Early season features great play by Magic and Jazz
Surprises have dominated the news during the first month of the NBA season. Some of the league’s “haves’ like Miami and Chicago continue to struggle, while “have nots” like Utah and Orlando have done better than expected.
The biggest splash of all has been made by the Jazz (14-4), who won 10 of their first 11 contests with a similar roster to the one that played .500 ball, last year. The talent was there in Utah, and now things are finally falling in place. The big difference is a healthy, focused Carlos Boozer and a more experienced Deron Williams.
For the first time since signing with the Jazz three years ago, Boozer is healthy and playing like his old All-Star power forward self. The Jazz should be the latest believers in the old cliché, that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make. Boozer was on the block all summer long but the Jazz never pulled the trigger. Instead, he’s pulling rebounds down for them at the third most prolific rate in the league.
Coming out of college, point guard Williams was rated along with last year’s Rookie of the Year, Chris Paul as future NBA All-Stars. Unlike Paul, Williams struggled for much of his rookie campaign and was bumped from the Jazz’ starting lineup at one point. He finished strongly during the final month of last season but nothing that would suggest his rapid improvement this year. Williams is suddenly playing like one of the league’s elite point guards, handing out a third-best nine assists a game.
The Jazz have taken us and the league by surprise, mainly because we never thought that Williams would realize his huge potential this quickly and we’d forgotten what a healthy Boozer was capable of. The Jazz are for real. Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur compliment Boozer to give the Jazz one of the best front lines in the league. Matt Harpring and Derek Fisher gives them veteran depth on the bench. Don’t expect Utah to continue blowing out the league but a 50-plus win season and a return to the playoffs is more then realistic.
Do you believe in magic? Well maybe you should. The (13-4) Orlando Magic are off to their best start in 8 seasons and are making believers out of many observers these days. The Magic recent 8-1 spurt, punctuated by a win over the Jazz is causing a buzz around the league. Dwight Howard has triggered their run with some awesome performances, including back to back 20-20 games.
There are still understandable reservations about the Magic, as there should be about a young team with highly fragile Grant Hill as the veteran providing the “glue”. Still, the opening month has given us a glimpse of Magic potential.
The Portland Trail Blazers were a horrendous 21-61 last season, and although they're now 6-11, their initial 6-7 start was solid, for them. Perhaps they can find a second wind.
Zach Randolph has been terrific, averaging 25.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. For now, he's avoided off-court trouble, stepped up on the floor and silenced the critics.
Jarrett Jack has emerged from last season’s muddled point guard picture as the Blazers’ playmaker and floor leader. At this point, it seems the Blazers made the right choice by handing Jack the reins to the offense and dismissing Sebastain Telfair and Steve Blake to other NBA ports of call.
Portland has a wealth of promising young talent and plenty of reasons for optimism. Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw and rookies Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge all have tremendous upside. Even if one or two of the above mentioned begins realizing his potential this season, the Blazers could emerge from the NBA cellar.
Finally, the strongest reason for optimism in Portland is coach Nate McMillan. The former Seattle point guard proved to be a highly capable coach and handler of men during his years with the Sonics. McMillan seemed totally overwhelmed and frustrated at times with the mess in the Rose City last season. Don’t look for a McMillan led team to “go south”, two years in a row.