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Brad Rock: Why the Utah Jazz shouldn't expect more than they got last year

SALT LAKE CITY — Syndicated newspaper cartoonist Bill Watterson once said, “I find my life a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.”

Apparently he wasn’t a Utah Jazz fan.

With the season opening Wednesday in Sacramento, the Jazz are drawing considerable national respect, picked by several to finish fourth in the Western Conference. But expectations locally are off the charts.

This year’s team is actually more intriguing than the trusty 1990s Jazz that went to the NBA Finals. Those teams were numbingly predictable. Their win total would be in the high 50s or low 60s. They would reach the conference finals or better. And they would never win a championship.

As long as Golden State stays intact, this Jazz iteration will never win a championship, either. But the suspense involves how far it can climb. This is supposed to be a better team than last year, having kept last year’s 48-win group intact. Utah has two potential All-Stars but no actual All-Stars. Yet fans from Smithfield to St. George, Callao to Cisco, are convinced this will be a great team. They cite Donovan Mitchell’s maturation, Rudy Gobert’s defensive dominance, Quin Snyder’s genius, etc.

But speaking for those who prefer to wait and see, here are several reasons the Jazz won’t be notably better than last season. Read ’em and weep.

Better yet, wait until April and celebrate accordingly.

The element of surprise. Gone. Kaput. Finis. Last season the Gordon Hayward-less Jazz caught everyone unaware. Hayward was history, and yet the Jazz thrived, once Gobert came back from an injury hiatus.

By the time people started taking the Jazz seriously, the Jazz were doing the same.

This year there will be no such subterfuge. Gobert is as subtle as a U-turn in traffic. Mitchell’s rim moves have been studied to exhaustion. Joe Ingles is no longer the forgettable foreigner that was cut by the Clippers. Derrick Favors will again prove he’s not a stretch-four.

Then there’s Dante Exum. He still hasn’t played many games.

And he still hasn’t proven he can shoot.

LeBron. Now that he’s in L.A., there’s one more team to crowd the Jazz. James isn’t getting younger, but he’s good enough to carry his team into the playoffs.

Don’t laugh. His supporting talent is as good as he had in Cleveland.

A thin margin for error. The Jazz earned the fifth seed in last year’s playoffs, but the difference between third and eighth place was just two games.

The Jazz were a sprained ankle away from disaster, but also a heartbeat away from the third seed. Don’t bet the rent on them leapfrogging to the top.

Denver. If Paul Millsap plays more than the one game he did against the Jazz last season — and the 44 games he missed overall — Utah and Denver could be reversed in the standings.

‘Melo. Carmelo Anthony is out of Oklahoma City, which already makes the Thunder better.

Dennis Schroeder. He averaged 19.2 points a game in Atlanta last year. Now he’s in OKC. You think it’s the same Thunder the Jazz beat in the playoffs?

As they say in the Sooner State, they’re fixin’ to fix that.

Ingles. Kudos to the Jazz wing, who considers himself the best shooter in the NBA. His stats make a nice argument. But if he ever gets thinking he’s more than he is, and steps out of his role, the Jazz will suffer.

Ricky Rubio. Though his shooting was up last year, his assists were down. His 3-point percentage was the best of his career, but still …

John Stockton is not walking through that door.

Unless it’s the door to the VIP lounge.

Pops. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will be tested without Kawhi Leonard, but actually he coached all last year without him, yet still made the playoffs. The Spurs can be better with DeMar DeRozan than without Leonard.

Rudy. Gobert generally does what he says he will, as long as he stays healthy. Which he does roughly half the time.

Quin. Great coach, but you can only work with what you have. He has a lot of depth but no superstars — yet. Has he squeezed all the production he can out of this group?

So crank up the sound system at Vivint Arena and bust out the 40th anniversary tributes. But don’t print up the championship T-shirts. The Jazz stood pat in the offseason, there’s a good chance they’ll stand pat in the standings, too.

Anything beyond that should be a reward, not an expectation.