Utah and Denver Are Still A Step Away From Contention

We continue the 2018-19 preview with a look at two teams that most consider to be title contenders.  However, certain drawbacks may keep them from reaching that status.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making Finals

Playoff locks:

Fringe contenders tier:

  • Utah Jazz

For some a stunning omission from the preview’s first column, it’s not that the Utah Jazz didn’t get better over the offseason.  They got a lot better, so much so that there’s a chance they can rise all the way to the third or fourth seed if things break right.

But assigning the Jazz the title contender status feels like we’re jumping the gun a bit.

They’re an incredible defensive team.  When you talk about having guards that can hang with and defend the backcourts of Houston, Golden State and Portland, the Jazz absolutely have that.  They paid a lot for Mike Conley, who will be worth it for his defense and the burden that’ll be lifted off Donavan Mitchell’s chest.  Mitchell himself is a nasty defender; they arguably have two of the five best defensive guards in basketball now.  Rudy Gobert, despite weaknesses that have been exposed in the past two postseasons, is an anchor down low and has decent fluidity on both ends of the court.  Joe Ingles projects as the starter on the wing next to offseason signing Bojan Bogdanović, giving them another hard-nosed defender.  Royce O’Neal is a big, strong wing who guard players anywhere from 2-5.  Offseason signing Ed Davis is a sneaky pickup, as his rim protection continues to be underrated.

Still, Utah has some concerns.  There’s a lot of new faces to the offense, including a new point guard – perhaps the most important position on this new-look team.  While Bogdanović and Ingles are both good shooters, they don’t necessarily pack the punch Utah needs on the offensive end.  Sure Bogdanović can heat up, but how consistent will he be for a team that is still going to need all the help they can get to score points?  Gobert isn’t someone who’s fed offensively, and Conley isn’t a pure scorer either.

A lot of the load still falls on Mitchell, who though only 23 by the end of the season, will have to show us what he’s really capable of this year.  The Jazz went out and got him help.  They believe he’s a guy that just needs that; nothing more.  If he turns into a player that really matters in this league – a guy that can carry a team no matter what’s around him and ranks among the top 12-15 players – then Utah has a strong case to really challenge the Clippers.  That jump seems unlikely not only to happen this season, but to come at all.

  • Denver Nuggets

Putting the Nuggets here is a tough one.

They were last season’s darlings.  Mike Malone transformed the offense to run through and around Nikola Jokic, taking full advantage of his generational passing skills by running cutters and shooters around him.  They let Jokic take shots in crunch-time, and even had guys like Mason Plumlee imitating Jokic when he wasn’t on the floor.

But Denver lacked one thing throughout the year, and it bit them hard in the playoffs: A lack of a reliable, one-on-one, late-in-games scorer.

Jamal Murray could, and likely should, be that guy given what they paid him.  In the playoffs, Murray was about as up and down as one could possibly be.  The insane, 4OT game against Portland in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals was a perfect picture of Murray’s inconsistency.  He was cold-blooded at times and also had the ball way too much, forcing shots, eventually causing Denver to lose the game.

Murray didn’t have the it factor about him last year.  And that’s the biggest problem with Denver coming into this season.  If they have a legitimate chance of making the Finals, Murray has to improve and be the guy, because as good as Jokic and the offense is, you can’t just have his passing be the go-to late in games.  They need someone who can create off the dribble.  Murray has shown the promising and not-so-promising sides of that so far.

Murray, like Mitchell, has to take big steps this season.  Confidence should be higher in Mitchell; he’s shown the ability to be a dominant scorer at times and could be evolve into one of the league’s top 10-15 players soon.  Murray has much farther to go.  Thankfully for him, he may not need to be that guy, though one of the options available to the Nuggets was crossed off this morning.

Bradley Beal would have been perfect for Denver.  He’s one of the 25 best players in basketball, can be a late-game scorer and is plenty used to playing off-the-ball given his years with John Wall in Washington.

Thankfully for the Wizards, Beal wanted to oddly stay, and made that known by signing a two-year, $72 million extension with Washington Thursday morning.

It’s a bummer for Denver and other teams who were hoping to sniff out Beal’s services.  It also furthers the case that the Nuggets may not be a legitimate contender this season.

With Beal out of the picture for Denver, they need either Murray to ascend to being the best guy on a championship team or Michael Porter Jr. to step up and be it.

Murray taking that leap would be huge for Denver but is unlikely to happen.

The second might be even more unlikely.  But though Porter Jr. had serious concerns coming into that draft, the main thing he could do was score.  For the value that Denver got him at, he was absolutely worth the pick.  Now, if he’s healthy, he could be ready to show why that draft night slide was such a mistake.  He’ll have to show efficiency that he lacked in high school and college, but for such a ball movement-heavy team, Porter’s one-on-one game might actually be a bit necessary.  It’s the one team in the league that could actually use some inefficient play.

Denver has more talent coming in; it’s not the same exact team.  Jerami Grant was a weird trade-away by Oklahoma City, and Denver got another athletic player who does very well on the defense end and can be a menace offensively; the bounce he has allows him to cut very effectively for someone of his size.

Bol Bol is on a two-way contract, meaning that he only has 45 days he can spend with the Nuggets.  The rest will be at the G-League level. It’s likely he’ll have just as much of an impact as MPJ did last year.

Denver needs star power to become a contender.  With the Beal news this morning, it makes the odds that they get it this year even slimmer.  But they didn’t pay Murray $170 million for nothing, and Porter Jr. has the skills to turn into that.  With those two in hand, it may not be a question of if they get it.  It’s when.