51Q: Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

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Today is day two of PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

The Utah Jazz barely missed the playoffs last season, but virtually no team in the middle tier of the league is as universally adored for their direction. They’re well-coached by Quin Snyder, have a roster that makes sense together and made sensible moves this summer to get better. Barring injuries, they should be a lock to make the postseason for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

In the non-Warriors category, it’s hard to argue that very many teams had better offseasons than the Jazz when it comes to filling holes on their roster without giving up any core pieces. Utah’s weakest position last season was point guard — with Dante Exum out for the year rehabbing a torn ACL, things got so bad that a midseason trade for career backup Shelvin Mack was considered a major upgrade. This summer, they flipped a lottery pick they didn’t really want to Atlanta in a three-team deal that got them George Hill, as solid a starting-caliber point guard as would realistically be available for them. Hill’s playmaking and outside shooting immediately improve Utah’s offense and gives Snyder a rock-solid veteran to take pressure off Exum coming back from missing a full year of action. Even if the Jazz view Exum as their long-term answer at point guard, it’s going to take him a full year to get back up to speed, and having Hill means he has to do less right away.

The Jazz’ other major upgrade came with the signing of seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson to a two-year, $22 million deal. Johnson isn’t a first or second option on offense anymore at this point in his career, but as a veteran scorer off the bench, he can still be effective and should be a great fit in the offense. Taking on Boris Diaw‘s contract could prove savvy, too, if he’s as engaged as he was in San Antonio.

Beyond the roster upgrades, the driving force of all the Jazz optimism this summer is how well all of their young pieces fit together, and the potential for improvement from all of them. Nobody knows what Exum will be, but even if Utah gets nothing out of him, they have an enviable core just entering its prime. Rudy Gobert is one of the most lethal rim protectors in the league at 24 years old. Derrick Favors has developed into an excellent all-around power forward. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood provide a potent scoring combo on the perimeter, and if Alec Burks is healthy, he can help there too.

The Jazz are also the beneficiaries of the shifting balance of power in the Western Conference. The Thunder lost Kevin Durant and while they’re probably still a playoff team, they’re far from a lock. The Blazers spent a lot of money but didn’t necessarily get better, and may have overachieved last season. The Timberwolves, despite having arguably the brightest future in the league, are still probably a couple years away. The Rockets and Grizzlies are still total question marks, and the Pelicans haven’t been able to construct a solid group around Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Jazz are sitting there with the least downside of any of these bubble teams, not a lot of rotation question marks and play in a division without a clear-cut favorite.

Nobody thinks the Jazz are going to be title contenders, but looking up and down the west hierarchy, there isn’t a team that the Warriors or the Spurs should want to face less in the playoffs. And this year, they have the depth to get there.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Wizards (shoulder)

Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is on track to repeat as Most Valuable Player.

So, any game he misses is notable.

Bucks:

Expect to see more Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson. With the trade deadline approaching, this could even be a showcase game for Wilson.

Milwaukee is still favored over the Wizards. The Bucks have outscored opponents by 7.8 points per possession without Antetokounmpo this season. They’re deep.

Of course, anything can happen. It’s only one game in a long NBA regular season.

Which might something to do with Antetokounmpo sitting. Even if he plays in Milwaukee’s next game, vs. the Nuggets on Friday, he’ll get six straight days off. That’s a nice break.