Utah Jazz: Ranking the 5 biggest challengers in the West

Utah Jazz (Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Jazz (Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports) /
3 of 6
Utah Jazz
Damian Lillard vs Utah Jazz (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Portland Trail Blazers have long looked like a mediocre marriage: they’re OK, but they’re a little bit stuck-in-a-rut. It’s possible that divorce is finally on the horizon, as whispers of Damian Lillard’s discontent have developed into murmurs, if not full-blown cries for help.

In the meantime, the Blazers may actually have a decent product to put on the floor this season. They acquired versatile forward Larry Nance Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers this offseason for the price of athletically gifted but raw wing Derrick Jones Jr. Nance contributed 10.4 more Win Shares to his team than Jones in 2021-22: that’s a major upgrade.

Otherwise, another year for dynamic scoring guard Norm Powell to mesh with Lillard and his longtime running mate CJ McCollum should bode well for the Trail Blazers. They’ll have the capacity to run lineups comparable to peak Golden State Warriors “death lineups” with a three-headed backcourt monster of Lillard, McCollum, and Powell paired with an ultra-switchable front court of defensive dynamo Robert Covington and small-ball 5 Larry Nance Jr.

Alternatively, Jusuf Nurkic is still on this roster when the Blazers need size and pure brawn. If he can recapture his 2018-19 form, he could be a major factor for Portland.

Still, this team needs to get off to a hot start, or Dame Time could be quickly up in Portland. If the star point guard demands a trade at any point in the season, it would promptly bump the Blazers off this list of challengers to the Utah Jazz.

Meanwhile, the Jazz face no such uncertainty. They enter the 2021-22 season with a deep, talented roster of seemingly satisfied players. Furthermore, as much as the Blazers made incremental improvements this offseason, it feels unlikely that they did enough to overcome the 10-win advantage the Utah Jazz enjoyed over them last season.

Which, in turn, makes it feel at least somewhat likely that Damian Lillard’s trade request is en route.