Utah Jazz: On the Eve of Opening Night, I’m Begrudgingly Optimistic

Opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season is here and Utah Jazz fans have reason to be optimistic for their team following offseason moves to improve the roster.

It’s been talked about ad nauseam. It began after the free agent frenzy this summer, continued as training camp broke late last month and now, once again, people are saying it as opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season is upon us.

Following a top-to-bottom rebuild that has been completed in phases over a period of multiple seasons, the Utah Jazz are kind of good. Maybe even among the league’s elite.

After years of asset accumulation and internal development, a squad that has been carefully constructed by GM Dennis Lindsey, playing in a system devised by one of the league’s coaching phenoms in Quin Snyder, led by low-key stars Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, is ready to break out.

The hype train is shooting down the tracks at breakneck speed and fan optimism is higher than it’s been in years.

As for me, I’m digging the enthusiasm and I’m ready to ride that train myself. The Jazz organization has given us every reason to feel good about the season. However, my optimism for this new-look Jazz team comes with caution.

What can I say? I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Make no mistake about it — the moves to acquire George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw have changed Utah’s trajectory. No longer will scrapping for a back-end playoff spot and a surefire first-round exit get the job done. This team is built to win.

Some would even go so far as to say the Jazz could win 50 games this year and challenge for home court advantage in that first round.

I’m a logical guy and I definitely see the logic in that line of thinking. After all, the Jazz are deep and not just because of those veteran offseason adds. The return of defensive wunderkind Dante Exum and sixth-man extraordinaire Alec Burks also serve to give the team options they simply didn’t have during the ill-fated, injury-plagued 2015-16 campaign.

Utah Jazz Gordon Hayward

Sep 26, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during Media Day at Zion Bank Basketball Center. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the core to consider. Hayward and Favors have been on the All-Star cusp for some time and Gobert is quickly becoming one of the best big men in the Association. Another year of development, more experience as the key cogs in the Jazz machine and a better supporting cast could propel them out of the fringes and into limelight.

And yet, I find myself fretting over all the could go wrong.

The Jazz have yet to play one regular season game and, already, their two best players have been bitten by the injury bug. Hayward will miss multiple weeks of action with a broken finger, while Favors was limited to just one preseason game thanks to IT band syndrome.

I don’t even know what an IT band is, but syndromes in general aren’t good things.

And they’re not the only ones that have been banged up either. Rodney Hood missed multiple preseason games with a hand sprain and Diaw has been nursing some bruises in recent days as well.

There’s also the matter of chemistry to consider. On paper, Hill, Johnson and Diaw seem like the perfect veteran pieces to complement the rest of the young, versatile Jazz roster. Unfortunately, games aren’t played on paper. There’s even the possibility that the three of them won’t fit in like Jazz fans expect them to.

What if Johnson never gets the offense down or ends up yearning for the Iso Joe days of old? Maybe Hill loses his spot to Exum and is left to count the days until his contract expires. Perhaps Diaw does more to enhance his teammates’ dining habits than their actual play on the floor.

All of these seem unlikely scenarios, but this is professional sports and unlikely stuff happens with surprising regularity. In the last few days alone, my goat-cursed Chicago Cubs punched their ticket to the World Series and a primetime NFL game ended in a 6-6 tie after BOTH kickers shanked chip-shot field goals.

Then there’s the schedule. Healthy or not, and regardless of whether they’re on the same page or going it renegade-style, the Jazz face one of the more difficult opening stretches league-wide.

Five of their first six games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. This is followed in short order by a five-game Eastern road swing. In the first 19 days of the new season, the Jazz will play 11 games, including several back-to-back sets. Even if the Jazz had all hands on deck, that is some tough sledding.

The result could be a Jazz team playing catch-up from the opening tip.

We also have to be mindful of the stiff competition the Jazz will face in the Western Conference.

Utah’s foes in the Northwest Division will provide a season-long test. The Portland Trail Blazers boast the best one of the best backcourt duos in the league in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Russell Westbrook will have the Oklahoma City Thunder competing for a playoff spot and the Minnesota Timberwolves are the team of the future thanks to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors

Oct 15, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) moves with the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of the West remains a gauntlet as well. First and foremost, the Golden State Warriors figure to be historically strong after adding Kevin Durant in free agency. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs will continue to do Spurs things and Lob City is running strong with CP3, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

There are also cases to be made for the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks.

Having said all of that, though, I’m firmly on-board with what the Jazz are doing. As hard as I’m working to remind everyone of all the ways the season can go wrong, it’s plain to see that the team could be on the cusp of something great.

Last year, injuries and inexperience stymied what should’ve been Utah’s coming out party. The 2016-17 Jazz are better equipped to stay afloat when times get tough. With the current roster, the Jazz figure to be one of the better offensive clubs in the league, while maintaining a defensive front that has been heralded as elite.

So Jazz fans are feeling optimistic and I’m right there with them. I’ll even go out on the limb with some of you in saying that this team could be even better than the rave reviews are suggesting.

Just don’t hate me if I’m in constant fear of that limb getting hacked off when we least expect it.