With the regular season around the corner, we're looking into our crystal ball to get an idea of what's to come in 2019-20. Consider it our last chance to fire off the bold predictions and hot takes that have been simmering all summer long.
Today, the Utah Jazz are our focus.
With the tectonic shifts occurring all over the NBA this summer, picking the Jazz to finish with the best record in the league is admittedly not a flashy choice.
Not only do they not have a true MVP candidate, they don't have an All-Star appearance on the roster. What Utah did do this summer, though, is preserve the core of an already very good team, have arguably the best offseason in franchise history and build one of the most balanced rosters in the league.
Even so, a jump from fifth in the West to the top of the entire league may seem like a stretch. And yet, the leap isn't as large as it may appear.
The Jazz finished last season with a record of 50-32, but their net rating (+5.2) reflected that of a 54-win team. The only teams with a better expected record were Milwaukee, Golden State and Toronto, and it's safe to project at least two of those teams will take a step back this season. Utah, on the other hand, is clearly headed in the right direction.
The motivation behind their offseason plan was clear: add offensive firepower. The end result did just that, headlined by the marquee additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic.
On paper, Conley is a perfect fit. He's the exact type of player the Jazz needed next to Donovan Mitchell. A guard that not only can create good looks for himself and others, but consistently get to the line and stretch the defence off-ball as a capable 3-point shooter. Conely was one of just eight players who shot at least 36.4 percent from three and attempted 5.8 free throws per game last season.
It goes without saying that Mitchell has never played with a guard as offensively gifted as Conley, but Conley could say the same of Mitchell. Both players have spent their entire careers as a lone backcourt creator and now are put in a position to thrive alongside each other.
Conley should even benefit from playing alongside Joe Ingles, who averaged a career-best 5.7 assists per game last season. The Jazz will likely run a lot of their offence through Ingles when one of Michell or Conley aren't on the floor, allowing whichever one of them is on the court with Ingles to play more off-ball.
Adding Bogdanovic to the mix as well will do even more to boost what was a pretty average offence last season. He's coming off a career year in Indiana, but even if he won't put up 18 points a night in Utah, he will continue to be a wonderful off-ball threat. He and Ingles give the Jazz two of the best floor-spacing forwards in the league with both players making over 40 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s last season.
Having all of these offensive threats around him should do wonders for Mitchell's game. He struggled at times to support the offence last season, with the lack of scorers around him allowing defences to collapse on his drives and prevent lanes to the basket. Mitchell settled far too often for bad mid-range looks and got to the line less often than almost any other high-volume shooter.
Now with Conley, Ingles and Bogdanovic all spacing the floor and Rudy Gobert in the middle as a dangerous lob option, Mitchell is in a great position to have the breakout year many expected to see from him last season.
With all that said, the Jazz did make some sacrifices to acquire all of this offensive talent. Ricky Rubio was an expected departure after the Conley trade but there will be times where Utah misses his perimeter defence. Same with Jae Crowder, who is coming off a down year but remains a very capable wing defender. The Jazz were able to find like-for-like replacements for Rubio and Crowder, but the player they couldn't really replace was Derrick Favors.
Favors was outstanding in the Jazz defence. He was capable of both playing alongside Gobert and as the backup center in the second unit. Bogdanovic will start in his place and is a clear offensive upgrade, but he isn't nearly the rebounder or rim protector that Favors provided this team. The newly acquired Ed Davis should help replace some of that rebounding, but the rim protection burden will fall to Gobert.
Gobert is the best rim protector in the league and the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, but the roster changes have put more on his shoulders than ever before. If he can keep this group a top-10 defence for the fifth-straight season, Gobert will be a clear favourite to become just the second player to ever bring home three-consecutive DPOY awards.
If the Jazz do manage to stay a top-10 defence and improve to a top-10 offence - they were 1.3 points per 100 possessions behind 10th last season - Utah will have a great shot to finish with the best record in the league. Just 19 teams have been top-10 on both sides of the ball over the past five seasons, and those teams finished with an outstanding average record of 58-24.
Even beyond the talent upgrades, the Jazz appear to be prioritizing the regular season far more than other teams in the West. The presumptive conference favourites in LA and Houston know they can go on the road and win a playoff series as a lower seed. Homecourt advantage would mean far more to Utah than it does those other teams.
In the era of load management, the Jazz push their players as hard as anyone. Last year, six Jazz players appeared in 75-plus games during the regular season and five appeared in at least 74 games the year before. Quin Snyder will likely push his team just as hard this year, which should give their regular-season record a boost over teams more likely to prioritize rest.
If they can stay healthy, all signs point to the Jazz putting it all together this season. They have the talent to compete with anyone on a given night and both Mitchell and Gobert seem motivated to push for their first All-Star appearance. Whether the Jazz should be viewed as a top title contender is another question, but this team has a fantastic chance to finish the year with the best record in the NBA.
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