockets’ inability to best the Warriors sparked something of a teardown in Houston as well.
There’s no doubt that, for the money, Russell Westbrook is a more talented complement to James Harden at this point than was Chris Paul. But beyond the very legitimate question of how two of the most ball-dominant guards in the league will actually fit together, there’s the additional issue of whether Westbrook’s addition itself is enough to get this team over the hump.
Did the Rockets do enough around the margins? Does adding Tyson Chandler and Ryan Anderson and Thabo Sefolosha to a core of PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela take this team to the next level?
It’s saying something, isn’t it, that we’re only now getting to the team that finished second in the West a season ago? That can be largely attributed to two things: 1. Denver’s relatively quiet offseason by comparison; and 2. Lingering questions about whether this core is talented and experienced enough to go the distance.
Indeed, the Nuggets look very similar to a year ago. All-NBA center Nikola Jokic will be the offensive fulcrum again, and Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Garry Harris form a talented-if-unspectacular supporting cast.
The Nuggets will be hoping that last year’s playoff experience, the benefit of not having to integrate too many new pieces, and the addition of springy, versatile big Jerami Grant and injury-prone-but-exceedingly-talented Michael Porter Jr. will be enough this time around.
Golden State Warriors
The Dubs feel pretty much written off, don’t they? It’s not without reason. They certainly lost a ton, starting with two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, perennial All-Star and Splash Brother Klay Thompson will miss much of the season recovering from an ACL tear suffered in the Finals.
And beyond that, this team jettisoned myriad key components from previous years, with Andre Iguodala being traded, Shaun Livingston released (and subsequently choosing to retire) and DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook leaving via free agency.
Still, the cupboard is hardly bare. They still have Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. They added All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell and intriguing big Willie Cauley-Stein. Kevon Looney figures to flourish in an expanded role. They’ll be pretty young to start with, but if they can hang in there until Thompson returns, they may yet prove they’re still a force to be reckoned with.