SALT LAKE CITY — Tired of consistently finishing in the middle of the Western Conference, accompanied by an early playoff exit, the Utah Jazz begin the truncated 72-game season this week seeking dramatic improvement.
The Jazz have been sent home in the first round of the playoffs for the last two seasons, most recently squandering a 3-1 series lead in August to the Denver Nuggets. Since Donovan Mitchell arrived for the 2017-18 season, the Jazz have finished no better than fifth in the Western Conference.
In preseason interviews, Mitchell has vowed to make an extended playoff run. With a veteran group returning, the time is now.
"We need to come out ready to go because losing in the first round ain't it no more," Mitchell said during a recent Zoom media session.
But it ain't gonna be easy, either. As usual — and maybe even more so this season — the Western Conference is loaded.
Like every team with any thought of winning a championship, the Jazz face long odds to beat the Los Angeles Lakers. The defending NBA champions improved as much as any team in the conference during the shorter-than-usual offseason, which ended in October for the Lakers.
In addition to the ageless LeBron James and all-NBA caliber center Anthony Davis, the Lakers added more firepower in guards Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews, Marc Gasol and sixth-man award winner Montrezl Harrell. The only significant loss was aging point guard Rajon Rondo.
Barring injury, the Lakers are a heavy favorite for James to win his fifth NBA championship. Everybody else is fighting for second place.
This is where the Jazz come in, with a legitimate chance to finish second in the Western Conference and go into the playoffs with homecourt advantage for the first time the 2007-08 season. Competition will be stiff, with several teams also vying for the No. 2 seed.
Various Las Vegas oddsmakers have Utah winning at or near 42 games, good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference. But indicative of the competition, there is little separation between the Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks.
Unlike last season, when they were incorporating newcomers Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley into the starting lineup, and then added scoring punch off the bench in trade for Jordan Clarkson, the Jazz begin this year with a veteran rotation. The only significant addition, free agent Derrick Favors, returns to the team organization in which he spent nine years before playing last season for the New Orleans Pelicans.
"We know that we're going to have a window that's going to be this year and the next few years, and we have to take advantage of that window," said center Rudy Gobert, who re-signed this week for five years, $205 million. "And I really feel like we're going to have a chance to win it out if we keep going in the right direction and keep improving."
And Mitchell picks up where he left off in the playoff loss to the Nuggets. With Bogdanovic out injured, Mitchell averaged 36 points and shot a blistering 53% from the field and 51% on 3-pointers over the seven-game series.
Entering his fourth season, having signed a new contract that could net $193 million, Mitchell is poised to prove the sensation play in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, was no fluke. Expect him to back up the big talk.
More familiar in their roles, Bogdanovic and Conley are expected to improve upon their production and efficiency. The same goes for Clarkson, whose instant offense off the bench was a huge addition after coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers in December.
Favors gives the Jazz a legitimate backup center, which they were sorely lacking last season. If head coach Quin Snyder chooses to have either Gobert or Favors on the court for the entire 48 minutes, the Jazz will have strong rim protection that few teams can match.
All the continuity should allow the Jazz to find early success, which usually hasn't happened in the Snyder regime. Advancing to at least the second round is an achievable goal.