Can a healthy Utah Jazz team beat this year’s version of the Houston Rockets?

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 8: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets hugs Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz after winning the game during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - MAY 8: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets hugs Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz after winning the game during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Considering how both teams’ offseasons have gone so far, one can’t help but wonder if the Utah Jazz could topple the Houston Rockets in a postseason rematch.

No matter how you look at it, the 2017-18 season was an overwhelming success for the Utah Jazz. Overcoming a tough offseason in 2017, the squad bounced back to return to the playoffs and even advance to the second round.

That success notwithstanding, the way the season came to an end was still disappointing. The Jazz had closed out the year so strong and had risen so high, especially in comparison to where many thought they’d be, that to see them fall in five games – many of which were blowouts – to the Houston Rockets was a little bit disheartening.

Still, the series was actually more competitive than its “gentleman’s sweep” nature indicated. Utah was spectacular in their Game 2 victory, and had injuries not gotten in the way, the entire series could have resulted much differently.

First and foremost, the Jazz had the misfortune of being without their starting point guard Ricky Rubio for the entirety of the series. Throughout the latter part of the season and especially in the playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rubio had proven himself as a driving force for the Jazz. With him out of action, not only did Utah miss his scoring punch, but losing out on his ability to run the offense and make things flow for Utah made for quite the notable absence.

Adding Rubio to Utah’s mix probably wouldn’t have been enough for them to take the series, but it certainly would have made the Jazz more competitive. As a scorer, facilitator and a defender who could have helped on Jazz killer Chris Paul, Rubio’s presence would have been invaluable. There’s no doubt in my mind that if he had been able to play, the Jazz could have pushed the series to at least one more game.

And Rubio wasn’t the last one to go down for the Jazz as both Dante Exum and Donovan Mitchell would later suffer injuries as well. Exum, who was crucial in slowing Harden in Game 2, went down in Game 4 and didn’t even play in Game 5. Mitchell, meanwhile, nearly single-handedly brought the Jazz back in Game 5 by going off in the third quarter, only to suffer an injury and miss most of the final period.

With that trio of guards sidelined, Utah’s chances were all but dashed against the incredibly prolific Houston offense that also was excellent defensively. The Rockets would go on to push the behemoth Golden State Warriors to seven games in a series that very well could have gone their way had Chris Paul not gotten hurt. Considering that Houston held a 3-2 lead in the series, Paul’s injury is perhaps one of the biggest “what if” moments in franchise history.

Should the Jazz and Rockets meet again in this upcoming season’s playoffs, it ought to make for quite the series. The Jazz are much younger than the Rockets and should undergo significant internal growth this summer, but beyond that, the team looks very much the same outside of draft pick Grayson Allen and officially signed former G-Leaguer Georges Niang.

The Rockets, meanwhile, are going to look quite a bit different, and they very well may not be done yet. For now, let’s set aside the fact that they have yet to even re-sign Clint Capela, who was key to their playoff run, and that the uncertainty surrounding his situation clouds Houston’s immediate future in a big way.

Even with that out of the way, it’s debatable whether or not the Rockets are headed in the right direction this offseason. They lost two of their most formidable perimeter defenders in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. One of the reasons why the Rockets went from a good team in 2016-17 to an elite team in 2017-18 (aside from the obvious factor of adding Chris Paul) was because they added a focus on defense to their already impressive offensive punch.

Not only did they lose two top-tier defenders this summer, but they also just added a player who fits the exact opposite mold – Carmelo Anthony. Some may be bullish about Melo’s addition to the Houston Rockets, after all, an offensive juggernaut just added one of the best scorers of this generation. However, as the Jazz clearly proved in their series against the Thunder, Anthony has largely become a shell of his former self.

He’s never been a staunch defender and as he approaches 35 years of age, that’s become even more the case. In years past, Melo’s lack of defense could be completely outweighed by his stellar scoring abilities. However, Utah was able to effectively neutralize him in last year’s playoff series. He couldn’t cover Derrick Favors, but Favors and others did a formidable job of covering him. Melo shot just 37.5 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three in that series.

Those figures were lower than usual, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they were a fluke. Carmelo shot just barely above 40 percent during the regular season as a member of the Thunder and has failed to shoot over 36 percent from 3-point land in each of the last four seasons. In other words, his shooting prowess has been rapidly declining of late.

Thus, with the loss of defensive specialists and capable 3-point shooters Ariza and Mbah a Moute, the contract debacle of Clint Capela, an extra year to the already aging and injury-prone Chris Paul and especially the addition of Carmelo Anthony, who was rendered useless by the Jazz last postseason and has been more of a plague than a help on recent rosters, is it a stretch at all to say the Rockets will be worse next season? I definitely don’t think so.

Still, Houston should be a very, very good team. Considering that they have reigning MVP James Harden, that Chris Paul is still sensational when healthy, that they’ll probably find a way to retain Clint Capela and still have plenty of other weapons, they ought to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference. And perhaps they’ll still be able to beat the Jazz should they meet in the playoffs.

However, with the Jazz staying consistent to their core and likely undergoing significant internal improvement, I have a hunch that at the very least, the gap between these two teams has shrunk immensely. The Jazz will experience a slow and steady incline as their players continue to mesh and improve, while the Rockets roster attrition and questionable addition of Carmelo Anthony will likely lead to a small decline.

Next: Utah Jazz: Tobias Harris should be in play next summer

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Jazz and Rockets will meet in the postseason this time around, but if they do, Houston had better watch out. Their odds of an easy five-game series victory have taken a serious hit.