SALT LAKE CITY — If ever there was a time to tap the brakes on expectations for the Jazz, this would be it. The balanced new lineup might produce a conference contender, but there’s a fair chance the Jazz could end up right where they were last year — fifth in the Western Conference.
Please do not throw fruit.
This is an opinion, not a prophecy.
The Jazz held a Monday press conference, featuring their two main summer acquisitions. The fact Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley were at the Las Vegas Summer League, supporting players whose names they probably don’t know, was a good sign. But from here the path steepens, though not because the Jazz are undermanned.
They are actually quite deep. It’s that practically everyone else in the conference improved this summer. Thus the Jazz must adopt the 2004 Detroit Pistons model. Throughout the years, the organization has often used that analogy to describe its philosophy, i.e. you don’t need a slew of All-Stars to win a championship. (Tell that to the Warriors.)
That 2004 Detroit team won with just one All-Star — non-scoring center Ben Wallace — and a lot of good players. Going into the season, he was just a second-team All-NBA selection.
The Jazz have no All-Stars, but Rudy Gobert is third-team All-NBA.
Western Conference basketball has long been deep and dangerous territory. But now there is high drama as to which teams will even qualify for the postseason. Last year there was a nine-game difference between the final playoff team (Clippers) and the first team out (Kings). There should be far less separation in 2019-20. At least a dozen teams have enough talent to make the eight-team playoffs and a half-dozen could win the conference.
Even as the Jazz were adding Bogdanovic, Conley, Jeff Green and Ed Davis, the Lakers were picking up an even flashier Davis: Anthony. Denver and Portland are strong teams that didn’t get worse. Houston will be a problem until the day James Harden, Eric Gordon, Chris Paul and Clint Capela leave. That might be tomorrow, the way the Rockets operate. They’re rumored to be trying to trade for Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook and Harden on the same team could be a hot mess, or it could be a title formula.
Dallas was a non-playoff team last year but next season will have former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, teamed with Delon Wright and Luka Doncic. Golden State still has All-Stars Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry, though Thompson will be out for part of next season. It also added D’Angelo Russell. The Clippers gained Paul George and Kawhi Leonard because Captain America and Iron Man were busy. New Orleans drafted a generational player named Zion to take it to the Promised Land, then traded for Derrick Favors.
It must annoy the rest of the NBA that two title contenders are in Los Angeles. The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in six years, but here they are up in lights thanks to Davis, LeBron James, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma. The city is never truly out of the free agency/trade mix. There’s too much sunshine, glamour and money for that.
Hollywood loves this kind of showiness.
In the movie “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen tells someone he doesn’t want to leave New York for L.A.
“I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light,” he says.
Obviously he wasn’t a free agent looking for a great place to hoop.
The Jazz are significantly better than they were a month ago. But a rising tide lifts all boats. Everything and nothing has changed for Utah. It is still fighting to make a top-tier team out of very good players, while L.A. takes the first pick.
It’s not impossible the Warriors, Rockets, Nuggets, Blazers and Greater Los Angeles could finish ahead of Utah. Nor is it impossible to see the Conley-Bogdanvic-Mitchell-Gobert confluence in the conference finals.
The trick for the Jazz is to stay humble, keep the 2004 Pistons in mind and pay scant attention to what the neighbors are doing.