There is no shortage of optimism around the Utah Jazz after they quietly addressed every glaring personnel need this offseason. Improved point guard play? Check. A complementary skilled big? Check. Improved wing depth? Check. Playoff experience? Check… times 284.
But how good will that make them? It seems easy enough to start at last season’s 40 wins1 and then bump the number up for each of Utah’s key additions and injury returns. The problem is: that’s not really how the NBA works. Wins have to come from someone else. Most of the league’s 30 teams probably think they have inched northward in the standings, and not all of them have. There are only 1,230 wins available in the NBA season, so if the Jazz are going to gobble some up, someone has to surrender some.
Two of SCH’s writers, Aaron Hefner and Dan Clayton, take a stab at guessing: not just on how good the Jazz will be, but on whose roster they can reasonable outperform over 82 games. We ask the question of all 14 Western Conference foes – should the Jazz finish ahead or behind each team?
Our answers on seven WC teams are below, and the other seven will follow in part two.
Aaron: Short answer: No.
Long answer: Still no.
Yes, a lot of people (including Zach Lowe) have talked about how Utah’s length and versatility could cause GSW fits, but we are still talking about the team who lost Harrison Barnes and added Kevin Durant. The Warriors won’t be chasing the record this season, but they’ll still easily end up as the #1 seed, even if the Jazz give them some close-ish games.
Dan: Yeah, not a whole to debate here. They won 73 games and then added a perennial MVP candidate. Jazz won’t catch them, and that’s fine. Probably nobody else will either.
Dan: I’m 50/50, but for now I have Memphis penciled in 4th. This is where conventional wisdom starts to splinter. I didn’t LOVE Memphis’ summer, but that’s mostly because I’m not all-in yet on Chandler Parsons. That said, I think I’m somewhat high on the Grizzlies even before that acquisition. They were on a 48-win pace before all hell broke loose on the injury front, and that was with Tony Allen and Matt Barnes starting on their wings. If Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are in an upright position for 70+ games, I think they still have to be considered the cream of that sub-elite crop. (I also really liked their draft, and the Troy Daniels pickup has some sneaky upside for a team that could use shooting.)
Aaron: For Grizzly fans there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic and several reasons to be nervous. With Gasol’s and Parsons’ injuries, you could see things going a bit south on them. However, as you said, they had all sorts of injuries and still managed to make the playoffs. Gun to my head I am picking Memphis over the Jazz, but with roster changes and a new coach, I could see them coming up short.
Aaron: Unpopular opinion alert: I actually didn’t hate Portland’s off-season. Obviously I agree that they overpaid Evan Turner and that he isn’t an ideal fit (given his need to have the ball), but I still think they added talent and lost very little talent. Considering they were a 44-win team last season and then added talent and have another year of youth development, I think they could win 48+ games. Ultimately, however, I think Utah has an overall better roster and will end up with more wins than Portland. Don’t be surprised though if the Blazers are fighting the Jazz for playoff seeding.
Dan: My objections to Portland’s offseason moves were less about the short term. They’re clearly banking on a lot of internal improvement, and that’s a fine gamble for a team that, frankly, is a bit ahead of schedule anyway. My problem is that they have committed way too much salary to (mostly) role players. Even if they waive everybody without guaranteed salary next summer, they’ll be over the tax with just nine guys. So I just don’t see how they can put themselves in a position to take the next step, roster-wise. But back to the question at hand, I think Portland will be similar in overall quality to last season. I’d bet on the Jazz leapfrogging them. Utah was in the same tier as them last season (and by pythag wins/point diff, was even better). Portland certainly didn’t get worse, but the Jazz got a lot better.
Dan: This largely comes down to a question about how much we believe in former Dubs Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, right? We largely know what they’ll get from Dirk (with some margin of decline), so it’s really about how much of an upgrade Barnes provides over Parsons (if at all), and what Bogut offers (he was 6.4 Wins Over Replacement player last season). Rick Carlisle will still employee his druid magic to get the team across the .500 line, but my guess is the Mavs are a step behind the Jazz.
Aaron: I think Dallas is the last team that shares or close to shares a tier with Memphis, Houston, Oklahoma, Portland and Utah. After the Mavericks, I think the quality of teams really drops off. However, even with Carlisle’s voodoo, I’m not sure how the Mavs climb higher than the 6th seed with this squad. Dallas has the 5th oldest team in the NBA, and i’m willing to bet that age will show, especially as the season goes along. With all of that, put me in the camp that says Dallas will be trailing Utah (to some degree) all of next season.
Aaron: Am I the only one that is confused by the amount of love New Orleans is getting for this upcoming season? Their off-season consisted of losing their two best perimeter shooters and adding Solomon Hill for $12M/year. Obviously they are unlikely to have the same injury onslaught that afflicted them last season, but their personnel just got significantly worse, even if their defense does improve. I think the Pelicans are the first team in this list where I can confidently say there is no realistic scenario that has Utah trailing New Orleans come April 2017.
Dan: I’m with you on that, although clearly most of the love is due to the fact that they have a guy who should be an MVP candidate for the next 10 years. So from that standpoint, I get that there’s going to be some built-in optimism. I also think their moves – while they maybe look like downgrades in an overall sense – have some purpose. They added defensive players and jettisoned guys who could get buckets but were essentially turnstiles on the other end. So I think they’re heading in a good direction, but they’re clearly behind the Jazz.
Aaron: While we are on the topic of future potential, the Denver Nuggets have built themselves a uniquely interesting roster comprised of youth and experienced vets. Unfortunately for them neither their veterans (Gallanari, Faried, and Wilson) or their youngsters (Jokic, Mudiay, and Harris) are good enough to push them into the playoffs this season. Side note: to me the Nuggets should be exploring trade options for their veterans given their contract situations. You have to think they could get something noteworthy to build them an even brighter future.
Dan: Probably a good call on the trade front, since they aren’t in a position to be really competitive anyway. They have an interesting mix of vets and youth, but all of their young guys are at stages where they have more questions than answers. For example, Emmanuel Mudiay had the worst WS/VORP in the league last year, because he was extremely inefficient and mistake-prone, yet kept getting more minutes. Nuggets fans should be prepared for some bumps along the road, even if a couple of their recent lotto picks could pan out in the long run.
Dan: Easy one. Sorry, Earl. (Though I am pretty curious to see Dragan Bender in the NBA.)
Aaron: The Suns won’t be competing for anything except a top 5 pick next season. But going forward, given their super draft pick situation, they will be an interesting team to watch. Jazz won’t be scared of going to Phoenix for a while though.