SALT LAKE CITY — It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who national media are picking to win the NBA championship this season.
Yep. The Minnesota Timberwolves.
They’re being picked to win the Most Dysfunctional Team award.
It’s the Golden State Warriors who are the popular pick to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy yet again in June 2019.
“It's little surprise to see that the data projects the Warriors to take home the title,” CBSSports.com reporter Jack Maloney wrote, referring to projections from piles of data and season simulations via data scientist Stephen Oh. “Still, even though everyone expects the Warriors to secure a three-peat, it's still pretty impressive that the projections have them winning the championship a whopping 40 percent of the time.”
In comparison, the Jazz are projected by the CBS data as having a 1.1 percent chance of winning the championship. That’s not as bad as you might think. Utah is considered in this particular evaluation to be the eighth-best team in the league and the No. 4 squad in the Western Conference behind the star-studded champions, the Houston Rockets (11.5 percent) and the LeBron James-infused Los Angeles Lakers (4.4 percent).
CBS has the Jazz’s chances of making the playoffs at 92.5 percent.
It’s not going to be easy for anyone in the West. For example, Maloney noted that the Suns are projected to improve their win total by six games in 2018-19 but Phoenix is still only supposed to finish second-to-last in the conference.
A different CBS projection story put the Jazz at No. 6 overall and listed a potential starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.
“This isn’t the sexiest lineup on paper,” the writer said, “but you can’t argue with the results.” Last year, that crew had a 20.6 net rating and a superb 94.1 defensive rating in 358 minutes after The Stifle Tower returned from his injury. “Nobody wants to play against the Jazz, and Mitchell showed his mettle as a rookie by basically becoming the team’s entire offense in last year’s playoff run.”
The top five teams, according to that CBS story, will be the Warriors, Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and 76ers, who, of course, are led by third-year rookie Ben Simmons.
In its annual Anonymous NBA Scout Tells All preview story, Sports Illustrated offered a fun teaser for Jazz fans.
“Their entire rotation is back. They have unbelievable continuity,” the scout told S.I. “If anyone is going to be a surprise top-two seed, it’s them. They’ll easily be top-five defensively.”
The scout mentioned that Gobert might struggle defensively against the Warriors — who doesn’t? — and the Rockets but that he’s still “the top rim-protector by a mile” and is “an All-Star against 27 teams.”
The scout lauded the job done by Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, who had his team in position to absorb Gordon Hayward’s departure in 2017, thanks in large part to the draft-day trade to acquire a superhero by the name of Spida-Man.
“Donovan Mitchell was the real Rookie of the Year to me. He went through the true rookie experience of growing into the NBA game rather than redshirting like Ben Simmons,” the scout said.
“Mitchell has a bullseye on his back now as their best offensive player. I like the Dwyane Wade comparisons for Mitchell, when he gets in the pick-and-roll with his explosive scoring and attack mentality.
“Think about this: The Jazz would never trade Mitchell to get Gordon Hayward back in a million years. How crazy does that sound compared to when Hayward left?”
The scout also likes how Rubio, Ingles, Ekpe Udoh, Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder fit into Quin Snyder’s system. He also said to not give up on Dante Exum.
“Their real weakness is they can’t go to a five-out look. They don’t really have a super versatile option to play the five in smaller lineups. They have to stick to their style,” the scout added. “That will work for them up to a point but they need to add firepower over the longer term. I’d be interested in seeing them play three guards, a wing and then Crowder as a small ball five.”
Things are even more rosy for the Jazz, according to The Action Network's projections. Utah is fourth-best in the NBA behind Golden State, Houston and Boston, according to this projection that compared likely starters.
“Rubio thrived last season in Utah with spacing he had never before seen in the NBA, and Mitchell was a revelation as a rookie,” TAN’s Byran Mears wrote. “Each of these players should continue to improve in their prime years, and they showed in a large sample size of 456 minutes that they’re really darn good.”
However, that media outlet showed that a Las Vegas sports book listed the Jazz as No. 6 overall with a projected 50 wins behind the Warriors (62), Celtics (59), Rockets (56.5), Raptors (55.5) and 76ers (54).
Teamrankings.com puts the Jazz behind Golden State (26.8 percent), Houston (13.0 percent), Boston (13.0 percent) and Toronto (10.7 percent) with a 7.4 percent chance of winning the NBA title next postseason.
As for the future, it looks bright for the Jazz. With the Mitchell-Gobert duo leading the way, Utah should be among the NBA's top six over the course of the next three seasons, according to ESPN.com's future rankings.
Here's what NBA expert Kevin Pelton wrote about Utah:
"Thanks to Donovan Mitchell's rapid rise, the Jazz have an ideal combination of current talent and future flexibility. Having gone 30-8 after Rudy Gobert returned from injury in January, a 65-win pace over a full season, Utah has the third-best 2018-19 projection of any team, using ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM). With Mitchell scheduled to make less than $12 million total over the next three seasons, the Jazz could still clear max cap space next summer to add to their core of him and Gobert.
"Granted, Utah has questions to answer. Clearing max cap room would require the Jazz to waive starting power forward Derrick Favors and renounce the rights to starting point guard Ricky Rubio, an unrestricted free agent next summer. Utah also must prove it can maintain this level over a full season. If so, the Jazz could move even higher in the rankings."