SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – For basketball fans in the Beehive State, Wednesday may feel like Christmas Day. Which would make the actual celebration on Dec. 25 some sort of Super Christmas Day (the Jazz are set to play on that date as well).
The Utah Jazz begin their 2021-22 regular season campaign with a home tilt against the Oklahoma City Thunder at 7 p.m. at Vivint Arena.
Coming off of a 52-win season that placed the hometown team at the top of the league’s standings going into the postseason last year, which ended unceremoniously in the second round to the L.A. Clippers, Utah is still chasing that elusive first championship.
In case you’re in need of a refresher of the storylines that surround the team this season, and you’re too embarrassed to head to the water cooler to chat it up with the office fanatics, here’s a very brief explainer of what you need to know heading into this season:
Most NBA experts are big on the Jazz this year
Since hiring head coach Quin Snyder prior to the 2014-15 campaign, the Jazz have been steadily improving nearly every year. Last year, their fifth-straight season qualifying for the playoffs, was their best year yet under Snyder. The team finished with a 52-20 record and the top seed in the Western Conference playoff race. Unfortunately, Utah’s dream season came to an end with a six-game defeat in the second round of the postseason to the L.A. Clippers, punctuated by a 25-point blown lead in the final game of the year.
Heading into a fresh slate, many national and local pundits are projecting the Jazz to again be a force in the regular season, with the possibility of a deep playoff run in the spring. One of the best indicators of how well-regarded a team is, their betting odds of winning the championship, place the Jazz among the teams oddsmakers consider fairly likely to win. The Action Network’s compilation of the leading sportsbooks’ season-opening odds gives Utah the fifth-best chance to win the title.
The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks (last year’s champion), and Golden State Warriors are the lone teams that sportsbooks around the country look on more favorably than the Jazz.
Pandemic will still have an effect on teams, fans
Although the season is set to be played entirely in each team’s respective city (for Toronto fans, Tuesday’s season opener will be the Raptors’ first meaningful game back in the Canadian city in 600 days), the effects of COVID-19 will be a storyline for the third straight year.
While over 90% of the NBA’s players have been vaccinated – Utah’s roster is 100% vaccinated – there are a couple of holdouts who have been dominating the news cycle with their hesitancy or outright refusal. Most notably, Nets All-Star guard Kyrie Irving has chosen to not receive a vaccine and as a result, will not be participating with his team until he is fully eligible to play (due to New York City local restrictions, he is not allowed to attend large indoor gatherings without a vaccine, including Nets home games). The Nets are considered to be the favorites to win the title this year, so that will be a fascinating story to watch throughout the season.
Vaccination, or at least a negative test, will be a requirement for fans at many arenas, including Utah’s home court, Vivint Arena. The downtown venue announced in September that it would require proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of the event for entry.
Fans wishing to attend Wednesday’s game, or any other game or event at the area from here on out should be prepared ahead of time with the appropriate documentation to avoid any issues at the gate.
Getting to know the Jazz
For the most part, Utah is returning most of the same team as last year with many of the most well-known and well-loved players suiting up again for the squad. The Jazz are bringing back three All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley, as well as Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson. Fan-favorite Joe Ingles, as well as Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic, are also expected to be key contributors.
Notable pick-ups for the squad include well-respected veteran Rudy Gay, shot-blocking specialist Hassan Whiteside, 2020 First Team All-Rookie Eric Paschall, and collegiate national champion Jared Butler.
In the offseason, the team bid farewell to longtime mainstay Derrick Favors, who was traded to Oklahoma City, and reserve sparkplug Georges Niang, who signed with Philadelphia in free agency.
Looking around the rest of the NBA
Last year’s champion, the Milwaukee Bucks, are expected to be a strong contender to repeat, led by Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-born superstar who already has a Hall of Fame resume at just 26 years old.
Brooklyn, anchored by two of the greatest scorers in modern basketball history in James Harden and Kevin Durant, is lauded as one of the favorites to dethrone the Bucks, but the situation with Irving, as well as a lack of depth in the roster, may derail their chances. Milwaukee has already flexed its championship-caliber strength over the Nets with a 127-104 victory in their season-opening matchup on Tuesday.
Out west, the Jazz are projected to be among the top teams, but will likely meet some resistance from the Lakers, who have added a slew of talented veterans, including former MVP Russell Westbrook to join forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Golden State Warriors, who have met a number of health issues following their dominant stretch a few years ago, are restocked and prepared to make another run among the NBA’s elite. It would be a mistake to overlook other teams, such as Phoenix, last year’s conference champs, Denver, led by MVP Nikola Jokic, and the Clippers, who knocked out the Jazz in the summer.
For the Jazz, the journey to a potential championship begins at tipoff against the Thunder on Wednesday.
Are you feeling better prepared for the water cooler now?