The Utah Jazz are playing in perhaps the most stacked conference in NBA history, and they have an outside chance of winning it.
Just about every team in the Western Conference improved over the off-season but the Jazz stuck with their guys and re-signed Derrick Favors and Dante Exum. That could mean that the Jazz think they have something special here, or it could mean that the rest of the league will pass them by.
Either way Jazz fans are putting all their chips on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and for good reason. Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year, and Donovan Mitchell was by far the best rookie actually in his first season during the regular season, but in their second round matchup against the Rockets, the Jazz looked completely overwhelmed and Gobert was outplayed by Houston’s Clint Capela.
What does that mean for this season? Well, with Houston’s losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and Golden State’s general apathy and indifference about the regular season, the Jazz sort of have an outside chance of winning the West and making some miracle run in the playoffs to the Finals.
It seems silly, but really it could happen. If DeMarcus Cousins messes with the Warriors’ chemistry and the injury bug plagues both the Rockets’ and the Warriors’ aging rosters the third best team in the West could win big come playoff time.
The problem is the Jazz may not even be the third best team. The Lakers signed some forward from Ohio. Oklahoma City resigned Paul George and added Dennis Schröder. The Spurs’ locker room might have finally settled down and they added an All-NBA player in DeMar Derozan. The Grizzlies might have some life with Michael Conley returning and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Pelicans are good. The Trailblazers are good. The Nuggets are good. The Timberwolves probably won’t be good, but maybe they could be.
There is however reason to believe that the Jazz could be among the top of the Western Conference. The front office somehow saved the franchise after losing its only the only All-Star its had since 2010. They managed to flip Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood for a serviceable sixth man in Jae Crowder. They made Royce O’Neale into their third best ball handler and it worked somehow. They’ll always make smart moves, but now they need to develop those smart moves into stars.
Quin Snyder is one of the five most well-prepared coaches in the NBA. He will be essential in the development of the team. Jokes about three hour practices aside, Snyder knows how competitive the West is and is going to need to get everything out of this team that he can if they’re going to be great.
If the team is going to win anything significant, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell need to get All-Star buzz. They can’t fall behind like last season if Gobert goes down again. If Mitchell and Gobert make leaps offensively, then they’ll go from gritty defensive team to a team that can outscore opponents in shootouts as well.
Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, O’Neale, Crowder, Favors, Exum, Grayson Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and Alec Burks are really nice sounding role players on paper, but when it comes down to actual performance, the Jazz struggled immensely to get baskets in the playoffs when defenses tightened up. Everything ran through Mitchell, and without a second and third independent scoring option, they might have the same result as last season.
Mitchell also shoots the ball a ton and at times was inefficient last season. If he can be more consistent and knock down shots with more consistency, he will be an All-Star with potential to become one of the Jazz’s all-time greatest players.
The worst-case scenario is that the Jazz lose one of either Gobert or Mitchell for a significant time due to injury and the Jazz can’t hang with the competitive West and miss out on the playoffs.
The best-case scenario is that Gobert and Mitchell get more support from their teammates, finish top two in the West, push the Warriors or Rockets in the second round of the playoffs, and maybe sneak into the Western Conference finals.
Their journey begins tonight in Sacramento as they’ll take on the Kings at 8 p.m. on ATRM.