Three years ago, the Utah Jazz were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and had two superstar players to build around.
Things changed quickly for Utah. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were shipped out, head coach Quin Snyder left and now the Jazz are in a full rebuild. They will take their lumps as they improve, and that seems likely when they travel to Denver to face the Nuggets on Monday night.
The upside for Utah: Denver is playing the second of back-to-back days, so the Jazz have the benefit of an extra day’s rest. The Nuggets won at the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday afternoon to wrap up a two-game road trip.
The Denver-Utah series has heated up over the past few years, but the Nuggets are the reigning NBA champions, and that has tilted the rivalry squarely in their favor.
The Jazz are coming off a 22-point loss at Phoenix on Saturday night when the Suns were without two of their top three players. Utah is tinkering with its lineups, going small-ball when needed and putting out a bigger lineup at other times.
“There’s a time for everything, and I think we’re still trying out new lineups. I think the coaching staff does a really good job of reading the game, how it’s going,” said Lauri Markkanen, who had 19 points one game after scoring 35 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against the Los Angeles Clippers. “It just gives them a different look. I think we can play with both lineups.”
Denver’s lineup is not changing, and it is arguably one of the best in the NBA, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Both carried the Nuggets to a win at Memphis on Friday night and needed just three quarters to dominate in the 128-95 win at Oklahoma City.
Now the Nuggets return home for a “normal” game. Denver’s season opener was at Ball Arena, where it won the NBA title four months ago. The players received their championship rings and the banner was raised to the rafters, and then the Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 119-107.
Monday will have less fanfare, but the game means as much as the opener and gives the Nuggets a chance to start the season with four straight wins. They almost dropped one in Memphis on a night when Jokic, while scoring and rebounding, had nine turnovers.
Even with Jokic’s consistent great play, Denver coach Michael Malone was surprised by the number of turnovers.
“He’s got to be better,” Malone said. “We play through him so much obviously, and we know that his usage rate is high. And he will turn the ball over. But his goal is always to have a 3-to-1 ratio. So if he’s having nine assists, maybe three turnovers. It can’t be seven assists to nine turnovers.”
On Sunday, he cut those turnovers in half to four and tallied 28 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. He is averaging 26.3 points and 13 rebounds to begin the season.