NBA legend Karl Malone made a visit to the NBA TV studios on Tuesday night, and while his analysis came down to stuff like “He’s really good” and “I like the way he plays,” I will give him credit for one thing he pointed out: Utah is deep, talented, and is probably the biggest sleeper in the entire Western Conference. Of course, the Mailman admitted he’s biased. But he’s still right. And while Kevin Love‘s injury might finally put more of a spotlight on the Jazz and their criminally underrated frontline, it also could have a major effect on which teams end up making the playoffs.
Take a look at the Western Conference. There are six definite playoff teams: Denver, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Lakers, San Antonio and Memphis. Even in worst case scenarios, a second Malice at the Palace would have to go down to keep one of those squads from sitting out the second season.
That leaves us with – probably – four teams (possibly five if Damian Lillard can lockdown the lead guard spot for Portland) battling for the final two spots. Golden State has talent. They have one of the league’s most underrated players in Andrew Bogut, and another in Stephen Curry, whose creaky ankles could be the only thing keeping him out of the All-Star conversation. But they’re a flimsy bunch, prone to injuries and team issues. Quite frankly, we never know what to make of the Warriors, and to consider them a playoff team is reaching.
Dallas could get there, but they’re busy incorporating an entirely new backcourt while Dirk Nowitzki is resting a bothersome right knee. Before Kevin Love broke his hand, which according to Minnesota, occurred while the All-Star big was doing “knuckle push-ups,” more than one media outlet picked the Wolves to finish in excess of 50 wins. Initial reports had Love out for up to eight weeks, which as Grantland points out, could keep the man responsible for nearly 30 percent of the team’s scoring and rebounding out for a fourth of the season. Not good.
Now, it sounds like Love’s recovery will take no more than six weeks, a major plus for Minnesota. In the meantime, Derrick Williams and Andrei Kirilenko will rotate back and forth between the two forward spots, as both feel more comfortable at the four and both have had their most success there (AK-47 in Utah early in his career, D-Will at Arizona). Minnesota can also somewhat replace Ricky Rubio‘s production with two of the best backup little guys in the league, even if his injury means we might not get to see the REAL T-Wolves until they’re completely healthy and have a full training camp together under their belts (aka next year).
But no matter what, if Love misses 13 games or 21 or 17, his broken hand opens the door for Utah to finish with the No. 7 or possibly even the No. 6 seed. No one wants to slip in with an eight seed. That means a quick four or five game series against OKC and then the summer. But anything else – even if it means a matchup with the Lakers – at least gives them some hope (Have you seen L.A.’s bench so far? If you’re contemplating bringing back Derek Fisher because you have no other options, well, that tells you everything you need to know.).
The Jazz finished seventh in the league last year with an offensive efficiency rating of 103.7, and yet they go into this season with a new point guard, Mo Williams, capable of actually making shots (Devin Harris struggled for most of the first three quarters of last season before finally stepping it up). Raja Bell won’t be around despite having a roster spot, his minutes being divided out among Marvin Williams, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. Bell did bring somewhat of a physical presence last year, and at least had the reputation as a good spot-up shooter, but in reality, Utah was better with him off the floor. Plus, Randy Foye took and made a higher percentage of triples last year anyway, and he’s continued that in his first preseason in Utah (he’s 6-for-11 from deep in Utah’s last two games).
But perhaps most importantly, the team not only kept together the most underrated frontcourt rotation in the league, they enhanced it. We all know about Al Jefferson, one of the best one-on-one post players in the league, and Paul Millsap. Both finished in the top 20 in PER last year. Derrick Favors is on the cusp of breaking out, and even Jazz color guy Matt Harpring is talking this preseason about Favors’ “relentess motor.” I’ve been watching the Georgia Tech product since he was in high school. That was the only thing stopping him from becoming a nightmare for opposing defenses. The 6-10 Dwight Howard clone (check the pre-draft measurements) improved so dramatically throughout last season that after recording six double-doubles in the first three and a half months, he wrapped the year up with seven in April alone, and two more against the Spurs in the playoffs.
Even Enes Kanter looks completely different, having lost at least 25 pounds (I’m not buying the reports of 51), and is poised to not be a complete nuisance on the floor. In the preseason, he’s been absolutely fantastic, scoring in double figures in all five games and averaging 10.4 boards in barely 20 minutes a night.
Having a surplus of big men to rotate in and our of the lineup helped Utah play volleyball on the glass, and helped them convert at the rim at a higher rate than any team outside of Phoenix (considering Steve Nash led the NBA in assists at the rim, how far do you think the Suns fall in that regard this year?).
The Jazz play hard, they play smart, they’re a fantastic rebounding team – always a key indicator of success – and they improved over the summer. Watching them abuse the shorthanded Lakers on Tuesday night, even while Kobe Bryant went off for 23 points in one quarter, was enough for me.
With some of their main competition dealing with injuries to their major stars, the Jazz must be feeling pretty good going into the start of the season. Now all they need to do is play the super-effective Jeremy Evans more, and they might actually make a top-10 plays or two.
How big of a factor will Love’s injury be on the playoff race out West?
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