SALT LAKE CITY — Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Tyrone's Traveling Circus and Curiosity Show! Witness young Jeremy Evans as he hovers on thin air. See Alec Burks, the human Ginsu knife, who can shred, chop, slice and dice defenders as he slashes to the rim! Observe the curious Gordon Hayward, face of a child, body of an adult! Gape in terrible awe as Derrick Favors lifts three times his own weight, yet still pulls off a jump-hook! Stare in disbelief as Enes Kanter moves massive objects with only his shoulders!
The new-look Jazz are under the Big Top in Los Angeles for Tuesday's season-opener, and a lot of people are excited. After all those years of watching the Jazz get old, and later enduring Deron Williams' and Carlos Boozer's jaded stares, fans seem invigorated by the inexperienced but athletic Jazz of 2011-12.
How good can they actually be?
Earth to Utah: Barring a sudden onset of maturity and consistency, making the playoffs will be a stretch.
Tantalizing as the Jazz's youth movement is, people are doing similar things in Oklahoma City, Memphis and Los Angeles. Minnesota, too, which is really strange. But now the Timberwolves are looking tough. Ricky Rubio, the hottest Euro import since the Mini Cooper, is making fans faint with his Maravichian passing. Kevin Love puts up double-doubles that would make Kareem jealous. Michael Beasley scored 42 points in a game last season. Derrick Williams was the 2011 draft's No. 2 pick.
This is a team that could make the sun shine even in Minnesota.
Oklahoma City is the team most expected to win the Western Conference. Kevin Durant, the league's best scorer, and All-Star Russell Westbrook are the team's still-fresh stars. Serge Ibaka, entering his third NBA season, is a shot-blocking force. Combined with the addition of veteran Kendrick Perkins, OKC will likely make the Finals.
Talk about your Thunder from down under.
Memphis won a playoff series last year with one of the league's best centers, Marc Gasol, in just his third year in the league. That appearance came without the team's best player, 24-year-old Rudy Gay, who was out with an injury. Sixth man O.J. Mayo once scored 40 points in a game. Teammate Michael Conley averaged 13 points and six assists last year and is a serious steals threat. All have many basketball years ahead of them.
Then you have the Lakers' baby brother, the Clippers. Ex-Laker Lamar Odom was on a reality TV show. How's this for reality: As Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aged, the Clippers signed perennial All-Star Chris Paul. Combined with dunk connoisseur Blake Griffin and acrobatic center DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers are the Paper Clips no more.
"You look at the Clippers game the other night and all they show (on TV) is DeAndre Jordan doing his thing above the rim," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
"One thing is that the big guys are just so athletic. Used to be the 1-2-3 (position) players and now there are 4s and 5s jumping above the rim. They're not playing on the ground with polished moves, they're playing above the rim with athletic moves."
Then there are the Jazz, who moved to get even younger — or at least better — by trading Mehmet Okur on Thursday for a draft pick and trade exception. They have Evans, who can install light bulbs in the rafters while waiting to descend. Favors and Kanter are a pair of No. 3 draftees. Last time the Jazz had a No. 3 draftee it was Deron Williams. Hayward is growing into his enthusiasm, a versatile and fundamentally sound player. Burks already has an NBA body and seems to just lack experience.
"The way the league is, it's all coming together at the same time," Corbin noted. "But you have to try while you have young guys to win games. That's what we are. We're going to mix guys in and sometimes see a lot of young guys out there."
So there are the established teams that should still get to the playoffs: Lakers, Dallas and San Antonio. You have Portland with enough talent, even without Brandon Roy — but probably not without Greg Oden. You have Denver, a likely playoff team, but missing three players who are in various stages of leaving China. And you have youngster-driven Memphis, OKC and the Clippers. Some say even lowly Golden State will break the tape.
Where do the Jazz fit?
Without a major addition, they'll probably squeeze in at the bottom of the playoff food chain. But they just as easily won't. They're young and enthused and athletic, but so are others. The Jazz's best hope might be for San Antonio or the Lakers to grow old overnight.
With Kobe Bryant already nursing a wrist injury, it's a thought.
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