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Utah Jazz Situated to Contend

It wasn’t exactly party time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when the Jazz let all-star power forward Carlos Boozer defect to the Chicago Bulls during this summer’s free agency. After all, it looked like the team was finally putting into play a long-deferred scheme to avoid the luxury tax while suffering some collateral damage on the court. Even Deron Williams, who quietly voiced his displeasure with the organization after Ronnie Brewer was dealt during the season, seemed visually displeased. It was a admission of defeat after a playoff series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in May.

Keeping all that in mind, would it surprise you to read that the Jazz are actually a better team after these moves? Because they most certainly are. Despite expectations that the team would roll over and not reload for the rapidly approaching 2010-2011 season, GM Kevin O’Connor went out and made two key moves to position the Jazz in a position to succeed into June next year. He traded for Minnesota’s bruising center Al Jefferson and signed vicious guard Raja Bell.

And these two moves couldn’t have been more perfect. Revisiting the Lakers-Jazz series, what were Utah’s two primary problems in dealing with the eventual champions? They were (1) a lack of height and toughness down low and (2) the absence of a stopper for Kobe Bryant.

Jefferson, the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, is an instant upgrade over Boozer. First of all, he has two valuable inches on his predecessor, making him much more fit to contend with the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post. He’s also just as potent a scorer and rebounder; with Williams at the point, he’s almost a shoo-in to put up a 20-and-10 season next year if he stays healthy. While he’s not the greatest defender, he’s no worse than Boozer, who just didn’t have the physical traits to excel on that end.

But Jefferson’s addition is more than just a plus replacement for Boozer. Instead, he enables coach Jerry Sloan to do a lot more mixing and matching with his frontcourt. While in the past he was mostly limited from playing his two most potent offensive forces (Boozer and Paul Millsap) in the post simultaneously lest he be absolutely dismantled down low, he can now play Jefferson and Millsap at the same time and not risk such a terrible fate. While Andrei Kirilenko will probably start at the 4 alongside Jefferson, Millsap and the recovering Mehmet Okur is quite an offensive spark in the second unit.

Against the Lakers last year, Kobe drew attention from two defenders primarily, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews, who encouraged a pick-your-poison scenario with the Black Mamba. If the shorter, weaker Miles was on him, Bryant would undress him in the post and make easy turnaround jumpers. If Sloan put the stronger Matthews out there, Kobe would beat him on the perimeter and finish easily in the lane against middling post defenders. With Bell, though, the Jazz don’t have that problem. An aggressive and mean defender, Bell had his share of conflicts with Kobe while he was a member of the Phoenix Suns. His hard-nosed style of play, long arms, and quick feet all make him a great candidate for guarding Bryant and don’t allow him to take advantage of any particular weakness.

In addition, Bell gives the team an off-the-ball shooter that is hasn’t had in the past. With him in the corner or on the wing, D-Will has another viable option on offense other than feeding a big man, penetrating the lane, or running the pick and roll. Bell will be a dangerous spot-up shooter who will add a much-needed dimension to the offense.

While Bell came at virtually no cost, Minnesota GM David Kahn finagled two future first-round picks out of Utah for Jefferson’s service, sensing their desperation. Does Jefferson’s talent outweigh the damage done to the future of the organization? Well, not really. They still have the solid building blocks locked up in Williams and Jefferson, and when Kirilenko’s massive $17 million expiring contract comes off the books next summer, they’ll have space to work with to add other role players. The draft doesn’t figure to be a main source of talent in the coming years for the Jazz.

So it may have been a week of agony for Utah, but they bounced back. Maybe it’s time that Sloan can come away with his first NBA championship or coach of the year award. Jefferson and Bell certainly don’t hurt.

Hardwood Paroxysm