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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Four NBA teams that could surprise this season

Utah Jazz

Come hither, brethren. Take a seat next to me and prepare to warm your hands over the hot take furnace I’m about to light. Are you nice and comfortable? Good. Now we’re ready for this.

The Utah Jazz are the deepest non-Warriors team in the West.

The Jazz are almost certain to begin the season without both Gordon Hayward, who suffered a gnarly-sounding finger injury, and Derrick Favors, who’s dealing with a bum knee. Those are two guys who averaged a total of 36.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.8 blocks for them last season. But Utah doesn’t need you to go playing a sad song for them on the world’s smallest violin. Quite the contrary actually.

The Salt Lakers (Double entendre, anyone? Because they were on the receiving end of Kobe’s 60-point game? OK, I’m gonna shut up now…) are fresh off an offseason for the ages in which they added professional bucket-maker Joe Johnson and His Majesty Boris Diaw for pennies on the dollar. They also managed to find a dumping ground for the perpetually underachieving Trey Burke and pulled off perhaps the ultimate #StayWoke move of the summer by acquiring George Hill to replace him. While Hill was no longer the right fit at his old stomping grounds in Indiana, he’s still a unique breed of point guard and exactly the type that Utah needs: a defensive-minded intangibles guy who can also spot up efficiently (shooting 44.5 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts last season) and slash to the cup with both purpose and results.

And don’t overlook the talent Utah already has in-house either. Rodney Hood is a cyborg wing scorer, Alec Burks has shown flashes of being a Dwyane Wade Lite, and Dante Exum, back for his first season post-ACL surgery, is the best thing to emerge from Australia since Tame Impala (and defends on the ball better than all five of them combined). Elsewhere, Joe Ingles is an excellent cost-effective playmaker for the second unit and Trey Lyles, the team’s other lottery selection of the last three drafts along with Exum, is a “Nightmare On Elm Street” of a matchup. And oh yeah, in addition to clobbering basketballs on the defensive end, Rudy Gobert has added a floater and some nifty finishes in the paint to his offensive arsenal as well.

Gobert will only get more comfortable when he pairs in the frontcourt with his fellow countryman Diaw, having built mad scientist-levels of chemistry with him in their many years playing together on the French national team. The net result is that Jazz aren’t a team that needs to rely on Hayward to be their Harden-esque workhorse anymore, and that’s exciting. With the potential Utah has to construct a true two-way juggernaut this season once they get back to full health, it’s time to embrace the double bass and the sax solos and prepare ourselves for all that Jazz.

Orlando Magic

In the span of just the last 8 months alone, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan traded Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings’ expiring contract, hired ex-Pacers head coach and defensive czar Frank Vogel to the same position in Orlando, flipped Ilyasova and Victor Oladipo as part of a package deal to acquire Serge Ibaka from the Oklahoma City Thunder, and used the team’s remaining cap space this offseason (aided by Jennings coming off the books) to not only land both Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green in free agency but also to re-sign Evan Fournier to a five-year deal. He’s clearly been sleeping on the job.

In reality though, the new-look Magic are a delight. The additions of Ibaka and Biyombo give them two elite rim patrol sergeants who are also mobile enough to corral perimeter players on switches. That matters on a team that finished in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating last season and hemorrhaged points whenever Nikola Vucevic shared the floor with a traditional power forward.

Ibaka in particular has already looked comfortable in Vogel’s pick-and-roll coverage scheme in the preseason, effortlessly snuffing out many an attempt by an opposing guard to get a clean look the lane.

The former All-Defensive First Teamer can easily slot next to either Biyombo or Vucevic with his smoother-than-a-sack-of-silk jumper and can even shift over to the 5 in smaller lineups similar to the way that the Thunder featured him in the playoffs towards the end of his tenure there. Biyombo and Vucevic together seems like a less ideal frontcourt combination for Orlando. But it could still be tenable in certain situations given the former’s rim-running gravity in addition to his robust interior defense as well as the latter’s ability to cook up points in the low post and to stretch out a D to the midrange area.

Meanwhile, all this shuffling of the deck has pushed Dunk Contest robbery victim Aaron Gordon over to the small forward position. But it looks like the versatile 21-year-old is up for the challenge. A long-limbed athlete who can check multiple positions on the defense, Gordon is also an intuitive enough cutter to play off the ball effectively as a regular 3. In fairness, His J does need some serious fixing to transform him into a permanent solution at the position (he shot just 30.1 percent on jumpers in 2015-16). But Gordon did connect on 43.5 percent of his right corner 3s, giving us at least some hope that he can be serviceable enough from range to be playable offensively as a small forward. He has noticeably strong rapport with Fournier as well with the Magic posting an offensive rating of 102.9 last season when the two played together. Whenever Gordon screens for “Never Google,” it’s a thing of beauty.

Fournier himself will be hoping to keep up the momentum in his age-24 season coming off one where he shot 40.0 percent from deep and established himself as a legitimate shot creator off the bounce. If Orlando can get consistent contributions from Elfrid Payton, who no longer has to share ball-handling duties with Oladipo, and Mario “Thinks He’s Croatian Kobe” Hezonja as well, the Eastern Conference playoff picture could boast a Hogwarts-worthy amount of Magic in 2016-17.

Image Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Nylon Calculus*

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