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NBA Fastbreak: Utah Jazz first contender to make a big trade and shake up the roster

Jazz guard Mike Conley brings the ball upcourt against the Pacers during a game Nov. 27, 2019, in Indianapolis.
Jazz guard Mike Conley has only played once since Dec. 2 because of hamstring injuries.
(Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

During the NBA’s G League Winter Showcase this month, a group of the Utah Jazz’s top decision-makers watched on TV as their team eked out a win over the struggling Hawks in Atlanta, agonizing over every decision on the court.

The group around that Las Vegas table ended up being the first in the NBA to do something about a sobering realization — the players they put together in the summer weren’t going to be enough to make a strong playoff run.

In the following days, the Jazz dealt former No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum to Cleveland for Jordan Clarkson. They plucked one of the most promising unaffiliated prospects in the G League, guard Rayjon Tucker, and waived veteran forward Jeff Green to make room.

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In a week, the Jazz made significant changes to a roster they previously hoped would put them at the top of the West with the Lakers, Clippers and Denver Nuggets.

“We just got to a point where we had seen enough that this current mix just wasn’t working,” Utah’s top basketball exec, Dennis Lindsey, told reporters.

The decision was pushed into action by a second hamstring injury for veteran point guard Mike Conley, Utah’s marquee offseason acquisition. He’s played only once since Dec. 2 and hasn’t been close to his normal self when healthy.

Getting Conley back and on top of his game has to be priority No. 1 — the Jazz need him to match the talent at the top of the conference. Sorting out their bench, a massive strength, was clearly just as important to them with Clarkson giving them a scorer they desperately need.

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Utah entered Saturday night’s game at the Clippers sixth in the West at 19-12. Last year on Dec. 28, Utah was 17-19. The year before that, 15-21.

Maybe in a loaded Western Conference, this is the best the Jazz can do. But whether it is or isn’t, their front office wasn’t going to wait to find out.

Boston balance

While the Lakers and the Clippers have gained much of the attention in the West and the Milwaukee Bucks have jumped out to such a good start in the East, the Boston Celtics have operated under the radar.

If the Clippers are going to upgrade their roster before the trade deadline, they’ll likely have to include Maurice Harkless as part of any major deal.

They might be just as good as any contender, a team with four players who have scored at least 34 points in a game this season. Only one other team has that — the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.

With that kind of scoring punch, it’s little wonder that the Celtics have a five-game winning streak and the NBA’s third-best record, with a chance to improve on it with a favorable January schedule.

Tip-ins

Leonard became the fifth professional basketball player to be voted the Associated Press male athlete of the year, joining Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Candace Parker won the female athlete of the year in 2008. … The Hawks, the NBA’s worst team, will be without Trae Young for a while because of an ankle injury he suffered Friday. … Zach Randolph, who played for the Clippers and then tortured them as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, officially announced his retirement this week. “I gave this game my all, and it gave me everything back and more,” he wrote on social media. Randolph, 38, was courtside for the Clippers-Lakers game on Christmas. … The best story of the week came courtesy of the Miami Heat, the NBA and NBA Africa, who worked together to surprise rookie Chris Silva by reuniting him with his mother for the first time in three years. … The Golden State Warriors had won four consecutive games before a loss Saturday — and still own the worst record in the West. “You can’t stop us,” coach Steve Kerr deadpanned, “you can only hope to contain us.”

After watching Allen Iverson stand out in a 2001 playoff series between the Raptors and 76ers, Vince Carter felt he had to make a statement.
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