The Rotation is a weekly study on the NBA by one of our All-Star voices. In rotation this week is Tom Ziller.
Depending on your interior biases, the Utah Jazz either represent a flimsy facade waiting to be knocked over or the last gasp of insurgent power willing to make the Western Conference playoffs compelling.
As always, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. The public consensus, however, has cast Utah as more bit player than force to be reckoned with. But mis-measuring the Jazz as a Western also-ran is a huge mistake.
It seems highly unlikely that, barring another catastrophic injury, anyone will beat L.A. in the Western bracket this spring. The renewed interest in San Antonio has been cute, but anyone who suggests the Lakers shouldn't wham through the West in April and May can call delusion or drugs a friend. As such, I cannot with a straight face/bloodstream tell you I think the Jazz can beat L.A. in the playoffs. Sorry.
But there's no shame in solid contention these days, especially since the end of the trade season has been reached. Carlos Boozer won't leave until July at the earliest. Frankly, the assumed rumors this month never materialized. Utah management is not content to look toward a future of Paul Millsap just yet. Boozer still means something to the Jazz, and because of that, this season still means something, even if second place is the top attainable prize.
As such, here are the three reasons Utah could end up as the Western Conference's maid-of-honor.
No other contender has been beaten down by injuries as much as Utah. The Jazz are behind in the standings, having just robbed the eighth seed from Phoenix. Contemporaries San Antonio, New Orleans and Denver have head starts on valuable home court seeds in the race with the Jazz.
The simple might look at the standings and surmise those contenders are better than the Jazz. But Utah has faced the biggest injury-related hurdles so far this season. Look at the top trio of players for each team. (All figures through Sunday.)
The Spurs suffered famous injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But to date, S.A. has had its trio (Parker, Ginobili, Tim Duncan) available for 135 of a possible 162 player-games this season, or 83%. New Orleans has seen Chris Paul and David West limp a bit, with Tyson Chandler dealing with a more serious malady. Still, these three have played in 130 of 162 possible player-games, or 80%. The Nuggets, long champions of the "Devastating Injury", have had Chauncey Billups, Nené and Carmelo Anthony available for 147 of 168 player-games, or 88%.
Our protagonists, the Jazz: the triplicate of Boozer, Deron Williams and Mehmet Okur have been available for 101 of 165 player-games through Sunday, or 61%. Replace Memo with Millsap (which is revisionist, but whatever) and the figure moves only slightly toward the positive. Replacing Okur with Andrei Kirilenko (still revisionist, still "whatever") bumps this figure down. Ronnie Brewer has been the only rotation player healthy the entire season. None of the top four or five weapons have maintained health this campaign.
All Jazz players are currently healthy. Last week saw the first practice of the entire season in which all 15 players on the roster were available to participate. Monday night (Boozer's return) marked the first game this season in which the projected preseason starting five shared the court.
The Spurs, Hornets and Nuggets might have a head start in the ledger. But Utah stands the best opportunity of making up ground.
The Boozer-Millsap battle isn't a crisis -- it's a boon. Maybe it's elementary to argue that having two incredible weapons at the power forward position might actually help a team, but with all the contrarian B.S. bandied about it also seems necessary. Here we go: adding Boozer to the starting line-up in front of Millsap will not hurt the Jazz. I'm the foremost adopter of Millsap as minor deity. But it's amazing. There are these things called "rotations" and "benches" and "substitutions." It turns out that most NBA players do not in fact play 48 minutes a game. In fact, big men -- like Carlos Boozer -- usually rest more than the guards! As such, "bench players" get into the game ... sometimes for major minutes.
I don't need to be that big of a [expletive deleted], but you get the point. Millsap is good, real good. Boozer is better. Millsap is better than 100%* of the other back-up power forwards in the NBA. Boozer is better than 80%* of the other starting power forwards in the NBA. Having those levels of excellence -- that's a good thing. Millsap will get minutes, Boozer will get minutes. Maybe if Jerry Sloan is feeling pretty, we might see them play together. ! (* Rough estimate. ** Rougher estimate.)
With a little less snark, let me note that Boozer and Millsap are the team's best rebounders. Okur's primary offering to the Jazz is deft shooting -- it's a vital skill Utah would be a mess without. But if banging is what the team needs, Sloan has two of the league's best rebounders and post-scorers at his disposal. Most teams use at least three big men in a rotation. Utah has four, any of which could start for most teams in the league. (In fact, any of the four would be a significant upgrade as the third big for every other team in the league.) Luckily, Kirilenko has turned into a saint at small forward, where he can back up C.J. Miles. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more stout big-man rotation on any team over the last decade.
Utah's offensive weakness -- point guard depth -- will be hidden in the postseason. If there's one position where Utah has no depth, it's point guard. Ronnie Price is
Williams played 43 minutes per game during the 2008 playoffs. The ability of the back-ups to mess things up will be minimalized when it counts. You'd also suspect Williams -- further removed from his tricky ankle injury every day -- to pick up more minutes as the games become more vital. A November showdown won't require a 45-minute night the way in which an implication-filled March game will.
At the other wing positions, Sloan really has options. Brewer does a stellar job in defending the wing; Matt Harpring has gotten slow, but he will knock someone's teeth out before Sloan even asks. Kyle Korver has played far worse than normal this season. We all know Korver can hit a half-dozen straight threes without warning. Miles has been up-and-down, and remains the starting lineup's weak link. Kirilenko, an All-Star in the proper situation, is one hell of an insurance policy (and still one of the league's best defenders). The team is deep at all positions but the lead guard, and that probably won't matter in May.
Discount the Jazz at your own peril.