(Featured Image by ClutchPoints)
By Mark Milligan Jr
Sept 14, 2018
The West is a gauntlet. That much we know. Golden State is the team to beat and everyone else will be scratching and clawing over each other to rise to the top. Very few teams are sitting this season out and at least two or three teams that deserve to be in the playoffs will be vacationing early.
So how good are the Jazz? Good. Very good, in fact. But so is everyone else. This season will depend on everything from talent to luck, including every variable the opposition has to offer. But that also means that for each foe, the road to victory must pass through Utah as well. In this series, we take a look at how the best teams in the West size up against Utah.
See head-to-head series previews for Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, & Oklahoma City Thunder
Coming Soon: Boston Celtics
When you are the single best NBA player in the world (of all time? I’ll let you be the judge), you can play anywhere you want. So why not be the king of La-La Land? Can you blame a guy for living on the beach, playing for the most storied team in NBA history, and trying his hand at being a movie star in the process?
However, despite the obvious luxuries, LeBron is diving head-first into a historically competitive conference. He is finally going to see what playing in the west for an entire season is all about. Though, at least now he has some help compared to his last team. It is amazing to me how poorly Cleveland managed their team during those LeBron years. I’m no general manager, but it shouldn’t be impossible to get good players to come play for a championship. Instead, they had stars leaving! (See Kyrie Irving in the dictionary.) Yes, they would have won more had it not been for the emergence of the best Warriors team this world has ever seen. Still, the Cavs brass simply could not put a worthy team around him. In all the years that LeBron gave his hometown, they could only scrape together a single championship (yeah yeah, it’s more than the Jazz have, but we never had a LeBron.)
No, L.A. didn’t make the playoffs last year, but they have some solid young talent and became a force of their own during the second half of last season (…until they started tanking again). It took them some time to learn the game, but between January 7th and March 13th, the Lakers went 20-9. We’re all familiar with Kyle Kuzma, and as fun as it is to make jokes about Lonzo Ball, he’s going to become a great traditional point guard. Josh Hart showed flashes of impressive talent near the end of last year, and don’t forget about Brandon Ingram.
The point is, although young, LeBron finally has some talented teammates to help carry the load. Like we have never seen in our generation, a superhuman player single-handedly carried his team to the NBA Finals. (He is pretty much an NBA Finals-worthy team all on his own!) Now imagine what damage he can do with a litter of talented, long, athletic young-guns around him. It took a little longer than I expected, but another great Lakers team has officially arrived. Let the show begin!
1) Everything + the Kitchen Sink vs LeBron James
Tell me one player in the entire world that can stop LeBron James. I’ll wait… Whoever he is, if he exists, we don’t have him. With one of the top defenses in the league, the Boston Celtics came about as close to stopping LeBron as anyone without a Draymond Green could hope for last year. They did so by throwing a number of defensive looks at him. It will certainly be a team effort against the King, but our forwards (Derrick, Jae, Thabo, and Joe) will be on the front lines. Teamwork, switches, communication, and never letting LeBron get comfortable will be the best chance the Jazz have at keeping LeBron in check.
2) Bench vs Bench
I was tempted to put Gobert vs McGee as the second key match-up, as the center position will be an obvious opportunity to exploit. However, I worry the Lakers depth is being overlooked. Some of the young up-and-coming players that led the Lakers last year will be coming off the bench now that LeBron is in town, most notably the U. of U.’s very own Kyle Kuzma. Josh Hart showed his shooting and athleticism as a rookie late in the season and Rajon Rondo (although a diminishing talent as a starter) is still a vetted and capable backup that can lead the youngins. Simply put, the Lakers won’t be letting off the gas at any point between tip-off and the final buzzer. The Utah reserves will have their hands full trying to keep up with the length and athleticism displayed by a floor filled with the next generation of L.A. stars.
Keys to Victory
Defensive Key – Slow the Flow and Guard Your Yard
The Jazz are the league’s primary example of a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. With a roster filled with team-oriented players being led by a mastermind like Coach Snyder, good players become great and great players become superstars, particularly when a team like that has the continuity of a second year. Utah is a young team, but they definitely don’t play like it.
The Lakers, on the other hand, will take some time before they learn how to play together. They have a plethora of individually talented players, but coming together as a single unit will take time. Frankly, the Lakers just weren’t very good at sharing the ball last year. It’s not that they weren’t willing, but they turned the ball over more often than almost any other team in the league, averaging 15.3 turnovers per game, according to NBA.com. (Only Philadelphia had more at 15.7.) Most of those turnovers came from bad passes. So look for L.A. to first try to push the pace, as they will use their youth, speed, and athleticism in their favor. But if the Jazz can keep them in a half-court offense, we should see the young Lakers commit forced passes and desperate isolation plays late in the clock.
Offensive Key – The Gravity of Gobert (Sorry McGee)
L.A. may not have done as well in the off-season as some may have hoped, but they still landed LeBron James. That’s a win in anyone’s book. Despite decent role players that were added alongside The King, they definitely fell short in one “big” spot: the center position. JaVale Lindy McGee simply isn’t going to cut it. I’m not saying he’s a pushover. He’s not. When in the right system and at his peak, he’s an above-average center with a solid resume throughout his ten year career, which includes playing an important role on a championship Warriors team. However, I don’t see Luke Walton getting the same production out of McGee as Kerr did.
Even so, if there is a mismatch in talent between these two lineups (in Utah’s favor, anyway) it’s McGee vs Gobert. If guys like Mitchell, Rubio, and Exum can break L.A.’s first line of defense, McGee is going to have to pick his poison: stay on Gobert and roll out the red carpet for the ball-handler, or stop the guard and watch as Gobert rolls with the lob. Either way, McGee won’t be looking forward to seeing the Jazz on his calendar.
Game 1: Jazz @ Lakers (Nov. 23)
Only a month into the season, the Jazz will be firing on all cylinders out of the gate, where the Lakers will still be working out the kinks. However, this show will be in Laker-ville and no LeBron team is ever a cakewalk. Utah can come home with a win as long as they stay focused on the game rather than a Long Beach tan.
Jazz by 6
Game 2: Lakers @ Jazz (Jan. 11)
Both teams are coming off a day’s rest with the Jazz in the middle of a four-game home stand. Utah is the better team, straight up; not to mention LeBron’s Utah streak in the current decade.
Jazz by 9
Game 3: Lakers @ Jazz (Mar. 27)
The competition will be heating up at this point. Both teams will be fighting for their individual playoff positions. Still, I give the edge to Utah, as L.A. will have just flown in from D.C. only hours earlier. So I don’t expect the thin air will agree with their legs.
Jazz by 11
Game 4: Jazz @ Lakers (Apr. 7)
This is the Lakers’ second-to-last game. Depending on their record, they could be fighting tooth and nail or resting up for the playoffs. The same logic goes for the Jazz, with only two games remaining after this match-up. This game is really a toss-up, but I’ll give the edge to L.A. as they’ll have home court.
Lakers by 2
*All statistics via BasketballReference.com unless otherwise noted.