Utah Jazz shafted in ESPN’s power rankings, but lauded in The Athletic’s

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 29: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz celebrates a basket during a game against the Washington Wizards at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 29, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 29: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz celebrates a basket during a game against the Washington Wizards at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 29, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) /

The Utah Jazz received high praise in recent NBA power rankings from The Athletic, but didn’t fare so well in ESPN’s version.

With free agency all but wrapped up and the NBA Draft feeling like an eternity ago, about all that fans of the Utah Jazz and the rest of the NBA have to do for the remainder of the long offseason is speculate and anticipate. We all know the Jazz made some exciting moves this summer, and on paper it would appear that this new-look team is going to be really, really good.

But, of course, the Jazz aren’t the only team that got better this summer as they’ll face stiff competition in the likes of the LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and many others. As good as the Jazz are looking, they have their work cut out for them in 2019-20, and all we can do for now is predict and speculate just how high they might ascend.

And fans aren’t the only ones guessing and trying to put in far-too-early projections for how the standings will shake out in the NBA next season. Just recently, a host of ESPN writers got together to compile their aggregate NBA power rankings, and the results might be surprising to Jazz fans.

The ESPN list placed the Jazz at a middling ninth place, behind a trio of Eastern Conference teams in the Milwaukee Bucks (1), Philadelphia 76ers (4) and Boston Celtics (7), as well as the Portland Trail Blazers (8), Los Angeles Lakers (6), Houston Rockets (5), LA Clippers (3) and Denver Nuggets (2) in the West. Now, I know I’m a Jazz homer, but I truly attempt to take off my rose-colored glasses when I look at power rankings such as these, and I find Utah’s placement to be ludicrous.

No disrespect to some of the teams listed ahead of the Jazz, but Utah should be far better than ninth. The Boston Celtics arguably got worse by losing some of their defensive cornerstones and replacing them with big-man Enes Kanter. Not only that, but while Kemba Walker will be a better locker room fit and leader than Kyrie Irving was, there is some concern about an overall decline in talent at the point guard spot.

Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers made significant changes this offseason, but it’s hard to know whether they will truly be for the better. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers, despite adding Al Horford, are a bit of a question mark as they have a lot to sort out with their new lineup, and the Denver Nuggets are solid, but showed some significant weaknesses in their playoff loss to the Blazers (and didn’t do much this offseason outside of add Jerami Grant, though yes, I recognize they should improve internally).

In short, there are a lot of uncertainties about several of these teams that ESPN ranked above the Jazz, whereas the Jazz did little else but patch up the gaping holes they displayed in their latest playoff loss to the Houston Rockets. They added a versatile, dynamic shot-creator to help shoulder the load for Donovan Mitchell by signing Mike Conley. And they added excellent three-point shooting and a third scoring option in Bojan Bogdanovic.

They also shored up their frontcourt after losing Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder by adding Ed Davis and Jeff Green. We’re talking about a Utah team that was already well established defensively with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in their ranks and has now added significant offensive firepower to fill their biggest areas of need.

If anything, the Jazz are looking far more steady and sure than many of the other teams ahead of them. They may not have the highest ceiling of any team in the league with no All-Stars on their roster, but they could very well have the highest floor as a team that’s almost certain to be competitive with the best of the best and perhaps able to rise above them all.

In other words, while I by no means expect the Jazz to be number one, I definitely would have them at least above the Celtics, Blazers and Sixers at this point. Personally, I’d have them above the Nuggets as well, but I can at least see the argument there. In my mind, based on what we know now, the Jazz should be no lower than sixth on these preseason power rankings.

Of course, every season there are over-hyped duds and under-celebrated breakout teams. It’s entirely possible that the Jazz could be one of those duds and I’ll have to eat crow. But I’d say it’s even more likely that one of the eight teams ahead of Utah doesn’t live up to expectations. And even if the Jazz don’t reach as great of heights as they appear capable of, these power rankings should be based on what we see and know right now.

And everything the Jazz have done this summer and the great fits they added point to them being an exceptional team worthy of a higher slot on these selections.

Then again, ESPN has never been known for being appreciative or attentive towards small market teams. Considering that Utah’s two biggest acquisitions this summer – Conley and Bogdanovic – played for the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers, respectively, and are now on yet another small market Utah team, it’s not all that surprising that ESPN would overlook them in favor of the Boston, Philly and LAs of the world.

That said, the comments made in the ESPN power rankings article actually speak quite highly of Utah. Here’s what Tim McMahon, who did the write-up on the Jazz, had to say:

"“The Jazz might be equally as good offensively and defensively, which would make Utah a bona fide contender. Poor shooting prevented the Jazz from making their playoff series against the Rockets competitive, as Utah went 26-of-110 (23.6%) on wide-open 3s, as defined by NBA.com as no defender within 6 feet. That won’t be a problem after they traded for Mike Conley and signed Bojan Bogdanovic, who should take pressure off Donovan Mitchell to create offense and open up the floor when the young star guard has the ball in his hands. It’s up to Rudy Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, to make sure the Jazz remain elite on that end of the floor.”"

Considering that it’s pointed out here that the Jazz could be just as elite offensively as they’ve been defensively, the description doesn’t seem to match the disappointing ranking whatsoever.

Fortunately, another well-respected sports outlet gave the Jazz a much different treatment than ESPN did. In a recent power rankings compilation from Zach Harper of The Athletic (subscription required), the Jazz were lauded and placed at number three overall on the list, trailing only the LA Clippers (1) and the Milwaukee Bucks (2).

Harper touches on precisely the things I’ve just mentioned – that the Jazz went out and addressed their most concerning weaknesses to become a significantly better team. He speaks of a team that’s equipped to make life miserable for opposing teams with four guys in the starting lineup (Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic and Gobert) that are all extremely difficult to game plan for individually and should be a nightmare collectively.

Perhaps most importantly, he talks of the Jazz being built appropriately to go deep into the playoffs which, regardless of playoff seeding, is ultimately the determining factor in where a team should truly sit in the power rankings.

I’ll be honest, I think third in the NBA might be a little too high even coming from this Jazz homer. But I can certainly see it happening and believe Utah has the potential to achieve it. I most definitely agree with The Athletic’s placement of Utah at third more than I do ESPN’s at a lackluster ninth.

Then again, in fairness to all, the Jazz have burned those that believed too deeply in them before. They did so just a season ago in which they struggled out of the gates, finished just fifth in the West, and faltered in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. In many seasons past they’ve had heartbreaking seasons and disappointing results.

Quite frankly, it would take a shocking failure this time around for the Jazz to do that once again this year as they appear in every way imaginable to be a well-crafted team capable of competing at the highest level. But, of course, they still have to go out on the floor and achieve that greatness.

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Power rankings are little more than speculation for now. It will be up to the Jazz to disprove the negative and validate the positive predictions being placed upon their heads by putting their money where their mouth is and competing at the level they’re capable of.

If they do so, I’m fully confident that The Athletic’s praiseworthy placement of the Utah Jazz in these far-too-early projections will ultimately prove prophetic.