In America’s College ranks, it is termed the elite eight, in other sports, it is termed the quarterfinals but in the world’s best basketball program, the NBA, it is termed the playoffs. Making it into this bracket isn’t much of a big deal if you are Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and a few others but for other teams, making it is a huge achievement.
To know how that is true just ask fans of Minnesota Timberwolves how missing out in the bracket since 2003 has shaped their projection for the team. Or Sacramento fans or Toronto Raptors fans prior to three years of sustained success which culminated in a first ever Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.
Sacramento for the record is yet to feature in the playoffs since 2006 and will be desperately hoping to have that jinx broken in their brand new shiny Golden 1 Arena.
The most common denominator to neutralize tensions that rage on about ranks of legends, that is different times, different situations. Back in the day securing a playoff berth was nothing for Utah Jazz fans. Led by legendary figures Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz was a fearsome side that battled Michael Jordan’s (LeBron James will definitely have a problem with me saying this) Chicago Bulls twice in the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. The team came out of both fixtures losers but that run would be the end of an era; an era yet to be seen again.
Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer did restore postseason basketball in the city but not long and deep enough to match up to those of the aforementioned duo. Matters have turned worse for Utah in light of Williams and Boozer’ moves to Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls respectively.
But ask any NBA General Manager to name the best team with the best chance of making the biggest jump in the league and Utah Jazz will feature prominently. Assembling a core of young players in Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Dante Exum and Alec Burks, the side is blessed with enough talent to make the grade in the competitive Western Conference. Many can point to previous predictions of such ilk with no resonance to actual happenings when the season tips off late October. And they can’t be wrong since Favors, Burks and Hayward have been together since 2011 and have just one playoff appearance to show in 2012 with trio playing lesser roles behind Al Jefferson and Marvin Williams.
Kobe Bryant also made a major bite into Jazz’ playoff ambitions by dropping 60 points on them in his final game to give Houston Rockets the nod to progress beyond the regular season. However, with more additions and some subtractions, the Jazz are primed to finally deliver on its’ roster’s promise by qualifying to compete in the playoffs.
Adding some Spurs flavor to the roster in Point Guard George Hill and Boris Diaw remedies a lot of ills for the team. Hill, is a strong on ball defender whose showings on that end made him a darling boy of Coach Greg Popovich before getting traded to Indiana Pacers. His addition is a major upgrade on what the roster had last season as Raul Neto, the injured Exum and Tey Burke manned the position with mixed results. Burke has since been moved to backup John Wall at Washington Wizards and Hill’s defensive clout which he upgraded further in Indiana looks a perfect fit for last season’s seventh best rated defense in the league according to basketballreference.com.
Diaw and scorer Joe Johnson’s impact on the offensive end will be needed to improve the third worse offense in the league. Aside improving the projected win share for the team, the additions of the trio mentioned above gives Quincy Synder’s side flexibility and depth to play the modern game built on speed and lots of three point attempts. A typical Jazz side is usually big with two big bodies (Favors and Gobert) in the frontcourt with Hayward at Small Forward and Burks and Neto/Exum/Burke in the backcourt. Hayward figures to feature more at Shooting Guard to make room for Johnson with Hill starting as the new alterations to the roster.
Should Utah run into Golden State who will have Kevin Durant at Power Forward and Draymond Green at Center in a small lineup, Synder can mix it up by playing Johnson at Power Forward with Hayward and Alec Burks or Rodney Hood doing same at their natural positions and taking a swing at very mobile big man Trey Lyles in place of the slower Gobert. A lineup like that will have players who can score and run with last season’s losing finalist Warriors and who knows what first year players Joel Bolomboy and Marcus Paige can offer.
The new look Jazz have been effectively built to withstand the tough Western Conference terrain that has playoff openings up for grabs bar for three teams; Warriors, Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah