When the visiting Denver Nuggets meet the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night, it will not just be a game between teams on opposite sides of the Rocky Mountains.
The 2022-23 season opener for both will be a matchup of teams on opposite ends of the expectations spectrum.
The Nuggets are projected to contend for an NBA championship next spring. Two talented starters – Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. – are back from injuries and will join a talented cast led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
“There’s a different vibe in the gym. There’s a really good vibe this group,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The energy has been great, the work ethic has been great, and I think the guys feel something about this group where we have a chance to be special.”
The Jazz completely overhauled their roster after longtime head coach Quin Snyder left his post a year before his contract expired.Having traded All-Star duo Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, along with sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic this offseason, the Jazz have started a rebuilding process that looks destined for a high pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.
New Jazz head coach Will Hardy, a former assistant with the Boston Celtics, only has five returning players from the 2021-22 roster. That group includes former All-Star Mike Conley, who’s now 35, extraordinary sixth-man Jordan Clarkson and 36-year-old Rudy Gay, who struggled last season.
The Jazz likely made much more noise in the 2022 offseason than they will during the upcoming regular season.
In exchange for Gobert (Minnesota) and Mitchell (Cleveland) in separate trades, the Jazz received Ochai Agbaji, Malik Beasley, Leandro Bolmaro, Talen Horton-Tucker, Stanley Johnson, Walker Kessler, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt and Collin Sexton along with seven future first-round picks. At least the future looks bright.
Jazz CEO Danny Ainge said the team was comprised of players who “really didn’t believe in each other” last season, so he shuffled the deck.
Utah does have some intriguing new pieces to fit into its puzzle, but the general consensus is that this team was built for putting them in position to try to nab likely 2023 No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama. Utah went 1-3 in the preseason, offering some glimpses of hope but also showing significant areas in need of improvement.
“We’re all getting on the same page, so I think everybody’s bought into what we’re doing on both ends of the floor,” Hardy said. “They understand it much better now than they did two weeks ago, and our goal is to try to improve that understanding every day.”
Creating a team identity will be one of the Jazz’s challenges.
“We will be tough, we will play with passion, we will be a team,” Hardy said. “I want a team that competes. … I want a team that cares about winning. I understand that there are individual aspects to playing at this level, but I want people that are solely focused on winning basketball games for the Utah Jazz.”
The Nuggets won’t have to wait. They are set to compete at a high level now.
“The thing is, everybody has the same goal; everybody is on the same page,” second-year Nuggets guard Bones Hyland told the Denver Post. “It’s not just one person thinking about his own accolades – everybody wants to buy-in and win. We brought in guys from winning teams, and so they know what it takes to win.”
–Field Level Media