NBA insiders discuss the biggest issues in the league. Can the Jazz, Blazers and Spurs maintain their early success?
Chris Mannix: OK, Beck, this has already been a season full of surprises—and I’m not talking about Kyrie’s social media, the Lakers’ struggles, or the Minnesota dysfunction. I’m talking about Utah! And Portland! And Spurs! If you had told me weeks ago that three of the top nine in the West would be teams that I would bet big would be lotteries, I would have called you crazy. And yet here we are. But it’s a long season and we haven’t even reached Thanksgiving yet. So, can any of these teams stay in the playoffs come April?
Howard Beck: Cue the Herm Edwards “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!” memes. Also, write every cliché about games not being won on paper, yadda, yadda. Seriously, that’s the great thing about sports. Even in an age of analytics and fancy algorithms, we can’t predict everything. We can still be pleasantly surprised. The question is, what is real and what is mirage at the start of the season? If I rank these teams from most viable to least viable, I’ll go Blazer, Jazz, Spurs. San Antonio will definitely be in the draw. The Blazers easily have the most talent in the group and should be a playoff team if they stay healthy. It’s the Jazz that confuses me the most. Is Lauri Markkanen really All-Star now? Is this group of (almost literally) playoff replacements really capable? And, more importantly: Is this what the Jazz front office really wants?
Mannix: Let’s say for a moment the Jazz will-or-will-have a fire issue. To stay on the subject of football: How about ‘dem Blazers! They didn’t sell me in the Portland offseason. I liked Anfernee Simons, but I’ve seen the high-scoring team in the backcourt there before. I like Jerami Grant, but I’ve had a few people connected to Detroit tell me he wasn’t as great of a defender as some say. I like Chauncey Billups, but he did nothing last year to suggest he was a top coach.
But everything has come together. Simons picked up where he left off last season. Grant defends and shooting better than 40% from three for the first time in his career. Billups has worked brilliantly in a zone defense that has the Blazers defending at a high level. Do you see all – or any – of these things as sustainable?
Nod: Yes, it’s totally viable, for one big reason: Dame. It’s amazing how quickly we all forget what a transcendent talent he is, due to an injury-riddled (and diminished) season. When healthy, he’s still a top-10 player in this league and capable of carrying this team to the playoffs. Yes, the Lillard-Simons backcourt is smaller, just like the Lillard-McCollum backcourt was smaller, and perhaps that puts a similar ceiling on this version of the Blazers. But the additions of Grant, Josh Hart and Gary Payton II give them a defensive edge and athleticism that has been lacking in recent editions. I don’t see the Blazers finishing in the top four of the West, and they might even sink into play-in range once some underachievers (looking at you, Warriors and Clippers) recover. But I see them as a legitimate playoff team – and ultimately better than the Jazz.
Mannix: Give yourself some wiggle room, eh Beck? Play-in suggests they might be a top-10 team in the West, which they aren’t that impressive given where this team has finished in recent years. To be a bit counterintuitive here: In the 20–21 season, Lillard averaged 28.8 points per game. McCollum averaged 23.1. They had the second best offensive rating in the NBA. Seven players averaged in double figures. And they finished sixth. What kept them there was a defense that was absolutely awful, 29th in the NBA. This team’s defense, as I type, ranks in the top-10. So I guess the question is how sustainable is this defense? Because we’ve seen how far a great Dame season gets the Blazers. He’s a shell of the Jamal Murray-less Nuggets. For me this team will only go as far as their defense will take them. So how sustainable is this D?
Nod: No wiggle room! (*Seinfeld voice*) I said they’re a playoff team! I just think it’s a lot to ask for them to grab one of these top six guaranteed slots. As for their newfound defensive profile: It’s still too early to know if that’s sustainable. Sorry. But I think their added wing depth (and length), which also includes (oft-injured) Justise Winslow and rookie Shaedon Sharpe, is a good thing. If anyone is avoiding here, Mannix, it’s you, on this Jazz vs. Blazers question. So tell me, who has the best record on April 10th?
Mannix: Eesh. I don’t know, partly because I can’t be sure what Utah’s roster looks like. But let’s assume Jazz remains intact. I believe playoff level basketball is viable. Look: Lauri Markkanen is real. He was a big part of Cleveland’s success last season, and it’s no surprise that in an enhanced role — he’s averaging four more shots per game than last season — he’s thriving. Jordan Clarkson may not be shooting 40-plus percent from three all year, but he’s a proven scorer. Mike Conley is still a solid point guard. The Jazz go nine or ten deep with legitimate NBA players. That includes Walker Kessler, the former Wolves draft pick who I think will turn out to be a steal. So yeah, if Utah doesn’t blow the team, I think they’ll finish ahead of the Blazers. Do you disagree?
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Nod: Jazz is amazing and fun and totally confusing. And confusing is part of the fun. No one in the league saw this coming. No one expected it. And I think there’s still some justified skepticism about how sustainable this all is. Markkanen has always had talent, but he’s never been a No. 1 pick in the past. Maybe the Jazz got him at just the right time in his career. Can he keep this up? Is he really a guy you can build an offense around? These are still legitimate curiosities. The rest of the roster is made up of solid rotation guys, but not the firepower you usually need to be among the top teams in the West. And then there’s the biggest question of all: Is this what the Jazz really want? They traded away their two key stars this summer, specifically getting return packages that were heavy on picks and young players, not established stars. They didn’t seem to have any intention of winning this season, preferring to be part of Victor Wembanyama’s pursuit. Did the entire league misread their intentions? Or were they all right, and this is just a happy accident? And if it is, is it something Jazz officials want to support? Because they could sell high on Markkanen right now, trade a few other vets, and lean into the Wemby sweepstakes, and no one outside of Salt Lake would bat an eyelid.
Mannix: I spoke with Danny Ainge this week—check out the column when you’re done reading—and I think it’s closer to a happy accident than Utah stumbling into something sustainable. And while Ainge isn’t going to give away his veteran pieces, it’s more likely that one or more of the Conley/Clarkson/Olynyk group will be moved before mid-February. Which, honestly, is the right. Utah has 14 first-round picks through 2027. The more they add, the better the chance, either through the draft or trade, they can add talent that fits their timeline. The team I’m confused about is San Antonio. I never they thought they would be treading water at this point. But here they are, with early wins over Philadelphia and Chicago, and a narrow overtime loss to Memphis. What have you made for Spurs?
Nod: If there is a team, sure I know entered the season with an eye on the lottery, it’s the Spurs. You don’t trade your franchise star for draft picks if you’re still trying to compete for a playoff spot. The “problem” for the Spurs is that, as a rule, they have done a decent job of drafting and developing players. So Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell are blossoming and this young cast is competing every night, giving the Spurs more than they’re probably good for in terms of the lottery. But there’s not enough talent or depth here to keep it, and they’ll almost certainly trade Jakob Poeltl when the right offer comes along. Is there any reason to think otherwise?
Mannix: Nah. It’s a net positive for San Antonio to have young, contract-controlled players like Johnson and Vassell showing improvement. But — as evidenced by their current five-game losing streak — this is a team that will likely sink in the standings. Quickly. And yes, the last time the Spurs mailed in a season, they retired Tim Duncan. Perhaps history will repeat itself.
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