How do the Utah Jazz stack up now in a Western Conference that got even wilder?
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) wait on a rebound in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The NBA’s 2020 free-agent market was supposed to be a largely tepid affair, owing to a lack of top-flight star power, widespread revenue losses, and teams keeping their piggy backs filled in hopes of being big spenders in the summer of 2021.
And yet, there has been no shortage of player movement in the past week and a half.
After the Utah Jazz carried out a major shakeup following their first-round playoff ouster in 2019, reshaping their offense to have substantially more firepower, they were content to improve around the margins this time — retaining Jordan Clarkson for some bench scoring punch, bringing back Derrick Favors
to bolster their paint protection behind Rudy Gobert, and adding a pair of intriguing-upside rookies in Udoka Azubuike and Elijah Hughes
After all, several of the top teams around them have either similarly maintained the status quo, while others eschewed equanimity and restraint, undergoing significant reshapings with influxes of new talent.
Indeed, the wild, wild West arguably got even wilder this month. And so, with training camp beginning in a few days and the Jazz’s first preseason game coming Dec. 12
, to ascertain where Utah might now fit in the conference hierarchy, it warrants some closer examination of their competition.
The defending champs were the last ones standing in the Orlando bubble thanks to the double-barreled impact of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, along with timely shooting and stingy defense from the supporting cast. Still, the team’s one major deficiency was the offense’s tendency to crater when James went to the bench — a weakness they’ve since addressed by adding premier bench players in Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder. Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol were also signed on the cheap. Davis has yet to officially re-sign, but it’s considered a foregone conclusion. The Lakers are inarguably more talented than they were ago; the question is whether they sacrificed too much of an elite defense to bolster the offense (something Jazz fans surely can relate to).
The Clips’ dream season became anything but when they underachieved again, succumbing to internal drama and blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets, leading to the ouster of coach Doc Rivers. Things seemed to get worse early in free agency when Harrell bailed for the Lakers, and key reserve JaMychal Green joined the Nuggets. Still, it hasn’t been all bad, as they’ve swapped out Landry Shamet for Luke Kennard, and pivoted nicely to the Harrell loss by adding Serge Ibaka. They’re plenty talented with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the top, but can they overcome the chemistry issues that beset them last year?
Denver impressed by rallying from back-to-back 3-1 series deficits to knock off the Jazz and Clippers. But they took as big a hit as any West contender during this offseason. Jerami Grant rebuffed them to sign the same deal in Detroit. Detroit! Meanwhile, backup big man Mason Plumlee also joined the Pistons. Denver’s dicey cap situation led to it renouncing the rights of solid perimeter defender Torrey Craig. And the Nuggets went hard after Jrue Holiday, only to get outbid by the Bucks. So, yeah, that’s rough. Rookies Zeke Nnaji and R.J. Hampton could turn out to be good, JaMychal Green will take Grant’s minutes, and Argentine point guard Facundo Campazzo will be flashy fun, but this team has taken a definite step back.
The situation in Houston has been similarly drama-filled, with coach Mike D’Antoni not retained, then front-office maven Daryl Morey shockingly resigning and joining the Sixers, and finally, star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanding trades. A full rebuild seemed inevitable when 3-and-D specialist Robert Covington was shipped to Portland for draft picks. Still … this team is unsettled for now, with the Harden and Westbrook situations unresolved. Will they stay? Will they be miserable if they do? In the meantime, the team has kinda sorta abandoned its small-ball fetish, signing promising big man Christian Wood, then taking a low-cost flyer on injury-riddled ex-All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.
General manager Sam Presti has been a torrid maelstrom of activity, shipping out veterans for draft picks and lesser players, then subsequently flipping those new players for yet more assets. He’s playing the long game in trying to rebuild around young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the immediate result is OKC abandoning its scrappy overachiever role for a trip back to the lottery. The key pieces gone from last year’s feel-good team include Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Schröder, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel. Danny Green has already been re-routed, and they’ll surely try to do the same with the likes of Al Horford, George Hill and Trevor Ariza.
As the rare playoff team with abundant cap space, the Mavs were well-positioned to make significant upgrades. But with lusty eyes unabashedly scoping out potential 2021 free agent Giannis Antetokounmpo, they opted instead for half-measures this offseason instead. Their lack of sizable perimeter wings led to trading Seth Curry for Josh Richardson, and to drafting Josh Green and Tyler Bey. Their need to replace Curry’s shooting caused them to spend a second-round pick on Tyrell Terry. Meanwhile, they sacrificed some depth in the name of opening more ’21 cap space by flipping Delon Wright and Justin Jackson for the contract of James Johnson. Between those tepid moves and Kristaps Porzingis’ knee injury, Dallas seems unlikely to take a big leap this year, though maybe Luka Doncic accomplishes that all on his own.
Portland’s offseason was relatively understated compared to other Western Conferences teams, but just about every move they made earned praise for addressing a serious need. Giving up Ariza and two firsts for Covington sounds expensive, but the Blazers were in serious need of a wing with some length and capacity to defend. Derrick Jones Jr. is a scrappy high-flyer who will bring an added dimension with his athleticism, even if he is a mediocre deep shooter. And bringing back Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic was another solid move. Harry Giles has promise if he can stay healthy. And retaining Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood will bolster the depth of a team ravaged by injuries a year ago.
After becoming league darlings with an 8-0 run through the bubble, only to just miss the playoffs anyway, the Valley Boys have made some serious upgrades of late in a bid to make a return to the postseason. The most obvious one was bringing in the hefty contract of Chris Paul, counting on him to repeat his 2020 exploits by fast-tracking the talented-but-young roster around him (notably Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton). They became feistier and edgier still by capitalizing on Miami’s designs to hoard ’21 cap space and swiping Jae Crowder with the multi-year deal the Heat refused to offer. They did lose a valuable piece when burly but sweet-shooting big man Aron Baynes headed north to Toronto, but they’re hopeful that their latest lottery reach, Jalen Smith, will duplicate the production at a lower cost.
The Grizz technically finished ahead of Phoenix last year, but considering their biggest additions have been Mario Hezonja and No. 30 draft pick Desmond Bane, they seem unlikely to make a leap sufficient to impact the Jazz.