In part one of this mental exercise, a pair of SCH writers tried to figure out exactly which Western Conference teams the Jazz will top in the 2016-17 standings.
Here, Aaron Hefner and Dan Clayton go back to work, asking the same question for the remaining seven Western teams: should the Jazz finish ahead or behind each team?
Will the Jazz finish better than the Clippers?
Dan: Barring a major trade by the Clips, no. We can keep talking about their playoff failings and other perceived weaknesses, but that’s a team with two top-10 (ish) players. They won 53 games last year, and that was with Blake Griffin missing 47 games to injury and suspension. Until further notice, they are still part of the West’s upper tier.
Aaron: I think we can agree that an injury to Chris Paul hurts the Clippers considerably more than an injury to Blake Griffin. If CP3 were to get seriously injured and Utah avoided major injuries, and a bunch of other low probability events in Utah’s favor were to occur, then the Jazz could make things interesting, but ultimately picking anyone but Clippers here would be delusional.
Will the Jazz finish better than the Spurs?
Aaron: The Spurs lost Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West, and Boban Marjanovic. And who did they add? Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon and now David Lee. That has to be San Antonio’s worst off-season in recent memory. Their front court was absolutely decimated, particularly defensively. Even with these losses the Spurs still have the ornery but elite Popovich and a legitimate star in Kawhi Leonard to carry this team to another 55+ win season. I wouldn’t bet on Utah leaping the Spurs for at least one more season.
Dan: Yeah, the top of San Antonio’s roster is really good, and their culture is such that it’s hard to discount them, ever. The thing that I keep coming back to that makes them vulnerable is their complete lack of frontcourt depth. Over the past four years, Gasol has missed an average of about 17 games each season, and even LMA has missed between 8 and 13 every year over that span. Based on their roster today, those two just can’t miss ANY time, or you’re suddenly relying on Dedmon or Davis Bertans1 to play 36 minutes. It’s just tenuous, although I get that they might not be done with their roster. I’m not sure what to expect from them this season, but as of right now, I’m keeping them a half step behind LAC on my mental power ranking… and ahead of the Jazz.
Dan: Yes. OKC still has something the Jazz don’t: a top five player. But the 55-win Thunder just got worse beyond the Durant thing. People forget how good Serge Ibaka was before a bit of a rough year. Even though his ’15-16 numbers didn’t look great, he was so important to the defensive choices they made because of his ability to both switch and protect the paint. So the frontcourt rotation went from Ibaka-Adams-Kanter to Adams-Kanter-Ilyasova, which is a downgrade. I like Alex Abrines a lot, but he’ll need some time to adjust, as will rookie Domantas Sabonis. Bright side: a Westbrook-Oladipo backcourt should be fun.
Aaron: To me, OKC just got a lot worse defensively than they did offensively for all the reasons you just described above. Sure, they added Oladipo, who is a long and capable defender, but that doesn’t make up for losing Durant (an underrated defender) and Ibaka (a top 10 defender). Oladipo and Illyasova don’t make up for the Win Shares that left with KD and Ibaka. I think Utah passes Oklahoma, but maybe not by as much as some are saying (unless Westbrook does get traded).
Aaron: The Rockets stand a really good chance of being the best offensive team in the league next season with the added spacing of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and Mike D’Antoni’s free-wheeling style. Unfortunately, they also stand a really good chance of being the worst defensive team in the league with those same additions. Meanwhile Utah may very well have a top five defense and a top ten offense.
Dan: For whatever reasons, I’ve never been a huge believer in any of the Harden/Anderson/Gordon trio, so I’m not convinced. They were obviously a mess internally last year, so it’s hard to know exactly where their baseline should really be, but I think a healthy Jazz team can keep these guys in the rear view.
Dan: Speaking of teams getting some mad love, the Timberpups are starting to get mentioned as a surefire playoff team. I don’t see it. That team has scary potential, but I think the hype train got fired up a bit too early. (Sees that they signed Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill.) Oh, never mind, they’re going all the way.
Aaron: I won’t mock anyone who thinks the Wolves are a dark dark horse to be a playoff team, but surefire? That’s nonsense given the aforementioned fourth – ninth seed logjam. Karl Anthony Towns is almost definitely going to be a top five player in this league, very few are questioning that, but there are real question marks around what potential Wiggins and LaVine realize, particularly in the next season. Now, if this question was about 2018-2019, we would be singing a very different tune.
Aaron: Duh. While I don’t hate the Luol Deng signing, the Mozgov signing was atrocious. Additionally the Lakers, in all likelihood, won’t be getting a 1st round draft pick this year or in 2019. So unless the Lakers can somehow convince a free agent who is actually a quality NBA starter, I don’t see them righting this ship for a little while. And remember, free agency hasn’t been kind to the Buss family in quite some time.
Dan: Hot take: I don’t think the Moz signing was as bad as everyone acts. If that hadn’t been one of the very first reported deals of free agency, I don’t think the online hoops community would have reacted as strongly as it did. $16M annually is going to be low-tier starter money on this new cap, so all they’re banking on is Moz being starter-quality. They’ll either be right or wrong about that being his level, but I don’t think that’s a crazy ask, given how good he was a single season ago. Like, have we all forgotten those feature pieces from 14 months ago about how the Mozgov trade turned Cleveland’s season around? Anyway, I digress… because we agree on the big picture: the Lakers are still going to be bad for a while.
Dan: I feel like we’re going to start to sound redundant at this stage of the exercise. Sacto did add some interesting vets at rotation spots where they were getting pretty inefficient play, but it’s hard to fear a team that hasn’t hit the 35-win mark in more than a decade.
Aaron: While I think Sacramento has made some good decisions of late (e.g. hiring knowledgeable front office folks, hiring Joerger, knowing what the salary cap is), until they truly hit the reset button I am not buying them as a team contending for a playoff spot.