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Oklahoma City Thunder 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have all the pieces to be an elite team, even in the West, but can they survive missing Russell Westbrook and does their style of play translate to winning NBA basketball? Basketball Insiders take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder entered last season with championship aspirations. They surprisingly pulled off a trade to bring Paul George to the team, and then followed that up by trading for Carmelo Anthony. On paper, they appeared to have all the makings of a team that could make a deep postseason run.

Their season didn’t end that way, however, as they were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz despite having home-court advantage. Anthony never seemed to fit, and the team traded to him to the Atlanta Hawks, who eventually bought out his contract. They did manage to secure a huge win in free agency, though by convincing George, who supposedly was all-in on finding a way to Los Angeles, to re-sign. They also made a couple of nice pickups in Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel to strengthen their roster and stay afloat in the ever tough Western Conference.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Give Sam Presti credit for the work he did this offseason. He managed to re-sign Paul George to a four-year, $136,911,936 contract, moved Carmelo Anthony’s contract while acquiring Dennis Schroder, traded for the rights to Hamidou Diallo, signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year, $3,745,548 contract (player option on final season) and rounded our the roster with some other cost-effective deals. This offseason could have been a disaster, but re-signing George sets the stage for the Thunder to remain competitive in the Western Conference. The team has the potential to make some real noise in the postseason if Russell Westbrook and George develop some meaningful chemistry — something that didn’t happen last season. Westbrook underwent an operation recently, so that will be a factor as well. If Westbrook, Andre Roberson and the Thunder’s other key players avoid the injury bug this season, they could be a surprisingly competitive team. However, even in the best case scenario, the Thunder will likely be a tier below the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Thunder did about as well as anyone could have hoped over the summer, winning Sam Presti’s 2017 gamble outright when they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. That they also managed to shed Carmelo Anthony’s albatross deal in the process was just icing on the cake. The big question now becomes this: Will keeping George and Russell Westbrook together motivate the pairing to address some of their on-court shortcomings last year and come back even stronger, or will they rest on their laurels? A recent Westbrook surgery is only supposed to keep him out through training camp, but it’s worth monitoring – if he has to miss any time, new acquisition Dennis Schroder will be put to the test early. But the Thunder were a very strong regular season team last year before Andre Roberson went down with an injury, and it’ll be interesting if they can parlay his renewed health into a charge at a top-three seed in the West.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

If there was ever a time to use the phrase “addition by subtraction,” now would be the appropriate time with the Thunder. After a year together, Russell Westbrook and Paul George know each other’s tendencies. One’s more aggressive than the other, but they’ll both have a better feel for things. Oklahoma City adding Dennis Schroder to the equation gives its bench bunch a potential sixth man candidate that could potentially play alongside the starters in certain rotations. Steven Adams broke out as best offensive rebounder in the NBA, and that won’t change. There’s real potential for Jerami Grant to take on a more significant role, as well as a chance for Nerlens Noel to re-establish himself in the league. Billy Donovan has plenty of options to go with for different types of styles.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Thunder were one of the league’s biggest letdowns last season. Although, it was not entirely their fault. They were playing their best basketball before Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury. Since their elimination, OKC not only kept the best of their team together, but they also renovated the roster. Replacing the incompatible Carmelo Anthony with Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel gives the team well-needed depth. Lack of shooting might be a cause for concern if they plan to make an extended playoff run, but the Thunder have a better supporting cast around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That should mean a better final result than last season.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

The injury/surgery of Russell Westbrook is going to impact the team more than most think; it not just that he’ll miss some time, it’s he’s going to miss time and need to reintegrate. In any other division that might be okay, but in the Northwest virtually every team should make the postseason, so every game is going to matter in the final standings. Think about last season: one game decided third place from fourth place and one game determined whether you got in the playoffs or not. The balance of the Thunder is scientifically better. The addition of Dennis Schroeder is solid. Andre Roberson is supposed to be healthy, so the Thunder should be better, but missing Westbrook for any games is going to be tough to overcome, even with Paul George back in the fold.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook

The 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league. He’s near impossible to stop when attacking the rim and his strength allows him to finish the play while absorbing contact. He’s also worked on his jumper tremendously since coming into the NBA, to the point where he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the court.

He’s been among the league leaders in points per game the past few seasons, and during his MVP year, he led the league with 31.6 points per game. There have been questions about Westbrook’s shot selection and whether or not he dominates the ball too much, but the fact remains that he’s an amazing offensive talent and a walking triple-double. He is without a doubt the type of player you can build a franchise around. There are 29 other teams that would love to have a player of that caliber. He’s a top-five player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

Despite being a limited threat offensively, the Thunder missed Anthony Roberson tremendously in the playoffs. He suffered a season ending injury back in January. He’s emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the league. His presence would have gone a long way to corralling Donovan Mitchell, whom the Thunder seemed to have no answer for in the postseason.

Prior to his injury, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the league. Without him in the lineup, their defense took a huge hit and they slipped to only middle of the pack. He’s able to guard multiple wing positions and his one-on-one defense is almost second to none. When he’s back on the court, he’s a potential All-Defensive First Team member and could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. Much of their success relies on the superhuman efforts of Westbrook, part of which is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. There has been plenty of garbage floating around suggesting that Westbrook “hunts for stats,” as if it were that easy to average double figures in assists. He’s become one of the elite playmakers in the league. The Thunder are that much better with him on the floor.

