The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw them play basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
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Where were the Utah Jazz?
Place: Fourth in the West
Few teams have been in greater disarray since the NBA suspended its season than the Utah Jazz. It was of course All-Star center Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test that stopped the league in its tracks, and All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell’s ensuing positive COVID-19 test furthered a rift that both have since publicly acknowledged. The Jazz have put a positive spin on their two best players not socializing, but the reported quarrel between them reportedly has every bit to do with chemistry issues on the court.
How much their partnership has to do with Utah’s underachievement this season is less clear, as Mitchell and Gobert respectively continued to perform at elite levels offensively and defensively throughout the season. Without them, the Jazz never would have been in line for a home playoff seed when the season stopped. Of greater concern was the performance and availability of Mike Conley, who cost the Jazz three straight first-round picks and a pair of potential rotational players in Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist)
Worse, yet, Bogdanovic underwent season-ending surgery in May on a wrist injury he had played on for months. He signed a four-year, $73 million free-agent contract with the Jazz last summer and was Utah’s second-leading scorer behind Mitchell this season, averaging an efficient 20.2 points per game. It was his signing, along with the acquisition of Conley, that launched the Jazz into championship contention.
NBA Finals odds: +1600
Championship odds: +2500
Conley had a dreadful start to the season, and then suffered a hamstring that cost him seven weeks in the middle of his first campaign with the Jazz. He has been open about his struggles adjusting to a new team after 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, many of them as one of the league’s most underrated players. One strange day in February, the 32-year-old was reportedly benched in favor of Royce O’Neale’s defense, only for the Jazz to reverse course and relegate Joe Ingles back to a reserve role.
Needless to say, it has been a strange season for a Jazz team that had finally seized the NBA’s attention. However, Conley showed signs of returning to Memphis form offensively upon returning from injury, shooting closer to 40 percent from distance and finding his rhythm as a secondary playmaker in an offense dominated by Mitchell. The hope is that four months of rest for his hamstring will help Conley regain some of the quickness that once made him an All-Defensive guard and a longtime on-ball pest.
If the Jazz have any chance of still making some playoff noise in the absence of Bogdanovic, it is with Conley assuming a greater offensive burden. His track record is evidence of his capability. Ingles will share some responsibility, but Conley as an upgrade over Ricky Rubio is the biggest difference between this Jazz team and the one that was run out of the gym by the Houston Rockets in last year’s first round.
(All times Eastern)
July 30: New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 5: Memphis Grizzlies, 2:30 p.m.
Aug. 7: San Antonio Spurs, 1 p.m.
Aug. 8: Denver Nuggets, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 10: Dallas Mavericks, 3 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 13: San Antonio Spurs, TBD
There is a path to the NBA Finals for Utah, but it is not paved with optimism. As currently positioned, the Jazz are fourth in the Western Conference, in line for a favorable first-round series with the overachieving Oklahoma City Thunder, but only one loss separates them from the third-seeded Denver Nuggets and sixth-seeded Rockets. Their eight-game seeding schedule has only a pair of games against the ever-pesky San Antonio Spurs as potential walkovers, so a drop in the standings is not out of the question.
The Rockets and Thunder swapping places would be disastrous for Utah, as Houston’s small-ball style of play is a nightmare matchup for Gobert. Even without Bogdanovic, the Jazz should feel good about its chances against any other likely first-round opponent, even if they are 2-5 against Houston, OKC and Denver this season. It is against either Los Angeles team that Utah would find itself outmatches, although the Lakers seem slightly more vulnerable, given the absence of two rotational players in Orlando.
Any success beyond the second round would require yet another leap from Mitchell, who has severely struggled in each of his two previous playoff appearances, and some luck that has escaped them so far.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Fifth in the West
Finish: First-round loss
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