Utah Jazz basketball: Chances in playoff race is a case of good news, bad news

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27 2012 8:34 p.m. MDT

The good news, Utah Jazz fans, is that your favorite NBA franchise is going to be a better ballclub this season than it was a year ago.

The bad news, though, is that several other teams in the Western Conference have improved themselves as well this year, which means getting back to the playoffs and climbing your way up the seeding ladder will be no easy task.

Sure, the Jazz made some sweet offseason acquisitions in landing point guard Mo Williams, small forward Marvin Williams and combo guard Randy Foye.

Add that trio to proven veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, rising star Gordon Hayward and emerging young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, with high-energy guys like Alec Burks and DeMarre Carroll coming in off the bench, and this year's Jazz lineup looks considerably stronger than it did last season.

That's no harsh knock on Devin Harris, who ran the point last season, or guys like C.J. Miles and Josh Howard, who logged plenty of playing time for a Jazz team that went 36-30 in the compacted lockout season and wound up as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

But the new-look Utah law firm of Williams, Williams and Foye should provide an upgrade over last year's Jazz roster, especially with the continued improvement of young guys like Hayward, Favors, Kanter and Burks.

However, when you take a look at the balance of power in the NBA's Western Conference, the conversation begins and ends with the Los Angeles Lakers.

With the addition of veteran point guard Steve Nash and potent big man Dwight Howard to go along with the tandem of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers have again established themselves as the best in the West — at least on paper.

Sure, the Lakers rid themselves of one big-time head case, Andrew Bynum, in exchange for another guy who's proven to be one, Howard, who had offseason surgery on his back but, when he's healthy, is a powerful game-changing force inside.

Add Nash, who even at age 38 is still one of the best in the business at distributing the ball, to the mix, and it looks like L.A. has definitely loaded up to try and win another NBA championship before Bryant gets too old to spearhead a deep postseason push.

Defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City still has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but in a surprising move, the Thunder abruptly traded away the third member of their Big Three, Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, on Saturday in a multi-player deal with the Houston Rockets.

It remains to be seen whether the young OKC ballclub can withstand the challenge posed by the new-and-improved lineup from L.A.

Here's how things shape up for the rest of the West, where there are plenty of new faces in difference places. And where the hopes of no less than six teams — the Mavericks, Warriors, Clippers, Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Hornets — hinge on the return of an injured star who's coming back from offseason surgery:

Dallas: A rebuilt roster features eight newcomers, including starting guards Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo and center Chris Kaman. Dirk Nowitzki has a rebuilt right knee, which will force him to miss at least the first couple weeks of the season. The Mavs will definitely miss their two veteran Jason guards, Kidd and Terry, who were instrumental in their NBA championship in 2011. And when it's all said and done, they may wind up missing the playoffs, too.

Denver: The addition of swingman Andrew Iguodala and the emergence of point guard Ty Lawson might make the Nuggets what one longtime NBA observer says is "the best team without a superstar since the 2004 Pistons won it all."

Golden State: If sharpshooting point guard Stephen Curry and center Andrew Bogut, the former No. 1 draft pick out of the University of Utah, can come back strong from ankle injuries, maybe this will finally be the year the long-suffering Warriors are a factor in the West.

Houston: A very young, inexperienced lineup with a weak front line likely won't be a contender, even though "Linsanity" — point guard Jeremy Lin — has come to Texas, one of many wholesale changes to the Rockets' roster this season. The addition of Harden should help, however.

L.A. Clippers: Three starters — point guard Chris Paul (thumb), shooting guard Chauncey Billups (Achilles) and power forward Blake Griffin (knee) — are all recovering from surgeries on their respective body parts, and the health of these three established stars holds the key to the Clippers' success. The addition of aging veterans Grant Hill and Lamar Odom adds even further to the Clippers' deep bench.

Memphis: A strong return by power forward Zach Randolph (knee) and the continued emergence of center Marc Gasol and small forward Rudy Gay make the Grizzlies a dangerous team that's on the rise.

Minnesota: Power forward Kevin Love is one of the best big men in the league, but he's out 6-8 weeks with a broken hand and the Timberwolves' fate may hinge on how well they can hold up for the first couple months of the season until Love and point guard Ricky Rubio (knee) can return to the lineup. Among the T-wolves' new faces are former Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who spent last season playing in his native Russia, and former Portland star guard Brandon Roy, who's gonna give it a go again after retiring in 2011 with degenerative knee problems.

New Orleans: Point guard Eric Gordon returns after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury, and rookie center Anthony Davis has "superstar" written all over him. But the Hornets won't be a factor come postseason time.

Phoenix: Marcin Gortat and newly acquired Luis Scola give the Suns a solid one-two tandem of big men, but they'll miss the veteran leadership of Nash and Hill. And the stunning loss of last year's starting power forward, Channing Frye, with an enlarged heart certainly won't help their chances, either.

Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge and former Jazzman Wesley Matthews are proven performers, and rookie point guard Damian Lillard, the former Weber State star, sure looks like the real ready-for-prime-time deal. The Trail Blazers will battle for one of the West's last playoff spots.

Sacramento: Despite talented players like DeMarcus Cousins, Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans, the Kings are still among the most disjointed franchises in the league. Former BYU star Jimmer Fredette hopes to get some playing time at shooting guard, but this team truly seems to be a jumbled mess that's in constant disarray.

San Antonio: Any team with point guard Tony Parker, veteran big man Tim Duncan and sixth-man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili will always be a factor. But while the Lakers were busy wheeling and dealing during the offseason, the defending Southwest Division champs, who reached the Western Conference finals last season, just keep getting older and made few moves to improve themselves.

Postseason predictions

Start printing playoff tickets: Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Grizzlies.

On the bubble: Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Timberwolves.

Better luck next year: Warriors, Rockets, Hornets, Suns, Kings.

So, at last, let the games begin.

Email: rhollis@deseretnews.com

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