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NBA Daily: Ranking The Small Forwards

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at the top small forwards in the game.

Spencer Davies

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Well, folks, it’s April and sports remain at a standstill, meaning that the NBA is still waiting to figure out when it will be feasible to either resume play or move ahead with the offseason. So while that’s happening and players are participating in video game tournaments or spreading the word of social distancing, we at Basketball Insiders have decided to spark a positional ranking series, sure enough, to garner some healthy discussion about the elite of the elite in the Association.

Ben Nadeau kicked us off on Tuesday by not only breaking down statistical areas but also facial hair and fun facts about the top shooting guards. Drew Maresca continued with a system based on individual numbers and impact on the team via net ratings when discussing the best power forwards. My strategy will be kind of a smorgasbord of sorts, counting what I’ve personally seen in my coverage of the league — no points system, really.

My draw was small forwards, a position that’s kind of been altered due to the rise of the point forward and playmaking twos. There’s an overlap of all kinds when you look at how teams construct rotations. It all depends on what the head coach’s beliefs are and where the respective players are put in lineups. You can look at size or you can look at abilities, depending on your view of the situation. Point being, the definition of small forward has been pretty subjective as of late.

For example, I would’ve listed Paul George as a three, however, Ben decided to throw him in on his list because he’s technically the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Jayson Tatum is one who is clearly on the come-up as one of the top forwards in the league, yet Drew put him — as well as the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — as a four because that’s how the Boston Celtics choose to use him in certain combinations.

Injuries can also play a major factor, so we’re not going to leave those players out because they didn’t make an impact on this current season. We know what their capabilities are and that can’t go unnoticed despite the “what have you don’t for me lately” crowd.

So enough babbling on my part, let’s get to it, shall we?

8) DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

To be as consistent of an offensive threat that DeMar DeRozan has been for the past decade is *not* easy. The way he plays the game is a throwback, somebody that backs you down on the block and turns around with a fadeaway. He’s looking to draw fouls on his way to the tin. He loves a good 15-footer on the baseline, at the nail or at the corners on the key. The Spurs haven’t put together winning basketball this year, unfortunately, but pointing the finger solely at DeRozan would be foolish — especially with his annual statistics backing up his impact.

7) Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine is “the guy” in the Windy City. He’s the most consistent player that the Chicago Bulls have and is a scoring machine. All of a sudden, he’s launching eight threes per game and cashing in on 38 percent of those tries. For a guy who came into the league with crazy athleticism, LaVine’s known for much more than that these days. And while he may not fit the mold of a three, he certainly could start at that position for a number of teams.

6) Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

A first-time All-Star this year, Brandon Ingram is turning heads going into free agency — although in all likelihood, he’ll be staying with the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s continued the upward trajectory that he really started to find toward the end of last season with the Lakers, which was abruptly ended due to a blood clot in his arm.

Ingram’s willingness to be the aggressor has been the primary reason for this ascension. He’s been putting on a clinic in a career season as a three-point shooter (38.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), while taking responsibility as the first option in Alvin Gentry’s offense, with Zion Williamson being groomed to share those touches. That’s quite a duo moving forward if you ask me.

5) Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton’s evolution into an All-Star player has been a joy to watch because it’s been a steady rise. He hasn’t stopped growing. When you’re touted as a 3-and-D guy, it kind of puts you in a box, especially in the sense of contract talk. However, he didn’t allow that to happen and has exploded out of that box with authority, earning a well-deserved payday prior to this season.

Under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Middleton has been able to expand his game while employing what brought him to the dance at the same time. He’s lethal from both the perimeter and inside it as a jump shooter (51.8 percent from 10-to-16 feet, 53.8 percent from 16 feet to the arc), is reliable as a secondary playmaker and displays tenacity as an individual defender.

It’s not as if Middleton came out of nowhere. He’s not some overnight sensation or a one-hit wonder. He just kept grinding and working on his game, and the results have come from it. That, in and of itself, should be why he deserves respect from everybody.

4) Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT

Jimmy Butler’s desire to win is what makes him so special. He’s a refuse-to-lose type of player and will stop at nothing to ensure victory for his team. With him as the *technical* No. 1 option, the Miami HEAT have benefited. He’s gotten everybody around him involved while simultaneously knowing when he needs to score. If you need evidence, see Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who have become household names just like that.

Aside from his outside shooting taking a hit this year, Butler’s efficiency has improved tremendously — he’s averaging the fewest amount of shot attempts he’s had since 2013-14. His straight-to-the-point demeanor on the hardwood has elevated his game since he entered the league, and it’s been well received in South Beach as opposed to the way things went for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The man they call Jimmy Buckets craves the pressure and the big shot. He salivates at the opportunity to get a key stop in crunch time. He loves to be a mentor to his guys. That’s what makes Butler so fun to watch, for me — his attitude.

3) Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

The basketball world needs Kevin Durant back. Forget the outside noise and just go back to watch him make magic happen on the floor — there may not be a smoother player in the NBA. We’re all anxiously waiting to see what the new-look Brooklyn Nets look like with him and Kyrie Irving paired together.

Durant’s game is an unorthodox meeting of in-your-face and finesse. He finds crevices and navigates his way to the paint with his slick handles. As soon as he sees defenders take one step back, BOOM, he’ll pull up from wherever he is at that moment. When he’s guarding you, it’s like a real-life Doc-Ock is swarming because his ridiculous length feels as if he has more than two arms. Most dangerous of all? His clutch gene. I’ve seen it live at the NBA Finals, where he put the Cavaliers away with two daggers from basically the same exact spot in nearly identical scenarios in back-to-back years.

Talk about the skills for a “small forward” who is, in essence, a seven-footer and you’ve discovered a man who has broken basketball — in a good way. And while he’ll already go down as one of the best to ever play the game, something tells me KD is going to come back with a vengeance next season. Scary thought.

2) Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

Ah yes, the Fun Guy. There aren’t not many like Kawhi left in sports. He comes into work, clocks in and clocks out. No focus on “flash” and little emotion on the court. There’s a very old-school feel to his tendencies: hard-nosed, physical, deliberate. He thrives in the mid-range and can attack you in a straight line drive to get to the bucket. His other nickname is the Klaw because of his massive hands, the same hands that deflect, steal and block opponents who try to sneak by him.

When he was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Kawhi got back to work and ultimately helped lead the franchise to its first NBA title. It’s easy to forget exactly how good somebody is when they’re out of the picture with an injury as he was at the end of his time with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s back home in Los Angeles now along with Paul George, where the stars truly reside nowadays on both sides at Staples Center.

As far as what he’s done this season, Kawhi is one of three players in the Association with usage above 32 percent, so he’s *heavily* depended on to guide the Clippers in the right direction. Judging by the team’s 44-20 record, his improved vision and consistent scoring output, so far, so good.

1) LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Surprise, surprise…not. It seems pretty pointless to discuss the piles upon piles of awards and accolades LeBron has earned over his historic 17-year career. Everybody knows about them, and even the most casual and laid-back fans of sports understand the magnitude he has on the world as a whole. When it comes to the hardcore NBA enthusiasts, it’s essentially split down the middle between whether or not he’s the greatest to ever play the game in comparison to Michael Jordan.

Unlike many of my colleagues, comparisons don’t suit my style. I appreciate greatness and can’t stand pitting the likes of two iconic superstars against one another. It’s simply unfathomable for somebody to believe LeBron isn’t great at this game, as it is for MJ. I know it’s fun to envision and debate, but let’s get away from that, please. It’s been around for way too long and just getting old at this point, if you ask me (or maybe I’ve become the old man yelling at a cloud).

Anyways, the fusion of magnetism, power, unselfishness, athleticism and headiness — and the sustainability of those qualities — makes up for a Megatron-like presence (MegaBron? No offense, Calvin Johnson) on the floor that can rarely be stopped. There are so many intricacies within LeBron’s game that it’s hard to know where to start regarding a full-on breakdown of what he brings to the table. His mind is almost robotic in the way he can pinpoint plays in a game at exact moments and run through them verbatim. You’ll realize that when you speak to his teammates, past or present, in any scenario.

While covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in their last two Eastern Conference championship seasons before his decision to head west in the summer of 2018, LeBron specifically mentioned watching film of Kyle Korver and where the veteran sharpshooter liked to catch the ball, with seams or without. To be able to process that in the moment during actual games and deliver that preference spot-on is nothing short of amazing — and he did it. LeBron’s continued to make the game easier on his teammates with the ball in his hands, too. He has always successfully found ways to adapt. Watch the playoffs from that year and you’ll get a stern reminder of his capabilities (or just, you know, pay attention to the age-defying season he’s having with the Lakers).

At 35 years old, LeBron is playing at an MVP level, as healthy and engaged as he’s ever been. He’s always said Father Time is undefeated, but that man has yet to put The King away.

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns

That was fun, wasn’t it? As I wrote this piece, it turned into something completely different than I had initially thought. That’s the beauty of what we do right now. We can be creative in different ways and take an unconventional approach to these.

Again, small forwards weren’t an easy draw, but the eight players listed here more than deserve their due at being the best to do it at their position.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more of our positional ranking series!

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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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