With both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets facing issues this summer, now is the time for the Utah Jazz to aim to strike.
The Utah Jazz have fielded a competitive and exciting team in each of the past three seasons. Unfortunately, while they’ve been a playoff squad each year, they’ve been stopped dead in their tracks on each occasion as they’ve run into one of the West’s two elite squads – the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets.
Although the Rockets were the fourth seed last year due to a slow start, there’s little doubting that they were second only to the Warriors in overall prowess. And while they weren’t one of the final two standing in the West, that had more to do with unfortunate seeding for them than it did with actual talent level.
Both in 2018 and 2019, there were many fans and experts alike that were in agreement that outside of the Rockets and Warriors, the Jazz were the best team in the postseason. Sure, the Denver Nuggets, who were sensational this past year, and the Portland Trail Blazers, who over-achieved despite missing Jusuf Nurkic, may beg to differ and definitely have an argument as earning that title.
However, the Jazz have an argument themselves as one of the more well-rounded, expertly-coached and deep teams in the conference. Factor in their elite stingy defense and it isn’t hard to see why so many were high on Utah the past couple years. Heading into the 2018-19 season, many projections had them finishing second or third in the West, and for good reason. Unfortunately they failed to live up to those expectations, but they were playing some of their best basketball come playoff time.
Even so, despite a solid close to the season entering postseason play, even at their top level (which they failed to reach in the first round unfortunately), the Jazz simply couldn’t keep up with Houston. Had the Jazz been on the other side of the bracket and eventually met up with Golden State, I have a feeling their fate would have been pretty much exactly the same, with or without Kevin Durant in action.
Such had been precisely the case a couple years prior when the Jazz met the Warriors in the second round and were subsequently swept. In other words, if the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that although the Jazz were a good team, they simply couldn’t measure up with the two giants of the West – the Warriors and Rockets.
However, that could very well change in 2020 as both teams currently find themselves in a bit of turmoil.
The Warriors’ turmoil comes in the most disappointing, heart-wrenching way possible, with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffering serious and potentially career-altering injuries. With a ruptured Achilles, KD could very well be out for all of next season. Meanwhile, Klay’s torn ACL will keep him sidelined long into the season. It’s entirely possible that neither will be quite the same afterwards.
Seeing the long-time dominant Warriors going down has caused quite a stir in the West as teams are now jockeying to capitalize on their downfall by bolstering their rosters in hopes of wending their way to a championship in 2020. Such was certainly the case for the Los Angeles Lakers who traded away a major haul in exchange for superstar Anthony Davis.
Could the Lakers become the next top team that the Jazz and others can’t measure up to? Possibly. But they don’t have that reputation in recent history like the Warriors and Rockets do, and they still have a lot of roster construction to do, so we’ll set them aside for now.
With Golden State seemingly taking a step back due to injuries, the team that you’d think would be the most exhilarated would be none other than the runner-up Rockets, who came the closest of any team in the West of dethroning the Warriors, and may have done so had Chris Paul not gotten hurt in 2018. Unfortunately for them, though, they seem to be facing some intense turmoil of their own.
But the Rockets’ woes are entirely different from those of the Warriors. Rather than misfortune striking in the form of injuries, they find themselves facing significant internal strife. Things appeared to start to go sideways when it was announced that Rockets brass was apparently open to trading just about anyone and everyone on the team, including Chris Paul, whose contract certainly could be seen as a detriment moving forward.
After the Warriors’ injury fiasco, though, the narrative seemed to change. No longer was Houston aiming to simply fire sale for fire sale’s sake, they instead wanted to add another star to play alongside Paul and James Harden, difficult though that may be given their salary situation.
But none of that might matter as a recent report from ESPN’s Tim McMahon described in detail the many tensions that are running high in Clutch City. Apparently there is a disconnect between the front office and head coach Mike D’Antoni as contract negotiations continue to drag on and stall. Worse yet, there’s purportedly significant friction between Harden and Paul, with some reports even indicating that Paul actually now wants out of Houston (though Rockets GM Daryl Morey disputed the claim).
Sources close to the Rockets had a flurry of interesting quotes about the dynamic between Houston’s two opinionated and stubborn stars such as–
“It’s always a little contentious when you have two alpha dogs. Ask the Golden State Warriors if they’ve ever had problems between their stars. There is contention there, but they know they’re tied at the hip.”
“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.’”
“There’s too much damn turmoil,” a high-ranking Rockets source told ESPN. “There’s some hard feelings right now everywhere.”
Morey also added the following:
“What you have are two highly competitive guys who were very disappointed that we didn’t beat Golden State. You’ve got two high-level competitors who want to figure out how to win at a higher level, as well. Naturally, people who want that so bad, something that’s so tough, it’s going to create sometimes things that need to be discussed. But it’s all, to me, in bounds of any superstars.”
Add all that up, and even if there’s just a kernel of truth in there, it’s clear that there’s some obvious issues taking place in Houston. A team that should be considered the favorite now that the Warriors are ailing instead could be reeling themselves. And any attempts to blow up the roster could ultimately blow up in their face. Perhaps the opposite could be true, too, but make no mistake about it – based on this recent news there’s a ton of uncertainty in Houston right now.
And as such, just like that, it appears as though at least to some degree the mighty have fallen in the Western Conference. The two juggernauts, Golden State and Houston, now find themselves in two completely varying states of chaos, leaving a window of opportunity for every other team in the West.
The Lakers have already started to strike, and they’re likely far from done as they continue to eye top free agent targets. But other squads are certain to get in on the mix as well, including the Utah Jazz, who may be well on their way to doing just that.
It was reported on Monday that the Jazz are frontrunners to land Mike Conley in a trade – a move that would undoubtedly make them a better team. If Utah was once arguably the best squad behind Golden State and Houston, could adding Conley get them over that hump? I suppose it’s possible.
Then again, every other team will be looking to improve as well and the Lakers may very well be among the first to surpass the Jazz. When one giant falls, another tends to rise in its place.
Even so, the current opportunity is too great of one for Utah to pass on. And they must also do all in their power to try to become the next giant to rise in the place of the former ones. Adding Conley could be a great move in the right direction, and it would likely be Utah’s lone significant move of the summer.
Nevertheless, their focus this summer has to be to swing for the fences and do all they can to take advantage of the apparent downfalls that are occurring in Golden State and Houston right now. It’s entirely possible that both could be back on their feet sooner than later, and that new daunting foes such as the Lakers or teams with significant cap space this summer like the LA Clippers could arise.
Championship windows only stay open for so long, and the current situations have produced a significant gap for the Jazz. With Donovan Mitchell entering his third year in the league and Rudy Gobert entering his prime, there’s no time like the present for them to go all in and seek that Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
The Toronto Raptors managed to do as much this past season by taking a huge risk on Kawhi Leonard that paid massive dividends. Here’s to hoping the Jazz can pull off the same and follow Toronto’s lead in 2019-20.