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Utah’s Dante Exum can’t catch break, done for season with torn patellar tendon

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The basketball gods have not been kind to Dante Exum. After playing a full 82 games his rookie season, injuries have limited him to playing in just 37 percent of the possible games since. That includes a torn ACL in his left knee in 2015 and missing time last season with shoulder surgery, not to mention getting in just 42 games this season.

Now he is done for the season again with a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee, the Jazz announced Friday. Exum will seek opinions on how to best treat the injury, according to the team.

The patellar tendon ligament connects the bottom of the kneecap to the shin. Put simply, you need it to run and jump, two things kind of important to play basketball.

Recovery times on patellar tendon injuries vary, but the Thunder’s Andre Roberson has missed this entire season because of one. Some players return more quickly, your mileage may vary.

This is a real blow to  Exum and the Jazz. The franchise gambled on him last summer signing him to a three-year contract, and he has $19.2 million fully guaranteed over the two seasons after this one.

 

 

Utah, Memphis reportedly talking Mike Conley trade

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Ricky Rubio has been a solid point guard for the Jazz, a guy who knows how to run an offense, is a gifted passer, and is a strong defender, but he has limitations. Rubio does not space the floor with his shot, which allows teams to help off him and clog the lane for Donovan Mitchell drives.

Mike Conley would be a healthy upgrade over Rubio and he is available via trade. The Grizzlies’ point guard is a borderline All-Star player (he missed out again this season because of the depth in the West) who also is a quality perimeter defender. Conley also makes $30.5 million this season with $67 million on the books for the two seasons after that.

That’s a lot of money for the Utah Jazz to commit to, but they are talking with the Grizzlies about a possible trade, reports Andy Larson of the Salt Lake Tribune.

As the trade deadline approaches, the Utah Jazz have made an offer to the Memphis Grizzlies involving Ricky Rubio and a 2019 first round pick for point guard Mike Conley, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.

The Grizzlies didn’t immediately accept the offer, though considered it in the context of other offers that they’ve been getting for Conley from other teams around the league. Memphis says they’ve received offers including better first round picks than the Jazz’s — currently slated to be the No. 19 pick — from teams around the league. One team reportedly also interested in Conley is the Detroit Pistons, sources said.

As a result, the Jazz may have to weigh whether or not to include additional picks or assets if they choose to acquire Conley before Thursday’s trade deadline.

To make the deal work financially the Jazz would need to throw in either Derrick Favors or Dante Exum, and there would need to be other pieces in that deal. Still, that the Jazz are even willing to have this discussion and take on this financial commitment is a big step for a smaller market team. It shows how much they want to win.

The Jazz believe they have two cornerstone pieces in Rudy Gobert and Mitchell, although Mitchell is still developing and exactly what his ceiling is remains to be seen. Even with them and some quality role players around the duo, the Jazz need more elite talent. Conley is that. He would be a great fit, just an expensive one.

There seems to be more interest in Conley than Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies, but salaries that large tend to get moved over the summer rather than at the deadline. Still, this is something that bears watching.

NBA Power Rankings: Golden State is back on top and it feels like a return to normalcy

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Things seem back to normal, or at least back to what we expected, with the Golden State Warriors back on top of the rankings. Their biggest threats in the playoffs probably come more from teams in the East, not the West.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-14, last week No. 3). Golden State has won eight in a row, so are we done with the “what’s wrong with the Warriors” stories? DeMarcus Cousins is now the starting center for Golden State, and while he’s still shaking off the rust and adjusting after a year off (to recover from a torn Achilles), he already brings a lot to the table. His three-point shooting, his playmaking out of the midpost, his solid screens, and his ability to be a big body in the way on defense all give the Warriors a dimension they have not had since Andrew Bogut during the first title run (but Boogie is a better version of that player).

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (34-12, LW 2). Winners of five in a row, due in part to the fact Eric Bledsoe getting hot in those games — 21.6 points per game on 57.7% shooting, plus he’s dishing out 5 assists a night and is +16.4 per game in those contests. Can Bledsoe take that show on the road? Starting Sunday the Bucks head out for 8-of-10 away from their new arena, where they are 13-8 on the season with a +5 net rating — they are still good away from home, but not the same dominant force.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (36-13, LW 1). The Raptors are 25-11 in games that Kawhi Leonard has played this season, but maybe more impressive is they are 10-2 when he rests. Which he has done a lot of this season as Toronto tries to keep him happy and healthy. Leonard will be an All-Star, and it’s possible (despite a slightly down season) that Kyle Lowry will be in Charlotte, but what about Pascal Siakam? He has risen to a spot of vital importance in the Raptors’ rotation, so much so that with the game on the line Nick Nurse called an isolation for Siakam. And it worked.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (31-14, LW 5).. It’s not going to be fair to the team with the second best record in the West, but likely Nikola Jokic will be their only All-Star. Yes, Jamal Murray has a strong case, but the West is just so stupid deep with good guards that quality players are just not going to make the cut (Curry, Harden, Lillard, and Westbrook are locks, that leaves maybe one spot for Murray or Conley or Thompson or Booker or Fox… the West is so deep). Denver deserves two but may not get it.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (31-17, LW 8). This feels a little high for Philly, but they have won 4-of-5 and that includes blowout wins over Indiana and Houston. The Sixers have hit their offensive strides in those last 5 games, and their defense remains strong. Joel Embiid should be a lock as an All-Star Game starter in the East, but it will be interesting to see if Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons get voted in by the coaches. Will the coaches punish Butler for torpedoing Minnesota at the start of the season?

