NBA Season Preview Series – Part 13

As we mentioned in Part 1 of this series, we will be previewing the NBA season by ranking the clubs in reverse order and revealing those clubs two at a time. Here’s what those rankings look like at this point:
30. Atlanta Hawks
29. Sacramento Kings
28. Orlando Magic
27. Phoenix Suns
26. Chicago Bulls
25. New York Knicks
24. Brooklyn Nets
23. Charlotte Hornets
22. Memphis Grizzlies
21. Dallas Mavericks
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
19. Los Angeles Clippers
18. Detroit Pistons
17. Miami Heat
16. Washington Wizards
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
14. Portland Trail Blazers
13. San Antonio Spurs
12. Denver Nuggets
11. Milwaukee Bucks
10. Indiana Pacers
9. New Orleans Pelicans
8. Los Angeles Lakers
7. Oklahoma City Thunder

Here are the next two clubs:

6. Utah Jazz

Last Season: 48-34 (0.585) (3rd in Northwest Division, 5th in Western Conference)
Head Coach: Quin Snyder (5th season with team, 177-151 team; 177-151 overall)
Major Off-season Acquisitions: Grayson Allen (21st pick)
Major Off-season Departures: Jonas Jerebko
Salary Cap Info: $117.4 million ($15.5M over cap, $6.3M luxury tax room)
Narrative: The Jazz didn’t add (or lose) much over the summer, focusing instead on resigning their own free agents – Derrick Favors and Dante Exum – and potentially positioning themselves in future seasons. But the Jazz also hope that the team will see more health this season instead, and getting full seasons from everyone, but mostly Dante Exum (14 games), Thabo Sefolosha (38 games) and Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (56 games), the latter of which pushed the team to the playoffs after returning from a midseason injury.
Gobert played in only 18 of the Jazz’s first 44 games last season. The team was 7-11 (0.388) in the 18 games he played – and only a little better without him during that stretch (11-15, 0.423). So the team was 18-26 when he finally returned for a January loss against the New York Knicks, but they finished the season on a 30-8 (0.789) tear, tying for the Division title and only losing out on the title because of tiebreakers. Gobert and his defense was a big reason why the Jazz did so well, and he was rewarded for that performance with the DPOY award despite only playing 56 games total.
Expect more of the same from the Jazz this season, who are driven by defense and who finished second last season in defensive rating. A full season from Exum and Sefolosha, as well as the continuing growth from Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell should push the Jazz to the top of the Northwest Division, and they should settle into the 3rd playoff spot out West. They have lost in the past two playoffs to the teams above them – Golden State in 2017 and Houston last season – but this Jazz team could be something special.

5. Toronto Raptors

Last Season: 59-23 (0.720) (1st in Atlantic Division, 1st in Eastern Conference)
Head Coach: Nick Nurse (1st season with team, 0-0 team; 0-0 overall)
Major Off-season Acquisitions: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (trade with Spurs), Greg Monroe, Kay Felder
Major Off-season Departures: DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl (trade with Spurs)
Salary Cap Info: $140.5 million ($38.6M over cap, $16.8M over luxury tax)
Narrative: The third most expensive roster in the league finally doesn’t have LeBron James and the Cavaliers in their way. Does that mean that the Raptors will finally reach an NBA Finals? Probably not, as the teams above them on this list – the Celtics and 76ers – seem to be better teams right now. Plus, after only playing nine games last season amid leg injuries, it’s hard to say whether Kawhi Leonard will be the two-way force he last was two seasons ago for the Spurs, or if it will take him a while to get back into form. As he goes, the Raptors go, and they could be one Joel Embiid injury – or Jayson Tatum growing pains – away from being the class of the East.
And they are going to be doing it with a new coach. Former coach Dwane Casey and the team “agreed to part ways” mere days after he was awarded with the Coach of the Year award for leading the Raptors to the top seed out East. Nick Nurse has paid his coaching dues, coaching in various leagues around the world and finally gets his shot with an NBA team. There could be worse teams to end up with in your first NBA coaching gig, but he’s been with the team for five seasons as an assistant and knows most of the players. I expect the Raptors to win between 54-60 games and maybe fight for the top seed, but it will be important for them to feast on the weaker Eastern Conference teams outside of their division.
Until next time… 
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