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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a particularly strong NBA postseason, and we’re through only two rounds.
The Western Conference first round provided a series between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers that felt more like a battle of conference champions than early round foes. The Brooklyn Nets challenged the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference before finally acquiescing after six games, and only one series was swept in the minimum four games.
Even it featured two young superstars, the first, Stephen Curry, arguably the NBA’s most exciting young guard, and perhaps the league’s next all-time great big man in the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis.
The second round of the playoffs may have topped the first, with three game-winning buzzer-beaters over a stretch of three days, all belonging to NBA superstars. Derrick Rose got the fireworks started with a thrilling bank shot 3-pointer in a win over the Cavaliers, Washington’s Paul Pierce knocked off the Atlanta Hawks with a game winner of his own, capped off by LeBron James gutting the Chicago Bulls by evening their second-round series at two games apiece with a last-second shot. The Clippers, after eliminating the former champion San Antonio Spurs, were forced to a second seventh game in as many series with the Houston Rockets before exiting the playoffs.
The Cavaliers, Hawks, Warriors and Rockets have all advanced, making for a set of conference final matchups between teams most fans may be more used to seeing in the NBA’s draft lottery than vying for a finals spot.
Jazz fans watching the playoffs must feel both excitement and disappointment as they look over the NBA’s surviving rosters. The Warriors, Cavaliers and Hawks are usually eliminated early in the playoffs, if not the regular season most years. Neither the Hawks nor the Warriors had made a conference final since the 1970s, prior to this season. This should be encouraging to fans of the Jazz, as it’s perhaps the first true sign of parity in a league that has been dominated by only a handful of teams, of which the Rockets are the only team remaining to have won a championship in the last two decades. Perhaps NBA championships will no longer be found solely in the state of Texas, and the cities of Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago.
However, it isn’t all roses for the Jazz.
Of the four teams remaining, all squads except the Atlanta Hawks feature a true blue superstar. LeBron James will be remembered as the greatest player of this generation, the Warriors have the league’s MVP in Steph Curry, while the Rockets have James Harden, who was the league’s runner up in MVP voting, and former top pick Dwight Howard. Despite a roster full of young talent, neither Gordon Hayward nor Derrick Favors has blossomed into a superstar, and no player on the current roster has made an appearance in an All-Star game.
Perhaps more concerning to Jazz fans ought to be the Atlanta Hawks. Though the Hawks may not have a superstar, the team has built its foundation on the talent of former Jazz players. Paul Millsap and Demarre Carroll joined the Hawks two summers ago, both allowed to walk away from the Jazz in free agency. While the Jazz used the cap space gained by allowing these players to walk to acquire future draft picks, it remains to be seen whether those draft picks will live up to the production Millsap and Carroll have displayed in Atlanta. Millsap has made back-to-back All-Star appearances, while Carroll has been on a scoring tear, contributing 25 points in the Hawks elimination game over the Washington Wizards, after lacing together six consecutive 20-point performances earlier in the postseason.
The Jazz ties don’t stop there.
The Hawks also have Kyle Korver, arguably the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history. Korver was at times an afterthought on the Deron Williams- and Carlos Boozer-led Jazz teams that saw a conference finals run in 2008, but like Millsap and Carroll, Korver was allowed to walk in free agency with nothing in return.
While every team in the NBA has stories of players that got away, whether in the draft, trade or free agency, few appear to be as dramatic as the Jazz current example. It doesn’t help the Jazz cause that the team’s biggest needs this offseason are long-distance shooters and depth in the frontcourt. Carroll and Korver are two of the league's top 20 3-point shooters, while Millsap appears to be a perfect complement to Favors and Rudy Gobert.
While Jazz fans are right to be excited about this young roster, one that looks poised to make a playoff run as soon as next season, it’s worth monitoring which players the front office allows to depart this summer in free agency, as they may soon assist an opponent in a playoff run of their own.