Here it is, the kiss of death.
The Utah Jazz are going to be better than good this season, better than real good, better than all the undulating stages of good they’ve been since the best Stockton-and-Malone years. Great? They’ll edge toward it, if not wear it like a form-fitting gown.
They themselves certainly think that is what’s coming, and they have company in this corner, a corner that prides itself on not being anything close to a homer. Just writing it like it is, or, at least, like it appears from here, as long as the Jazz stay healthy and play up to form.
Prior to last season, a lot of folks were on board, pundits from coast to coast, as the Jazz were an offseason and preseason darling. Due to scattered tardy player adjustments and a couple of slips down a defensive manhole, the Jazz fell short, and on account of that have been relegated this time around.
They shouldn’t be.
It would help them too, if Rudy Gobert got a move on and found some reasonable, peaceful place in contract-extension talks, somewhere between making a zillion dollars and a gazillion of them, letting every Jazz team member — himself included — find some measure of comfort in sweeping away a major distraction and dialing in on the primary goal at hand.
Winning in the West. Not necessarily winning the West.
Let’s not get crazy here.
The Lakers are still the Lakers, but … who’s next?
The Clippers? They’re talented, but messed up, what with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George having special consideration written into their contracts, guaranteeing that they have private pregame space provided for them at Staples Center, preferably, like last year, the cheerleaders’ abandoned locker room, where they shall be entitled to stretch in private and have imported grapes popped into their mouths and the finest meats and cheeses served up by attendants before all home games, while the rest of the team fumes, unpampered, laboring in the dreary dregs of a traditional locker room.
The Nuggets? Maybe, if the Joker and Jamal Murray go bonkers and score 40 points a piece every night, and the rest of the team decides to go ahead and commit to doing that thing known as — what’s it called again? oh, yeah — defense. Big ask.
The Mavs? The Blazers? The Rockets? The Suns?
No. It’s the Jazz’s time to climb up and take second or third, at worst.
And while not everyone sees that same thing, that same forecasted success, some believing the Jazz will be fortunate just to make the playoffs in the NBA’s better half, here’s what’s in clear view from this chair.
The Jazz have a chance at going to the WC finals.
What they need for that to be realized is for their two stars — Donovan Mitchell and Gobert to transform themselves from All-Stars into something a bit more super.
It’s possible, each having made an ascent as now ultra-confident veterans.
As for the team as a whole, there are happy acknowledgments for them.
The Jazz have shooting.
Bojan Bogdanovic, who they badly missed in the bubble playoffs, is back, fully healed and acclimated, ready to go. He’s in his seventh season, and he’s gotten better in each of those earlier years, and will get better this time, too. He knows exactly what Quin Snyder wants him to do and when he wants him to do it, and the entire team knows that, as well.
Joe Ingles, who made 45 percent of his shots, 40 percent from deep, in what was a mildly off year for him, seems to finally have understood that he should shoot the damn ball when he’s open, especially from 3.
Mitchell, still only 24, but having found and grasped his potential, emerged as a rock star last season, averaging 24 points and turning the throttle more in the playoffs, during which he went for 36.3 per game. He’ll settle somewhere between those averages this season, even though the Jazz have options to score all around. He’s on the verge of joining the NBA’s elite.
On the go meter, Jordan Clarkson blows through the top, bringing remembrances of Vinnie Johnson, the quick-cooking appliance that came off the bench to help the Pistons back in the Bad Boy days.
Mike Conley has taken substantial strides in becoming a Jazzman rather than a Grizzly, now knowing where to be, what to do, how to do it, in Snyder’s attack — pertaining to handling, passing and shooting the ball.
The two favored spots in the modern NBA from which to shoot are anywhere behind the arc and at the rim. Snyder wants these guys to jack up more bombs than they ever have, and they will comply. And when they don’t, they’ll be lobbing and bouncing the ball into Gobert and Derrick Favors at the other preferred location, and between the two of them will flush the rock night in, night out, even with the suddenly renewed concerted efforts of NBA defenses to stop scoring from within five feet.
Defense, as mentioned, was a problem last season, particularly on the perimeter. This is a weakness Snyder has drilled down on and emphasized fixing. And while the Jazz haven’t gone out to add a high-profile stopper, they have developed young wings in a manner that makes no mistake about where the priority is — blanket the 3. It won’t be an absolute team strength, but it will be improved over 2019-20.
The addition of Favors greatly aids Gobert, seeing that the big no longer is the only dude on the team who guards on and around the low block and who rebounds. A season ago, Royce O’Neale was the Jazz’s second-leading rebounder, and considering that he’s 6-4 and got 5.5 boards per, this is an area that can use reinforcement. Favors will provide it.
While once riding on the Celtics team bus, back in the day, Larry Bird bemoaned the fact that his team was strong with its starting five, but that the reserves were sadly lacking. He looked out the window and saw a park bench with the printed ad words on it: “Bench available.” He yelled out, “Hey, let’s buy it. We need one.”
The Jazz could relate last season. Not so much anymore.
This is where the combination of Ingles with Favors — pick-and-roll, anyone? — and the further enhancement and refinement of Clarkson, who re-signed for ample money during the offseason, and Conley, come in. But the need is bigger than just that. The Jazz are hoping one of their other players — young or old — will step into a useful role to give them just enough energy and production to hold leads and, on occasion, build them.
They wisely won’t come right out and boldly mark territory or make declarations over it, but, quietly, members of the Jazz are whispering encouraging words, saying they think they have something extra going on this season, something well in advance of what they offered before.
Nobody’s betting their life on it, but it could be something to anticipate, maybe even something solid to believe in, at long last.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.