Aside a few good and unexpected story lines, the 2016-2017 NBA season has balked down to a pattern we have become familiar with just over a month since tip off as the usual suspects are putting up their usual acts in front of the audience. Yes nobody saw this-nine wins and nine losses- coming from the Los Angeles Lakers same way nobody saw them ever going above last season’s feel good story, Portland Trailblazers.
As it sets sight on New Orleans Pelicans away from the Staples Center, Lakers sit in eight place in the Western Conference on the back of a string of impressive victories fronted by renaissance man gunner Nick Young. Over in the east, the surprise packages don’t exactly cut it in Lakers style as the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls good start wasn’t as far fetched as that in the city of Angels.
In Atlanta’s case, incorporating a non shooting old school Center in Dwight Howard threatened to derail everything built up in the Mike Budenholzer pass heavy system. Chicago on the other hand, is somehow getting wins with a starting roster rife with sub par shooters. Quick reminder, the Bulls shouldn’t get carried away with its 10 wins in 16 games start since the side opened last season with a similar record (10 wins in 15 games) only for it to miss out on a playoff spot. Many variables can account for that, injuries being one of them, but ultimately the side missed out on the postseason lineup right after Tom Thibodeau was replaced by Fred Hoiberg.
I still have my doubts on Hoiberg who couldn’t get Jimmy Butler or Dwayne Wade free for a three point shot late in the game against Denver Nuggets; Bulls would go on to lose 107-110 with Isaiah Canaan taking and missing the final shot.
Now moving onto the not so surprising acts of the season surely will feature two sides from the west who ironically disappointed last season. As the 2015-2016 wound down, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz got strapped in a battle for the final playoff spot in the conference until Utah fell at the hands of the Lakers and Houston took care of business. In his final game of a 20 year career, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points to ensure one of his many mentored players (James Harden of the Rockets) will make the postseason after a largely disappointing campaign that got Kevin McHale sacked. Sure enough, Houston got pummeled by Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. Fast forward to the ongoing campaign and both sides are right where forecasters pegged them at; Houston in fourth place fueled by a barrage of three point shots and Utah in seventh.
For the Jazz, this season is crucial to the fortunes of the side and its many young talented players. Failure to reach the postseason would extend Utah’s drought to five seasons and more importantly play a vital role in team leader Gordon Hayward’s contract decision next season. Adding veterans Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson to its roster was done to prevent that unfortunate turn from happening and 18 games into the season, the move is proving to be a wise one. Hill is playing better than he has in a long time and Johnson and Diaw are letting the playoff rich CV’s shine through.
First off, the trio’s presence was massively influential in steadying the ship when Hayward missed close to a dozen games with a broken finger. In the immediate past, the side would have crumbled mainly due to naivety because minus the aforementioned trio and Hayward, Utah’s starting five features players with four years or less playing time in the league. Despite the good start, Utah’s matchup against Houston represents the chance for the side to announce its presence as a worthy playoff candidate that should be taken serious and one that is here to stay should it win. Failure to do so, and the Jazz might not be able to get over that mental block in taking the next step as early as it might be in the season.
Having already lost 102-111 to Houston Rockets earlier this month courtesy Harden’s 31 points, 10 assist double-double, Utah’s vaunted defense must double down on the bearded magician to score a much needed win over a conference foe.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah