It doesn’t seem that long ago that Mike Conley’s would-be series-winning 3-pointer rattled out in Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets, sending the Utah Jazz home from the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida, after the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Jazz were painfully close to sending third-seeded Denver home, but instead, it was Utah that was left to lament squandering a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. With the Jazz set to tip off the 2020-21 NBA season late Wednesday night on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and company will look to wash that bitter taste out of their mouths.
The problem for the Jazz is the same as it has been for the past few years. The Western Conference hasn’t gotten any easier, and neither has the top of the Northwest Division. The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers have gotten even stronger. So, too, have Denver and Portland. The LA Clippers are still a force to be reckoned with despite some retooling and a coaching change, and teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns are only going to keep improving.
That means the Jazz could realistically finish anywhere from the No. 2 seed to the No. 7 seed, and no matter where they end up, the first round of the playoffs is going to be far from easy. They could finish anywhere from first to third in the Northwest Division, with the Nuggets and Blazers joining the Jazz among the NBA’s top teams.
Utah added some reinforcements in the offseason, bringing back fan favorite Derrick Favors after his one-year stint with the New Orleans Pelicans. Sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, who averaged better than 20 points per game last season, should be back to full strength after missing the bubble with a wrist injury, giving the Jazz an additional much-needed scoring threat to go along with Mitchell — the recent recipient of a $195 million contract extension. Also, any drama surrounding Gobert’s contract situation was wiped out earlier this week when he signed a long-term extension, ensuring he’ll be patrolling the paint at Vivint Arena for years to come.
Will it be enough for the Jazz to get over the hump, or at least out of the first round of the playoffs? Time will tell. Denver’s Will Barton missed the bubble, as well, and he gives the Nuggets another threat either as a starter or a sixth man. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are both healthy again. Dallas has Most Valuable Player candidate Luka Doncic, and Kristaps Porzingis is getting close to returning from knee surgery. Phoenix just added future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul. None of the above will be an easy out in the playoffs unless they face the Lakers.
So, what can we expect from the Jazz in this COVID-shortened, 72-game season? It might very well look a lot like last season — hopefully, except for the part where they finished the season in an empty arena in Florida. They’re likely to be a good team, but likely not quite good enough. There’s no shame in that, though. As long as LeBron James is suiting up alongside Anthony Davis in Los Angeles, nobody other than the Lakers is good enough to come out of the Western Conference.
Fortunately for the Jazz, Mitchell and Gobert are now under contract for the next five years, and at some point, James will retire.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He knows Jazz fans are tired of the “good, but not good enough” narrative that has plagued them since John Stockton and Karl Malone ran into Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the late 1990s. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.