The past three seasons he’s averaged double figures in assists, including his final season with Kevin Durant, in which he dished out a career-high 10.4 assists. This past season, his 10.3 per game led the league. Not only does he generate offense himself, but he does so for his teammates as well. They all become a threat to score when Westbrook is on the court. He’s a floor general and leader who quarterbacks the team.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook/Paul George

Of course Westbrook deserves to be mentioned here. He’s hit numerous big shots and come through in plenty of clutch situations for the Thunder. However, Paul George has garnered more of a reputation of his own for making big plays in crunch time. There are plenty of stats floating around that suggest George isn’t a clutch player or that he’s abysmal with the game on the line. As always, stats don’t tell the complete story.

The Thunder struggled during close games last season, mostly due to the trio of Westbrook, George and Anthony never really finding a groove together. It was pretty much each guy taking turns with the ball in his hands. With Anthony now out of the picture, things should run a little more smoothly. The casual fan forgets George going toe to toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat a few years back. He made numerous big plays during those battles with Miami. The fact is you can rest comfortably knowing that the ball is in either Westbrook or George’s hands when the fourth quarter comes around. You can’t go wrong with either.

The Most Unheralded Player: Steven Adams

Steven Adams has rightfully begun to garner more attention for what he brings to the Thunder, but there are times when it still can go unnoticed. His rebounding and interior defense are a huge part of what the Thunder do. Last season, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0), helping Oklahoma City to extra possessions.

He’s become one of the best defensive anchors in the paint as well as a good man to man defender. He’s also emerged as a valuable contributor on the offensive end as well. He’s great in the pick and roll as both a screener and a finisher. His offensive rebounding prowess enables him to get multiple put-backs. And he’s begun to develop a jump shot and a little floater. The Thunder certainly have star power, but Adams is a vital piece of the team and an absolute necessity if they want to make a deep playoff run.

Best New Addition: Dennis Schroder

As part of the three-team trade that sent Anthony out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder received Dennis Schroder from the Hawks. Schroder gives the Thunder a much-needed scorer off the bench. Last season, the Thunder had a few capable bench guys, but none that could really stabilize the second unit. Schroder can do just that. He can generate his own offense as well as create opportunities for his teammates.

Last season in Atlanta, he averaged a career-high 19.4 points per game and 6.2 assists. He will need to improve his outside shooting, but there’s no doubt that he’ll be a welcome addition to the Thunder offense. He should also get an opportunity to share the backcourt with Westbrook at times while Westbrook slides to shooting guard. It will give the Thunder a scoring punch in the backcourt that they haven’t had since they traded Reggie Jackson.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Patrick Patterson

Still recovering from offseason surgery, Patterson had quite an underwhelming year for the Thunder. Also, with Anthony playing power forward and the emergence of Jerami Grant, Patterson was the odd man out, although he did manage to play in all 82 games. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the most valuable contributors off the Toronto Raptors’ bench. He’s a stretch four with good defense and rebounding and with Anthony gone, look for him to play more of an important role in the rotation.

2. Jerami Grant

Jerami Grant was perhaps the best player off the Thunder bench last season. He’s mobile big man who can guard multiple positions. He also has an improving offensive game. He’s great in the pick and roll, and has ability to finish around the rim. He drew plenty of interest as a free agent this summer, but the Thunder were able to retain him. He should continue to improve as a player and be a reliable contributor in the second unit.

3. Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel was once thought of as one of the top up and coming defensive big men in the league. A former lottery pick, he found himself out of the rotation with the Dallas Mavericks. This is essentially a fresh start for him, a chance to remind everyone why he was once a coveted draft pick. He’s a Steven Adams-lite, essentially. He’ll be counted on to provide the Thunder with defense and rebounding off the bench. He could end up being an X-factor in Oklahoma City.

4. Terrance Ferguson

As a rookie, Terrance Ferguson saw himself thrust into the rotation with the injury to Andre Roberson. He had a pretty good showing despite being a player who wasn’t expected to do much. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he showed flashes of the player he could become. He can create his own shot and he’s a good shooter. He’s got the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. Overall, he’s a nice young player for the Thunder to continue to develop.

– David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Defense, defense and defense. When Roberson was in the lineup, the Thunder were on top of the league defensively. His return to the lineup is much needed. Prior to the addition of Anthony last summer, the lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams looked like the team best equipped to match up with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut defensively. With Anthony now out of the picture, Oklahoma City should regain their spot as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Whether it’s Patterson or Grant that ultimately wins the starting power forward spot, all five of the Thunder’s starters are above average to elite defenders. They should wreak havoc on the league defensively.

– David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Achilles Heel for Oklahoma City last season was their performance in the clutch. They struggled mightily in close games. Most of that, however, was the result of Westbrook, George and Anthony never meshing well as a trio. Each of them would take turns doing their own thing with the ball. Now with only Westbrook and George there, they should be more efficient down the stretch.

– David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good enough to beat the Warriors and get to the Finals?

There’s no question that after the Thunder brought in George and Anthony, getting through the Western Conference and to the Finals to compete for a title was the goal. They fell woefully short of that. The Warriors have run roughshod on the West the past several years. Their stars are all in the prime and they show no signs of slowing down. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Thunder. Will their offense run smoother with Anthony gone? Can Roberson make a full recovery and bolster Oklahoma City’s defense? Will they get the necessary production out of their bench? They’ve got the talent, and they should be able to make a stronger postseason run, but ultimately it’s tough to envision them knocking off Golden State. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t appear likely.

– David Yapkowitz

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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