Monday, December 6 2021

The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.

Nobody picked the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns to finish with the two best records in the Western Conference, just as no one predicted the Suns would reach the NBA Finals, and it would be easy to cast them both aside as anomalies in a pandemic-shortened season rife with injuries to the heavy favorites.

Only, the anomaly extends to this season. Championship hopes of the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets remain on ice, as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jamal Murray recover from major injuries. And a Los Angeles Lakers team that limped to the finish line last season is even older.  

The Jazz and Suns still own the most complete teams in the West, so the only explanation for neither being one of BetMGM’s two most likely rosters to emerge from the conference is that nobody believes in them.

Believe in them.

The Utah Jazz addressed their biggest weakness

The Jazz brought back every member of a seven-man rotation that finished with one of the 15 best net ratings in NBA history (+9.0), almost three points per 100 possessions better than any other team in the league, and they added at least two players who could crack it at their biggest position of weakness.

Wings Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles vacillated between the forward positions, and Georges Niang filled in as a nominal four off the bench, but none of them had the wherewithal to slide into a small-ball center role when teams played All-NBA center Rudy Gobert off the floor. Utah was outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions without Gobert in the playoffs, exclusively relying on Derrick Favors at center.

Favors is gone, his contract dumped on the Oklahoma City Thunder. In steps mercurial minimum-salaried backup center Hassan Whiteside, who should see few regular-season minutes and less in the playoffs. The acquisitions of Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall signal a necessary modern approach to non-Gobert minutes.

The 35-year-old Gay shifted from a primary wing to a stretch four in the second half of his career, and that transformation has included recent bursts of small-ball five. Employing the 6-foot-8, 250-pound veteran at center, the San Antonio Spurs owned a +7 net rating over a not-insignificant 486-possession sample size the past two seasons. Gay was also a 40% catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter last season, meaning he can play alongside Gobert before sliding into center when the Clippers try to man Marcus Morris in the middle.

Paschall may not be the shooter Gay has become, but he is stout enough to bang with bigger bodies and athletic enough to switch defensively. Given Draymond Green’s presence, the Warriors rarely used Paschall at center in quality lineups, but the limited possessions he did play at the five yielded positive results. The combination of Gay and Paschall, at the very least, gives Utah a dimension it sorely lacked in the playoffs.

Whether that prevents the Jazz from suffering another postseason choke job is another story. Excuses for losing Games 6 and 7 to the Leonard-less Clippers in the second round should stop well short of Gobert’s perimeter defense, but advanced statistics darling Mike Conley did play only 26 minutes in the series.

Given the resources the Jazz have committed, it should not be that difficult to field a capable playoff rotation around Donovan Mitchell, who has established himself as a legitimate postseason monster. The guy is averaging a 34-5-5 on 48/46/88 shooting splits over his last three playoff series. Another playoff failure would force both Mitchell and the Jazz to reckon with the necessity for a shakeup beyond tinkering with the frontcourt’s versatility around Gobert, and that should be all the motivation they need to win now.

Suns guard Devin Booker and Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell are two of the NBA's brightest rising stars. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)Suns guard Devin Booker and Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell are two of the NBA's brightest rising stars. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Suns guard Devin Booker and Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell are two of the NBA’s brightest rising stars. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns know who they are now

The Suns are operating on a different frequency, riding the high of a rags-to-riches turnaround, courtesy of Chris Paul. The question is whether their 36-year-old future Hall of Fame point guard can survive the West’s playoff gauntlet again, and the answer should lie in the confidence he delivered to Phoenix’s rising stars.

There is every reason to believe Devin Booker will finally crack the All-NBA roster this season, and nobody should be surprised to see Deandre Ayton warrant consideration for his first All-Star appearance. Already a defensive stalwart, the 23-year-old Ayton is a mix of opportunity, aggressiveness and consistency away from pushing his average to an uber-efficient 20 points a night, to go along with his double-digit rebounds.

Likewise, wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson should also benefit from a year of service that ended with battle-tested playoff scars. Collective progression of the young Suns should ease the regular-season burden on Paul, as should the addition of Elfrid Payton to a depth chart that also includes Cameron Payne.

JaVale McGee’s arrival shores up the backup center minutes that killed the Suns in crucial playoff games, especially once Dario Saric suffered his torn ACL in Game 1 of the Finals. His absence will hinder their frontcourt versatility, but his is not an irreplaceable role further down the line on the trade or buyout market.

The Suns have an identity now, and that identity wiped the floor with teams headlined by LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Paul George in the 2021 playoffs. Granted, the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers were without Anthony Davis (in part), Murray and Leonard, respectively, but the latter two are still injured, and good luck to an increasingly fragile Lakers core, reinforced by castoffs, trying to keep pace with the Suns and Jazz.

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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Source: Yahoo Sports

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