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Utah has talent, but how far can they go without a superstar?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Everybody is hot on teams in the Western Conference this year. The Los Angeles Clippers have several superstars. LeBron James finally has Anthony Davis with the Lakers. The Denver Nuggets are back and as deep as ever. The Houston Rockets are trying something new with Russell Westbrook. The Portland Trail Blazers have revamped much of their roster. That’s not left much room for the Utah Jazz, one of the favorites to dominate the regular season this year.

But the Jazz, who are moving forward with Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis to go with much of the same team they fielded last year, are a team without a superstar. Depth and cohesiveness will be the weapon that Utah tries to wield against its rivals in West this season, and based on the personalities in play, there is real hope they can do just that.

At the core of this hope is one of the league’s best defenses. According to Cleaning the Glass, Utah was first in the NBA in opponent points per possession, effective field-goal percentage, and offensive rebounding rate. The Jazz were also stingy when giving up shooting fouls, and that perhaps made up for some of their inconsistencies on offense.

In 2018-19, Utah was a decent enough 3-point shooting team and a great squad at attacking the rim in terms of percentage. But the Jazz struggled on corner threes, where they took the second-most shots of any team in the NBA. This was coupled with some of the issues in how the Jazz offense ran. With Ricky Rubio at the helm — and in one of his better years, no less — the team lacked a dynamism at times when they needed it most. Without a team effort, it was often difficult for Utah to get something on the board in critical situations.

That’s the same worry that will present itself this season. Both Conley and Davis are great players, but they aren’t the type that will take over a game consistently in clutch moments. The hope is that Donovan Mitchell will be more comfortable in a role he filled last season, playing off the ball as a combo-guard much in the vein of CJ McCollum.

At age 23, there is lots of room to grow for Mitchell. Hyped as a rookie, opinion has started to turn on the Jazz third-year player. Last season for Utah, Mitchell failed to curb his turnover issues. He also didn’t create offense based off of his usage percentage in a way that was more efficient and it had been as a rookie. Mitchell shot 37 percent from 3-point line last year, which was in the 67th percentile for his position according to Cleaning the Glass. It will be massively helpful if Mitchell can continue to grow his game from beyond the arc this season.

Mitchell is more athletic and explosive than some of the other combo guards we’ve seen come through the NBA as of late, and the real question will be whether he can put aside his first instinct and play smarter next year. Jazz fans are hoping for just that, and perhaps having an older mentor in Conley will help push him in the right direction.

To that end, there are some interesting players on the Jazz roster that clash with the idea that this is a “team only” squad. Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum, and Jeff Green are all players who can attack and play outside of the scheme of normal, boring Quin Snyder offense.

Of course, Utah’s strength will still be its team-oriented style. Joe Ingles is now paired with Bogdanovic in the frontcourt, and that should boost the Jazz 3-point shooting numbers significantly. Last year for the Indiana Pacers, Bogdanovic shot a whopping 52% on all corner threes. He also shot 42% on threes in total, and that should boost the Utah offense as both Conley and Mitchell create opportunities on the drive.

In this same concern is the idea that Conley, a significant upgrade over Rubio, can actually shoot the 3-pointer. The former Memphis Grizzlies star is a 37% career 3-point shooter, far better than Rubio’s mark of 31%. That should stretch the geometry of how opposing defenses try to contain Utah, and give everyone on the floor more opportunities to score efficiently.

The Jazz are a team without a superstar, and that’s cause for concern in today’s NBA. Utah’s defense will once again be great — Rudy Gobert will see to that. But when we talk about lacking stars, we’re really asking questions about a team’s ability to create outside of a team perspective. If the Jazz are going to pick a year to test the team-first theory, this would be the one to do it in the Western Conference. Utah should still be a favorite to make it into the playoffs, but how deep they will go will depend on if their new additions can galvanize in time to withstand attacks from opposing rivals.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).

Warriors’ Bob Myers says he would ‘consider’ trading draft pick

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Even if the NBA decides to play a handful more regular season games upon return, the Golden State Warriors are going to finish the season with the worst record in the NBA (they have a 4.5 game “lead” for the worst record). That means they have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick, a 40.1% chance of a top-three pick, and a 47.9% chance of having the No. 5 pick.

Those same Warriors are returning next season with a healthy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, a team with title aspirations.

That’s led to a lot of speculation the Warriors would try to trade down, something Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob confirmed. Warriors president Bob Myers, speaking to NBC Sports’ Bay Area’s Monte Poole, said as much as any executive in his shoes would: He’d consider trading the pick.

“Yeah, we’re going to consider all that,” the Warriors president of basketball operations told NBC Sports Bay Area over the phone, before pausing for a moment. “Now, I don’t know if the headline is going to be that we’re trading our pick. So, be clear that I said ‘consider.’”

On the ProBasketballTalk podcast, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster said if he were in Myers’ shoes he would try to trade down, get a veteran, and land in picks four through six. There he can likely land a player such as Obi Toppin, Isaac Okoro, or Deni Avdija — players who should not go No. 1 but are better poised to help immediately. The problem for the Warriors, or whoever lands the top pick, is this is a weak draft at the top, depressing the value. Dauster described it this way: the top three picks in this draft would go 6-10 most years.

The 2020 NBA Draft Lottery and Draft Combine have been postponed, and the draft itself will get the same treatment soon (it has yet to be officially changed, but everyone expects it).

Until there is a lottery and the Warriors know where they land, it’s tough for Myers to do much more than plan. Just like the rest of us.