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (31-15, LW 4). Victor Oladipo deservedly will make the NBA All-Star Game as a reserve voted in by the coaches, but do the surprising Pacers deserve two players in Charlotte? It’s tempting to say yes, but who is their second best player? Myles Turner? Does he really deserve to go? Domantas Sabonis is probably their second best player and could win Sixth Man of the Year, but does a reserve deserve to be an All-Star? Tough stretch coming up for Indy, 5-of-7 on the road ant the two home games are the Raptors and Warriors.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (29-18, LW 9). Winners of four in a row and 8-of-11 (although the only road win in the group was at Atlanta). The most impressive of those wins was against Toronto, and Boston went on a clutch 17-2 run late to make it happen. The Celtics have played up and down all season, but they have risen to the level we expected of them in recent wins against Indiana and Toronto, now they need to sustain it as the home stretch continues for 5-of-6. Saturday they can measure themselves against the red-hot Warriors.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (29-18, LW 7). Oklahoma City gets a lot nightly out of its starters — Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Steven Adams — as they are +14.3 per 100 possessions this summer. Sub Dennis Schroder in for Westbrook and that lineup still thrives. After that things get more inconsistent, but when they get big nights from the bench like they did Tuesday against Portland this team can hang with anyone. Interesting test Sunday night at home against the Bucks.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (29-20, LW 10). Portland has gotten strong play out of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic of late, but after them things drop off fast. Evan Turner and the strong bench that carried the team early in the season does’ show up nightly, especially on the road right now. Despite that Portland has the fourth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games (119.4 offensive rating) and when the team can get just a few stops it can rack up wins.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (26-20, LW 6).
Clint Capela has missed four games, and in those games James Harden has scored 200 points, and the Rockets have gone 2-2. Houston has got 3-4 in their last 7 as teams are starting to give Harden a version of the defense used against Jordan and Steve Nash — let him score a lot, just don’t let him get anyone else involved and they’re vulnerable. The Rockets need other stars to step up. Chris Paul is expected to return this week, that will be a huge boost for Houston.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (26-22, LW 11). Ricky Rubio has returned from injury (he came off the bench Monday against Portland) and he is needed with Dante Exum and Raul Raul Neto still out). Donovan Mitchell has found his groove again, in his last five game he’s score 30 points a night average with an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, all with an increased usage rate (35.6%). Friday and Sunday it’s a home-and-home against Minnesota, which leads to the always fun Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns matchup.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (27-21, LW 12). Most teams count on their starters to get them a lead and hope the bench can hold it, but for the Spurs their starting five — Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge — are +0.4 in their last 15 games, basically playing other starters to a standstill. It’s the bench and its three-point shooting that give the Spurs the lead. After a tough game Wednesday against Philly, San Antonio hits a soft part of the schedule for the next week plus (not all gimmies but winnable games) and they need to rack up wins to pad their record in a deep West.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (25-23, LW 18). One of the biggest changes in Brooklyn this season (especially the past month as the team has pushed above .500) is the ability to close out games. The Nets were terrible at it a season ago but are 10-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes this season (despite a -10.7 net rating). D’Angelo Russell has had big games lately: 34 points against Boston, 40 vs. Orlando, 31 against Sacramento, but in all those games combined he shot two free throws. Russell does not attack the rim and does not draw fouls, and that’s hurting his stock some coming into next season.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (25-22, LW 14). While the Clipper defense has struggled for much of the season (22nd ranked), it was bailed out by the offense. Until recently. In the last five games, the Clippers have scored just 102.8 points per 100, 25th in the league. Injuries that sidelined Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have plenty to do with that, but the Clippers need to find their offense quickly. Los Angeles has started 1-1 on a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road that will decide its season, can the Clippers hang in playoff contention through all of this.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (25-23, LW 15). The Lakers have gone 5-9 without LeBron James but were finally going to get healthy — LeBron could be back this weekend, Rajon Rondo sooner — when Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle that will have him out 4-6 weeks. Ball had been playing well without LeBron — 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds a game shooting 38.9% from three — without LeBron and seemed ready to maybe step up. Now that is on hold. The Lakers are home this week but starting Jan. 29 hit one of their toughest stretches of the season.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (24-24, LW 13). Buddy Hield has a surprisingly strong All-Star case. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the rings, is shooting 45.5% from three, and is the team’s go-to scorer in the clutch (just ask the Pistons, or watch the video below. Hield isn’t going to make it this year — the West is so deep with guards with Curry/Harden/Lillard/Westbrook as locks for the game — but it would be good to at least see him in the three-point contest. The Kings are 1-3 so far on a six-game road trip.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (22-23, LW 16). Dion Waiters wants to play more — he got fined publicly complaining about it — and since his return he’s been solid but not blowing anyone’s doors off at 9.5 points per game, shooting 31.6% from three. He could get his chance to starts soon just because with Goran Dragic out and Josh Richardson running the point the Heat meed all the scoring they can find. The Heat went 1-3 on a recent road trip and still have 8-of-12 coming up away from South Beach.

18. Timberwolves (23-24, LW 19). The fans are trying to vote Derrick Rose into the All-Star Game, and while it’s unlikely the media and players go along with that Rose does remain one of the best stories in the league this season. That leads to a bigger question: If the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, why not give them what they want? Why not put Rose and Dwyane Wade in the game? Rose is still making plays, just ask the Suns.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (22-25, LW 17). Anthony Davis is out for a while and is seeing a specialist, which is never a good sign (not that anyone in New Orleans is noticing, they are still angry about the no PI call at the end of the Rams/Saints game). The Pelicans are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with their MVP candidate on the court and they need to find wins without him, as they did against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs and three games below .500, but if Davis misses much time that could get worse.

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (20-26, LW 23). The Wizards are trying to make a playoff push (they are the nine seed currently, just two games out of the postseason) and to get there they are finding some success with their small-ball lineups that have Otto Porter or Sam Dekker at center. Bradley Beal is thriving in those smaller lineups. Washington got the win in London — and Thomas Bryant got his first game-winner in the NBA — on one of the strangest endings to a game ever, a goaltend with 0.4 on the clock.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (22-24, LW 22). Expect to hear a lot of Kemba Walker trade rumors the next couple of weeks, but I have yet to hear anything credible that the Hornets would be open to a trade — they want to make the playoffs then re-sign Walker next July. Charlotte has gone 4-6 without Cody Zeller (and are lucky to be doing that well, considering the -7.5 net rating in those 10 games) but has won 3-of-4 and need to keep winning to hold off charging Washington for one of the final playoff slots in the East.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (21-26, LW 20). How much does Dallas miss J.J. Barea? The Mavericks are 20-18 when he plays and now 1-8 without him, including losing 4-of-5. Getting Dennis Smith Jr. back will help mitigate some of that, he showed how much he could help against the Clippers in his first game back, scoring 17 points (on 17 shots, but he was a +9). Dallas has its next seven games against teams from the East.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-26, 24). Blake Griffin should be a lock as an All-Star Game reserve voted in by the coaches. Detroit remains just two games out of the playoffs in the East and wants to make a push (the loss to Washington Monday didn’t help) but they need more consistent play out of their guards and wings — Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock have to step up.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-27, LW 21). Are the Magic going to be sellers at the trade deadline? There would be a lot of interest in Terrence Ross, some in Nikola Vucevic (teams love his game but he is a free agent come July, teams are not going to pay much for a rental), and there even is some Aaron Gordon buzz. However, that requires management and ownership to decide to throw in the towel on the season. The Magic are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and may not do that, thinking they would rather make a push for the eighth seed instead.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-32, LW 25). John Collins has been spectacular this season — like consider him for an East front court All-Star Game slot good. He’s averaging 18.8 points a night, is shooting 57.9% overall and 33.8% from three, is grabbing 10.4 boards a game and has a PER of 21.2. He has taken a leap forward this season. Collins probably won’t get the nod because he plays for the Hawks, but he has earned consideration.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-28, LW 26). The Grizzlies — losers of 12-of-13 — are finally open to the idea of trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, something that became public days after the two starts met with owner Robert Pera to talk about the future. That makes the trade deadline more interesting, but actually pulling off a deal for Gasol (declining skills and with a player option for $25.6 million next season) or Conley (All-Star level player but with $67 million guaranteed after this season) will be tough to do before the deadline. These could be July trades, but the buzz will be out there.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-38, LW 27). The Suns will be an interesting team to watch as they move into the trade deadline, they are willing take on salary now for picks and players who can help with their rebuild. However, teams are not giving up young talent easily, which is one reason the deadline likely will be so quiet. Phoenix’s offense has had its moments since the return of Devin Booker, but that hasn’t translated to wins as the Suns have dropped five in a row.

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-35, LW 28). Enes Kanter (who did not travel to London for safety reasons) was back in the starting lineup with Luke Kornet out with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks. That will make Kanter happy, but it doesn’t make the team better — sub Kanter in for Kornet with the regular starters and the Knick offense gets 3.8 points per 100 possessions better, but the defense gets 4.3 per 100 worse. Bottom line, the Knicks have lost six straight and 14-of-15.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-36, LW 29). Wendell Carter has played well and looked like part of the future in Chicago during his rookie season, which is why it’s such a blow he’s out most if not all of the rest of the season due to thumb surgery (he could return for the final few weeks of the season but don’t expect the Bulls to rush him). Chicago had lost 10 games in a row before Monday, when they took on the one team they can beat, the one team below them in these rankings.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-39, LW 30). How many players will the Cavaliers move a the trade deadline? Kevin Love is their best player, but he’s not back on the court yet from his foot issue and no team is taking on his massive contract without seeing him play. Could Tristan Thompson get moved? J.R. Smith, or is he more of a buyout candidate? The Cavs are rebuilding and should look to move any veteran for picks or young players. The Cavs have lost 16-of-17 games.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors still on top

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The NBA season is back, and with it, so are the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, which are put together each week throughout the season.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (Last season 58-24). If a team is the two-time defending champs and made four straight Finals appearances, they start on top. The only question is how motivated the Warriors are during the regular season — which may be less of an issue this time around, listening to the buzz around the team. Keeping Golden State healthy and not letting it build a bunch of bad habits while waiting for the games to really matter again has to be Steve Kerr’s focus. Don’t expect to see DeMarcus Cousins until after you’ve opened your Christmas presents.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (55-27). Don’t read too much into the preseason struggles — that was exactly what coach Brad Stevens needed to get this team’s attention and get them focused on the process. It turns out bringing two superstar players — Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — back into the fold is not simply a matter of plug-and-play, it’s going to take some work. Plus, Hayward is not all the way back yet. Still, with all this depth, the Celtics should own the East.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (65-17). Carmelo Anthony has blended fairly smoothly in the preseason, accepting his role coming off the bench and as more as a shooter working off the ball, now we will see if that continues when opposing defenses start to care. A lot of lineup shuffling in the preseason, which leads to a question: Who will close games for Houston? Chris Paul and James Harden for sure, but after that which two of Anthony, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, James Ennis, and Clint Capela will sit?

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (59-23). Understandably a lot of the preseason focus has been on Kawhi Leonard, but there is another big question for this team (both early and for the full season): What kind of difference does new coach Nick Nurse make? He’s a rookie coach and he’s doing things like talking about changing the starting five based on opponent, but the hope was he would bring a less predictable offense (especially for the postseason). Nurse said he is going to be “fluid” with rotations — read: experimenting — for the start of the season, but this is a deep team that had the best bench in the NBA last season, and it could be better this year.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (52-30). Replacing J.J. Redick with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to start the season is an interesting tactic by Brett Brown (the Sixers starting lineup with Redick was +21 points per 100 possessions last season), but it should do one thing for sure: The Sixers’ defense should be better. And it was top five last season. The question becomes floor spacing on the other end: Ben Simmons is not a jump shooter, Joel Embiid can hit threes but needs to be around the basket, and Fultz doesn’t have the jumper of an NBA two-guard yet (he attempted just five shots from three in the preseason). Defenses will pack the paint on Philly. Also, teams that make the China trip in preseason tend to start slowly the next season.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-34). There are a lot of people on the Jazz bandwagon, some even suggesting they are better than the Rockets. What Utah has going for it is an elite defense (if Rudy Gobert can stay healthy) and continuity from the team that was so good the second half of last season. But after Donovan Mitchell, who is the other shot creator? Ricky Rubio can set guys up, but is he a secondary go-to guy? The Jazz bet big on Dante Exum this summer, he is a guy to watch.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (48-34).. Russell Westbrook is banged up to start the season (he had his knee scoped a month ago and will miss at least the opener), and Andre Roberson is out until December — that second part is a bigger blow than some fans realize. The injuries could lead to a slow start for the Thunder, which is dangerous in the very deep West. Can Terrance Ferguson step up on the wing and give them something?

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (46-36).. Everyone is high on the Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray/Gary Harris starting lineup, and with good reason, especially with Will Barton added to it. The Nuggets will have an elite offense. Two big questions loom for this team: Can their defense (bottom five last season) improve, even up to league average? And, with Isaiah Thomas out who will lead the bench unit? Can Trey Lyles step into that role and thrive?

Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (35-47). The Lakers are going to run this season (they likely will have one of the fastest paces in the league) and that combined with LeBron James distributing from the elbow should lead to an impressive offense, although the lack of true shooters could hold them back a little. The question is at the other end of the court, will the Lakers get enough stops to win? They were sloppy defensively in the preseason. Portland and Houston this week start off a brutal schedule to start the season.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (44-38 LW 18). This may be too low a ranking for a team I am high on. While we should take the preseason with a grain of salt, the Bucks looked like a modern offense under Mike Budenholzer, leaning on three pointers and getting to the rim, avoiding midrange jumpers — and they had an impressive offense because of it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a flat out beast, showing more confidence in his jumper but also finding a lot more room to drive on a team with genuine floor spacing. We’ll see if it carries over, but the Bucks looked more like a threat to the 76ers/Raptors in the preseason.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Preseason wasn’t kind to the new players who are expected to push this team forward, Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, nor did the man with the new contract Myles Turner impress. We’re going to overlook all that for now, this is a team on the tier behind the big three in the East (some think they can push Philly/Toronto) and they should be a tough out every night. Interesting first week game Friday night in Milwaukee.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (48-34). I am high on this team coming into the season — I predicted Anthony Davis to win MVP — but the preseason defensive performance gave me pause. It’s just preseason, but Elfrid Payton is a turnstile (that’s not new) and they were getting torched in the paint to the tune of 65 points a game. We’ll see if that continues when the games matter, but a tough opener against Houston doesn’t help.

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (49-33). The entire NBA, and particularly the Blazers community, is mourning the passing of one of the best and classiest owners in the league in Paul Allen. Making the playoffs 23 times in 30 seasons, doing things the right way, he’s a model owner. The road forward will be interesting (the league would not allow this team to be moved, and the lease runs through 2025 anyway). The Trail Blazers open the season on national television Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers and can make a statement then.

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (47-35). Injuries have decimated the guard rotation: Dejounte Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, his backup Derrick White tore his plantar fascia, and Lonnie Walker IV tore the meniscus in his right knee (the latter two are 6-8 weeks, maybe a little more. In a West with little margin for error, is that enough to keep the Spurs out of the playoffs for the first time since 1997? DeMar DeRozan is going to have to be the primary playmaker for this team now.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (43-39). Dwight Howard missed all of preseason (with an injured butt, insert your own joke here), but is now practicing with the team and could play in the opener, just in a more limited role. Once again we enter the season saying we like the Wizards players individually — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter — but as a team how do they really take a step forward from good to great?

Heat small icon 16. Heat (44-38). The Jimmy Butler trade saga hangs over this team a little (nobody likes hearing their name in trade talks), but this is a solid team and it’s Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” so its worth tuning in to watch him put on a show. Get wins against Orlando and Charlotte the first week of the season and it will be easier to tune out all the trade chatter (which has died down a little of late anyway).

Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (42-40). Their starting five has potential — Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, and Marcin Gortat — if they can stay healthy. Off the bench is the Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, plus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who impressed at Summer League and through the preseason. Healthy, this could be a playoff team, but the Clippers are littered with players prone to injury and not living up to their potential. Brutal first few weeks of the schedule for Los Angeles, including the Nuggets, Thunder, and Rockets this week.

Grizzlies small icon 18. Grizzlies (22-60). One of a few teams in the West (along with the Clippers and Mavericks) where I can envision a scenario where they make the playoffs, but everything has to go right for them. That means Marc Gasol and Mike Conley stay healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. plays like a rookie of the year, and Chandler Parsons gives them something (he’s looked passable in the preseason). That’s a lot of “ifs” in a conference with no margin for error.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (39-43). They have been penciled in to the final playoff spot in the East by a lot of pundits (myself included) based on the potential of Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, and Andre Drummond together (especially with Dwane Casey as coach). It’s also a work in progress that didn’t look very smooth in the preseason. Depth questions also are out there for the Pistons. Still, if they can be solid defensively, they should make the postseason.

