Opinion

The Jazz Will Win The West And You’re Not Ready For It

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Everyone seems so infatuated with the idea of LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers and the Warriors somehow adding another All-Star to their starting five in DeMarcus Cousins, but why do we not think that the Utah Jazz are going to make some serious noise?

Sure, you could point the finger at Donovan Mitchell and try to find a justification for doubting his rookie success, but let’s be honest for a minute. Coming out of Louisville, Mitchell was extremely hesitant to even enter the NBA Draft but ended up doing so anyway. This led to Utah getting the steal of the draft near the halfway point in the first round in what seems to be the new franchise cornerstone.

Nobody saw that until the last half of the regular season, though.

Utah was just about to be ten games beneath .500 and more than a marathon away from even breathing the NBA playoffs, but they turned things around quickly and couldn’t have done it without Mitchell. In a blink, Utah and Portland basically had a one game showdown in the regular season finale for the third seed, but losing that game might’ve been best for the Jazz.

The Trail Blazers ended up with the worst match up possible in New Orleans, which led to an embarrasing sweep while the Jazz pushed past the Oklahoma City Thunder and on to the second round. Houston ended Utah’s cinderella run handily in the second round, but if the Jazz had faced Golden State instead, it might’ve been a very different story.

Now that the Rockets will look much different without Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and possibly star center Clint Capela, Houston won’t be nearly as dangerous as people would like to think. I got a lot of flack for saying that they wouldn’t make the playoffs last season, but that prediction depended on Chris Paul not being able to finish the season healthy which wasn’t an x-factor until Game 7 of the conference finals.

Now you’ve got Paul coming off of another injury after paying him max money in the off-season, and the only dependable piece of your starting five is James Harden. While Harden is the reigning league MVP, he’s not able to carry this Rockets team by himself, let alone to the point where they’re a legitimate threat to a better or more well-rounded team.

Mitchell is by no means at Harden’s level individually yet, but he’s good enough to give him a run for his money. Mix Mitchell’s efforts at the two spot with a tremendous Utah defense that ranks as one of the best in the NBA and you’ve got some problems for the supposed juggernauts. Given all of the changes that the Rockets have dealt with this summer, there’s room to believe that if they were to meet Utah again in the playoffs, it would have a much different result than last season.

Now for the Lakers. I can’t believe the kind of hype behind James joining the Lakers, and I know I’ll sound crazy for saying that — but how do you really expect his first season to go?

Lonzo Ball is going to be in his second season, and while he is good, the reality will set in quickly that the two just won’t mesh the way people hope for. It’s wishful thinking to believe that LaVar Ball isn’t going to be a factor in all of this, either. If he couldn’t keep some of his comments to himself last season and caused drama by calling out locker room situations and getting to Luke Walton when the team didn’t even win half of their games, it’s only fair to expect his commentary to be amplified to the nth degree with the focus now shifting to reaching the NBA Finals.

Also, despite the immense success of the career that LeBron James has put together, he’s never faced something so distracting and frustrating as what LaVar Ball could be during his time in Los Angeles. In Cleveland, he might’ve dealt with an out of line owner, and in Miami he might’ve dealt with all of the hate for leaving his hometown, but dysfunction from within the Lakers is something poised to make the blunder by J.R. Smith in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in June look like a fun pastime.

You can’t expect this to be all smooth sailing and if you ignore the serious potential for major chemistry problems, you’re blinded by hype.

If the Jazz and Lakers find themselves in a playoff series, it again will be the consistency that the Jazz have in terms of a tone and game plan that will counteract the unpredictability of the new look lake show.

Utah finished as the fifth seed only because they lost to Portland in the regular season finale and lost a tie-break with OKC. If we’re looking at the full picture, the Thunder will be better without Carmelo Anthony, but still not good enough to take down the Jazz.

What killed the Jazz in certain moments of their first round series with Oklahoma City this last season was the fact that they were still trying to understand how to play in the big moments. Now with a season under their belt with Mitchell at the helm, the Jazz are bringing basically the same team back into the fight. Joe Ingles caused some problems for Paul George in the postseason, and Ricky Rubio was able to get under the skin of Russell Westbrook pretty easily.

You could argue that the gap in how good they’ll be this year without Anthony will be bigger than I’m projecting, but that’s assuming Paul George doesn’t disappear in the playoffs like he did a season ago. But if you think that how George performed with the season on the line in an elimination game for the Thunder was acceptable, then you can reap what you sow for trusting in him again.

Last but not least, the Golden State Warriors are the last on the list of teams that could really give Utah any sort of competeition at the top. Every other team in the Western Conference will be stuck in the bottom four of the playoff standings or below and it will be an all-out dog fight just to get into the top eight spots.

While some might think that the Warriors bringing on DeMarcus Cousins was a good thing and makes the NBA Finals even more predictable from the Western Conference, they’re wrong. Cousins has caused drama in every locker room he’s played in, and that’s not going to change just because he’s around Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

Add to that the fact that Thompson will be entering what could be his last season in Oakland. As a free agent next summer, a potential new landing spot for the shooting guard could be Los Angeles and this could be the season where the Warriors start to lose focus. Durant will also have a player option he coulde exercise next summer, and if they don’t come flying out of the gate to start the season, things will get hectic for them fast.

Also, Utah had Golden State’s number fair and square during their regular season meetings last season. While the Warriors won the first of four clashes 126-101, the Jazz dominated the latter three and didn’t allow Golden State to crack triple digits after the first game. Utah won the next three head to head matchups by point differentials of 30, 19, and 40 — while Golden State was healthy.

In the fourth game, the Jazz did so well defensively that the Warriors scored just 79 points.

Since adding Cousins opens the door for more chemistry problems while the Jazz have remained the same, I believe that Utah will come out on top in the West. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll have the first overall seed in the playoffs, but they’ve got all of the right tools to persevere and make it out alive and earn a berth in the NBA Finals.

The Jazz are going to win the best conference in basketball, and none of us are ready for it.

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