In what feels like a lifetime ago, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving teamed up in Brooklyn to fire off the opening salvo of one of the most chaotic weeks in NBA history. By the time the dust finally settled, all focus was on the new super teams formed in the league's two biggest markets.
As attention was justifiably drawn elsewhere, the Utah Jazz were quietly making themselves a contender. By the end of last season, it was clear their roster didn't cut it. This summer they addressed many of those issues, found a way to modernize their roster and put themselves in a fantastic position to compete in a suddenly wide-open Western Conference.
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The headline of their summer happened early as they finally acquired the star point guard they were after in Mike Conley. They sacrificed some quality depth in Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder but did a great bit of maneuvering to get back a player of Conley's calibre without sacrificing cap flexibility or significant future assets.
Conley is a perfect fit for this team.
Ricky Rubio was a solid floor general, but his offensive limitations put a cap on Utah's playoff potential. In both of the past two seasons, the Houston Rockets were able to hone in on Donovan Mitchell without worry that Rubio would make them pay.
Though it has been a couple of seasons since Conley's last postseason appearance, he is a proven playoff scorer and is very capable of creating quality looks for himself and others under pressure. In the simplest sense, upgrading from Rubio's 31.1 percent from three to Conley's 36.4 percent - which should improve with better spacing in Utah - will help alleviate much of their offensive congestion.
Utah's second massive move was bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic. The 30-year-old wing is coming off a career year and is instantly the best wing scorer Mitchell has played with in his career. Alongside Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic now gives the Jazz a second two-way wing who can shot 40 percent from three and be the offensive focal point when in with the second unit.
Thinking back to their series against the Rockets, there were times the Jazz couldn't run an effective offence at all. They averaged just 97.8 points in the series and once Houston was able to slow down Mitchell, Utah didn't have a Plan B. Now with Conley and Bogdanovic, they have four legitimate offensive creators who can all play and thrive together.
Beyond the two marquee additions, Utah also did a great job adding playoff-calibre depth. Ed Davis is a solid rotation center who is very well-suited to backing up Rudy Gobert. Jeff Green's limitations have become clear over the years but he can hit shots, play hard and give them minutes at the four which they will need to help replace Derrick Favors.
They also brought in Emmanuel Mudiay as a good buy-low option. Bringing in 23-year-old former lottery pick for the minimum is a great low-risk strategy, but is also a clear signal to the other 23-year-old former lottery pick point guard on the roster, Dante Exum.
The Jazz re-signed Exum to a three-year, $33 million deal just over a year ago and clearly still envision him as Conley's primary backup. Mudiay can help in the regular season, but the Jazz would have gone after a more established point guard if they were looking for a playoff contributor. With the necessary annual caveat of if he can stay healthy, the Jazz are relying on Exum to be their sixth man this season.
Even acknowledging the improvements made this summer, it's understandable to still have trepidations about seeing the Jazz as a contender. All the top teams have at least one, and likely multiple, perennial All-Stars. Utah has zero All-Star appearances on the roster. Gobert has a legitimate gripe that number should be at least one, but Utah's hope of making a leap rests on their other young star entering that conversation.
Utah put a lot on Mitchell last season.
Ultimately, it was too much too soon. His scoring jumped to 23.8 points per game in the regular season (15th in the league) but his efficiency took a hit. In the playoffs, Houston held him to just 36.2 percent from the field and he wasn't able to produce as the primary - and often only - offensive creator. That won't be the case this season.
The Jazz have built one of the most balanced lineups in the league. Conley, Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert have all the shooting, defence and athleticism you'd want in a core. The hidden key for that lineup, though, is how Ingles can adapt to his slightly altered role.
In essentially swapping Favors for Bogdanovic, the Jazz replaced one of the better defensive forwards in the league for a superior offensive weapon. Bogdanovic is an adequate defender, but more of a cog in a system than a foundational piece. At worst the Jazz will be a good defensive team given the ultimate safety net of Gobert, but this tweak has put a lot of the defensive onus on Ingles' shoulders.
On most nights, Ingles will draw the opposition's best wing scorer. He's proven capable of slowing down stars before, but a successful playoff run will see matchups against at least a couple of the seemingly dozens All-Star-caliber wings now in the West.
Given the remerging powers in Los Angeles, Utah will not enter the season as anything resembling favourites. That's fair for a team who has won just two playoff series in the past decade but this is a new, far more talented team. They will never be the popular pick to come out of the West, but the Jazz found the perfect time to cash in their chips for a run at a title.
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