As 2017 begins, this NBA season has largely gone as planned.
Although there were some initial growing pains, the Warriors superteam is great and remains the betting favorite despite the Christmas Day loss to the Cavs.
The defending champs are the class of the East, appearing to be even more formidable since Kevin Love looks more comfortable in his skin and embracing his role. The Spurs, even having lost Tim Duncan, have had the type of success we’ve come to expect from them, even if it’s taken Gregg Popovich kicking them around after wins to keep them on their toes.
If there’s been a real surprise, it’s been how bad the Timberwolves have been given Tom Thibodeau’s presence and all that young talent. If you’re looking to accentuate the positive, the fact James Harden has taken so well to Mike D’Antoni’s coaching while embracing the role of distributor to make his teammates better falls into that category.
Still, it’s not good enough. We like to be surprised. We love drama.
This week could provide some clues as to who can actually emerge to prevent a third consecutive Cleveland-Golden State NBA Finals, and I won’t even include San Antonio since the Spurs have been so ubiquitous in going deep in the playoffs for two decades.
The Utah Jazz have been riddled with injuries over the first few months and yet have still managed to enter 2017 tied with Oklahoma City for the Northwest Division lead. In Rudy Gobert, they have one of the NBA’s premier rim protectors, which is why they’re potentially so dangerous in a series against the Warriors.
Although the fact Golden State shoots it so well from the perimeter mitigates the advantage Gobert provides Utah, the Jazz do have the pieces, when healthy and completely whole, to really frustrate anyone in the league.
Wings Gordon Hayward, Derrick Hood and Joe Johnson are flammable and capable of raining down 3-pointers on anybody. Gobert and Derrick Favors, who has been in and out of the lineup all season, are physically dominant and can own the boards while providing fantastic post defense. Point guards George Hill and Shelvin Mack are among the top defenders at their position, so there’s no question they’ll be able to make Stephen Curry work for everything he gets over the course of a series.
What we want to see from Utah is whether it has staying power, which is going to be tested this week. Beginning on Monday, the Jazz open a five-game road swing that will take them to five different cities in seven days.
Although they open with a gimme in Brooklyn, games at Boston, Toronto, Minnesota and Memphis will all be incredibly challenging, especially when you factor in the travel involved.
Making matters even more taxing will be the questions over Hill’s availability, since he caught an elbow from Phoenix center Alex Len over the weekend that opened a gash in his lip so wide that he would’ve been able to put his entire finger inside before receiving 22 stitches.
He’s entered concussion protocol and there’s no word as to when he’ll be available, so the Jazz may have to make it through the entire trip short-handed with rookie Dante Exum and Mack at the point.
The aforementioned Rockets are next up on this list, because it’s always going to seem like Mike D’Antoni’s team is winning via smoke and mirrors. Even his best teams, those Suns squads of a decade ago featuring the maestro Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Johnson and Shawn Marion, were always greeted with a sense of skepticism.
Do they play enough defense? Can they win four games over the course of seven games by running and gunning? Charles Barkley will likely dismiss them as a jump-shooting team.
That said, they have some great shooters around Harden, since newcomers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have lived up to their reputations and thrived. D’Antoni’s other starting guard, Patrick Beverley, is not at all his typical type of player due to the fact he doesn’t shoot it well, but his pesky, relentless defense and intensity crashing the boards and pitching in wherever he can has endeared him to the veteran coach.
Beverley has a wrist issue that rendered him questionable for Monday’s game against John Wall-led Washington, but he should be fine for games against Russell Westbrook’s Thunder, the Magic, Kyle Lowry’s Raptors and Kemba Walker’s Hornets over the next 10 days. Beverley takes the pressure off Harden, a suspect defender at best, and will be on Curry duty if they ever run into Golden State in a series.
The final threat to the Warriors appears to be Memphis, since point guard Mike Conley is among the game’s best defenders at his position and the same can be said about Marc Gasol at center. Having thrived despite Conley’s absence has put the Grizzlies in position to compete for a top-four seed.
The fact they were able to lean on young players like Andrew Harrison and JaMychal Green while Conley, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter were out provided them invaluable experience, and the fact top offseason acquisition Chandler Parsons appears to be finally ready to play without restrictions could raise their ceiling significantly.
The Grizzlies spent New Year’s Eve on the road after torching Sacramento and they’ll remain out West to face the Lakers and Clippers in a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back before testing themselves against the Warriors in a matchup all eyes will be on come Friday.
It would absolutely be surprising if the Jazz, Rockets or Grizzlies are left standing come June, but it no longer appears outside the realm of possibility. The same can’t really be said about anybody in the Eastern Conference, which is why you’ve read about no potential variable here. Load up on your Cavs to win the East futures without apprehension.