SALT LAKE CITY — With one possible blockbuster move still available involving Russell Westbrook, the craziest offseason in NBA history has resulted in several teams believing they have a legitimate chance at claiming the championship next June.
Superstars switched teams and even conferences at an astonishing rate, creating perhaps the best competitive balance the league has ever seen. Instead of less than a handful of teams realistically harboring title hopes, as many as a dozen will open camp in two months with dreams of hoisting the trophy.
“I think the whole league feels that there’s an opportunity for everybody,” said Mike Conley, the Utah Jazz's newly acquired point guard.
The trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for Conley was the first of several significant additions to the roster, all designed to improve perimeter shooting and bolster depth. National media members practically universally hailed the moves as excellent, in the process praising team management for adeptly addressing needs.
Coming off a season that ended in disappointing fashion with a loss to the Houston Rockets in the first round, the Jazz are now among the several contenders in the Western Conference.
“We embrace the expectations,” said Jazz general manager Justin Zanik. “We’re trying to field the most competitive team we can and pursue a championship.”
Give the Jazz credit for trying, acting swiftly and boldly in remaking the roster. In adding Conley and signing free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz retooled the starting lineup and added experience to the bench by bringing aboard Jeff Green, Ed Davis and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Echoing Zanik’s sentiments, expectations from the fan base and pundits have soared in the span of three weeks. It is reasonable to argue this roster is the strongest since the Jazz made consecutive runs to the NBA Finals in 1997-98.
Competitors keeping pace
But, herein lies a potentially huge problem, several of the Jazz’s competitors have kept pace in the highly competitive conference. Out of the eight playoff teams from this past season, it appears only the Oklahoma City Thunder — which is in full rebuild mold and may move Westbrook — is now worse off.
As promising as the upcoming season is for the Jazz, there are no assurances the team will exceed last year’s 50-win total and get higher than the No. 5 seed it has earned the last three years. Ditto for all the other summertime contenders.
Along with the Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers dominated the headlines this offseason with their respective moves. Both LA teams easily can compete favorably with the Jazz, if not surpass them.
After trading for Paul George from the Thunder and signing free agent Kawhi Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to the recent NBA championship, the Clippers should be considered as the favorite to win the conference. The former laughingstock of a franchise now has two superstars, augmented by an experienced bench to match with excellent management and ownership.
The Lakers still have LeBron James, the game’s best player even though he turns 35 in December. The trade for Anthony Davis, who will be a free agent next summer, gives James the second star he needed to win two championships with the Miami Heat and one with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers — each of whom were better than the Jazz last season — also expect to contend. None of these teams had major additions this offseason, but each did not necessarily regress, either.
And then there is the mystery team, the Golden State Warriors. The so-called super team of the last three years has experienced dramatic changes, losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston from its core. But the nucleus that won a championship before Durant arrived remains intact, assuming Draymond Green, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are healthy come playoff time.
So there you go. On paper, the Jazz are substantially better than last season. But the task of improving it is much more difficult.