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How the Los Angeles Clippers' additions of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George affect the Utah Jazz

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) handles the ball while Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson defends during the second half of Game 6 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Oakland, Calif.
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) handles the ball while Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson defends during the second half of Game 6 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Oakland, Calif.
Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In the span of about two minutes just before Friday turned to Saturday local time, the landscape of the NBA’s Western Conference — and arguably the Utah Jazz’s place in its hierarchy — changed dramatically.

At 11:53 p.m. MT, Yahoo’s Chris Haynes first reported via Twitter that free agent Kawhi Leonard has agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Then about two minutes later, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported that the Clippers have agreed to a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that will see them acquire All-Star Paul George in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and draft picks.

The initial news of Leonard joining the Clippers was good for the Jazz. As Utah has loaded up this summer by trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic and other good role players Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay, many have predicted the Jazz will be a real contender in the West.

If Leonard had agreed to go to the Los Angeles Lakers (the Lakers, Clippers and incumbent Toronto Raptors were widely reported to be the teams in the running for him), the prevailing thought was that he, LeBron James and Anthony Davis would form a great trio that would be tough to beat.

The Clippers, on the other hand, entered free agency with a nice young group of players, but Leonard would have been the only star-level player on the team. They certainly would have been better, but perhaps not quite ready to be real contenders in the West.

That meant that even with a superstar like Leonard in LA, the West would be wide open, and after finishing fifth in the conference last season, Utah was in as good of a position as any other team to make a leap.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) dribbles past Toronto Raptors forward Norman Powell (24) during second-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Friday, March 22, 2019.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) dribbles past Toronto Raptors forward Norman Powell (24) during second-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Friday, March 22, 2019.
Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press

Then Wojnarowski broke the news of the George trade. Suddenly, the Clippers have two of the best players in the league in Leonard and George. Both are elite on offense and defense, and should play well with each other.

To boot, LA still has a very strong group around its new star duo. Patrick Beverley is a good floor general and incredible defender at point guard. Landry Shamet is an excellent shooter who should benefit from playing with Leonard and George. Lou Williams is one of the best bench players the league has ever seen. Montrezl Harrell is a good, young big man and Ivica Zubac has potential, too. Moe Harkless is another good wing defender.

In other words, the Clippers should be expected to vault to the top of the Western Conference.

What does this mean for the Jazz? To be sure, it doesn’t change how strong of a summer the team’s management has had. Utah still should be better than it was last season. It just means that now there is a more clear front-runner in the West that isn’t the Jazz, whereas it was wide open before.

From a roster construction standpoint, Utah has certainly lost some on the defensive end this summer in exchange for more offensive firepower, but it stands to reason Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles would draw the assignments of guarding Leonard and George in a playoff series, and both are good defenders. Two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert will still man the paint.

Besides Utah, the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers are all still good after making the playoffs last season. How Oklahoma City moves forward will be interesting to watch, and the San Antonio Spurs are the other team in the West that made the postseason.

Among squads that didn’t make the playoffs last year, the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings should be better than they were last season, as should the Lakers even though they’ll end up bringing back a good portion of their team after missing out on Leonard.

In other words, the Western Conference should still be wide open, but now there’s just more clarity at the top, and the Jazz have more of a challenge to get there.