20. Timberwolves (47-35, LW 13). Is this too low a ranking, much of it based on the Jimmy Butler trade drama? Maybe. With Butler in the lineup last season the Timberwolves looked like a 3/4 seed kind of squad. On the flip side, chemistry matters in the NBA and good luck finding a team with a worse locker room right now. Also, Butler is going to get booed and it’s going to get ugly Friday night in Minnesota’s first home game (vs. Cleveland). Without Butler in the preseason the Timberwolves defense was a disaster, it’s just preseason but that’s not a good sign.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (36-46). What will new coach James Borego bring to the table? If was can read much into the preseason it’s more three point attempts (and less long twos) and better ball movement and tempo. Rookie Miles Bridges showed some preseason promise and could play his way into the starting lineup eventually. Relatively soft schedule the first month of the season, get off to a fast start and it will keep the “will they trade Kemba Walker?” questions at bay.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (24-58). Fun start to the season Wednesday: Rookie of the Year favorites Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton face off (although the matchup to watch in that game is how Ayton handles the strength and athleticism of DeAndre Jordan). Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. started to show some chemistry in the preseason, but lets see what happens when the games matter and the defenses start to care.

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (50-32). Kevin Love says he is ready to return to the role of a No. 1 option — and the Cavaliers are certainly paying him like one — but the game has evolved and Love has gotten older since he last time that burden fell on his shoulders. There is still potential on this roster in terms of good shooting, at least until Cavs management starts trading them for young players and picks. After opening in Toronto, pretty soft schedule to start the season.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (27-55).. No Lauri Markkanen to start the season (elbow, out at least a few weeks) but there is promise on this roster: Zach LaVine showed some athleticism and looked healthy and efficient in the preseason, and Wendell Carter Jr. continues to impress and is now the starting center for this team (although rough “welcome to the NBA” start in Game 1 against Joel Embiid). How will Jabari Parker look in a Sixth Man role?

Suns small icon 25. Suns (21-61). Firing GM Ryan McDonough nine days before the season started — after letting him make all the off-season moves for the team, including hiring the new coach — is a “the emperor has no clothes” moment for owner Robert Sarver. Deandre Ayton has put up numbers and impressed in the preseason, and Devin Booker will return from hand surgery and be ready for the opener. Jamal Crawford is not a point guard but may end up playing one anyway.

Nets small icon 26. Nets (28-54). Coach Kenny Atkinson has done in Brooklyn what the new coach across the bridge in Manhattan needs to do this season — develop a culture where the players go hard for him within the system. Now the question in Brooklyn is about the talent. How good is D’Angelo Russell really, is he worth a big new contract next summer (he’s a restricted free agent)? Where does Spencer Dinwiddie fit in that mix? Jarrett Allen is expected to make a leap at center, but will he. Where do Caris LeVert and Ronde Hollis-Jefferson fit in? Some potential there, but a lot of questions, too.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (29-53, LW 22). For new coach David Fizdale, this is a season about building the culture and getting players who will play his way and play hard. Rookie Kevin Knox needs to be part of that and will be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim for the Knicks. Frank Ntilikina has yet to impress me, but then again Emmanuel Mudiay does not look like the answer at the point guard spot either. Just my guess, we see Kristaps Porzingis return this season for the last dozen games or so, not to make a playoff push (the Knicks won’t be that good) but to hit the ground running for his summer work, and to show free agents he will be ready to go next season.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-57). As discussed on the PBT Podcast on teams to watch, I think Orlando will be an interesting team this season — not good, but worth watching. Specifically, when the big and athletic front line of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba are paired. Can those three play together and make it work (it pushes Gordon to the three when he is better as a four)? The Orlando defense should be pretty good this season, the question is where the points are going to come from?

Kings small icon 29. Kings (27-55). Harry Giles impressed in both Summer League and preseason and could be a sneaky candidate to make All-Rookie teams at the end of the season. Marvin Bagley III showed the potential to go get buckets during the preseason, and I like using Buddy Hield more as a floor-spacing three (at least on offense, nothing worked for the Kings on defense). Rough way to start the season: Jazz, Pelicans, Thunder.

Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (24-58). It’s going to be all Trae Young all the time in Atlanta as they let him be the man and take all the shots — and that worked for a game winner against the Spurs in the preseason. It’s also going to mean some growing pains when the real games begin. Rough to have John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon out to start the season with injuries.

How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.