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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.

All Cedric Maxwell got for winning NBA Finals MVP was this janky watch (video)

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Just two NBA Finals MVPs who are eligible for the Basketball Hall of Fame haven’t been selected for induction:

  • Cedric Maxwell (1981 Celtics)
  • Chauncey Billups (2004 Pistons)

Andre Iguodala (2015 Warriors) could join them, but he at least has some Hall of Fame chatter surrounding him. Billups is absolutely a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, even if not enshrined.

Maxwell, on the other hand, wasn’t on that level. He never even made an All-Star team. He was just a good player who had an excellent six games against the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.

Really, it’s a neat distinction to be the lone NBA Finals MVP who was never a star. Maxwell can cherish that.

And this watch, which he reveals in this entertaining video.

NBPA reaching out to players, getting feedback on return scenarios

Michele Roberts
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been in information gathering mode since the day he was forced to shut the league down. He’s gathered information from medical experts on how a return would work, talked to owners and GMs about the financial end and what they hope to see, and had conferences with the league’s broadcast partners.

Most of all, Silver wanted to know what the players thought. With the NBA closing in on a return strategy — Friday Silver and team owners will have a conference call that could lead to a decisive plan — players’ union executive director Michele Roberts is taking the return plans to the players for feedback, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It looks like the NBA will return to play in Orlando, with training camps starting in late June and games in mid-July.

The questions to be answered are:

• Do all 30 teams report to Orlando to play a handful of regular season games, getting teams over the 70 game threshold?
• Do just the top 16 teams report with the league jumping straight to the playoffs?
• If the league does go straight to the playoffs, how will that impact player pay, which is tied to the regular season?
• Will there be a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds?
Should the NBA do a 1-16 seed playoff format, or keep the traditional Eastern/Western conference format?
• Will each playoff round have seven games, or will the first round (or two) be best-of-five?

Everything option is still on the table (as officials will be quick to say). However, the buzz around the league has grown louder that just the top 16 teams will go to Florida, and there will be seven-game series for every round, as the league tries to squelch any asterisk talk.

We may know a lot more on Friday. And the players will have their say.

Michael Jordan on tape saying he wouldn’t play on Dream Team with Isiah Thomas

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
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In “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan was asked to react to Isiah Thomas’ explanation of the Pistons’ infamous walk-off. Jordan replied immediately:

I know it’s all bulls—. Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public, that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole.

Maybe there was some projection in that answer.

For years, Jordan has denied any involvement in Thomas not making the Dream Team. Rod Thorn, who was on the selection committee for the 1992 Olympics, has backed Jordan’s version of events.

But Jordan once revealed a different story.

Jordan on Jack McCallum’s “The Dream Team Tapes:”

Rod Thorn called me. I said, “Rod, I won’t play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” He assured me. He said, “You know what? Chuck doesn’t want Isiah. So, Isiah is not going to be part of the team.”

Yes, the Pistons were being poor sports when they left the floor without shaking the Bulls’ hands in the 1991 playoffs. But that neither began nor ended the story.

The Bulls repeatedly disrespected the Pistons while finally overcoming Detroit. That particularly bothered the Pistons, because, on their way up, they paid deference to to the Celtics and Lakers. So, while the walk-off was – even according to Thomas – regrettable, it happened for a reason.

Jordan carrying his vendetta to the Dream Team only escalated matters. Yet, unlike the Pistons for not shaking hands, Jordan receives minimal scorn for his poor sportsmanship. Threatening not to play if a rival player is also included is the antithesis of what people want the Olympics to stand for.

And Jordan is now on published audio admitting that’s exactly what he did. You can listen to him for yourself.

As the best player and marketing giant, Jordan had the power. Thomas felt the consequences.

In 1992, Thomas was a marginal choice for the Dream Team. He wasn’t clearly better than the players who made it on current ability. He wasn’t as great as the players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – who made it on career accomplishments. It would’ve been fine to select Thomas. It would have been fine to omit him.

But it’s a shame he never got proper consideration on merit.

It’s also a shame Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, who coached Thomas in Detroit, is no longer alive to give his account. Did Dally really tell Thorn not to put Thomas on the Olympic team? Did Thorn really tell that to Jordan? Jordan and Thorn are just so untrustworthy on this matter.

Kendrick Perkins: LeBron James-Paul Pierce rift stems from Pierce spitting at Cavaliers bench

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In 2004, Celtics forward Paul Pierce got fined for spitting at the Cavaliers bench during a preseason game.

Why did Pierce do that?

Apparently, LeBron James.

Kendrick Perkins, via ESPN:

When LeBron was coming into the league, he was getting a lot of heat from players. “Oh he’s not going to do that to us. The Chosen One. Wait til he play against grown men.”

So, Paul is talking noise to the bench, right? He’s talking big noise to the Cavs bench. And they’re sitting over there. Bron and them, they’re all sitting over there.

Paul actually spits over there at the bench, right? The ultimate disrespect, OK?

It ended up turning up. After the game, both teams were meeting in the back. Guys was ready to fight. We had to hold people back. It went up from there.

Ever since that moment, LeBron James and Paul Pierce hate each other. They don’t speak to each other.

This was entering LeBron’s second season, not his rookie year. But Pierce was still the established star, LeBron the riser trying to prove himself. As we’ve seen since, Pierce is very protective of his place in the game.

The feud deepened over the years as Pierce’s Celtics battled LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat in the playoffs. Pierce took other shots at LeBron, even indirectly. Most recently, Pierce named a top-five list that didn’t include LeBron.

But spitting? That’s low.

There’s just something about Boston players from that era.