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With a month left in the NBA regular season, the championship race is taking shape. The top teams have distinguished themselves from the rest of the league, with most biding their time and trying to get healthy before the playoffs.
Not all championship contenders garner the same attention, though. Who should be getting more respect as a serious threat to win the NBA title?
The second part of this week's NBA roundtable breaks down a pair of teams at the top of the Western Conference but still fighting to be seen as true title contenders. USA TODAY Sports' Matt Eppers moderated the discussion with a panel of NBA experts from around the USA TODAY Network: Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina of USA TODAY Sports, Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal and J. Michael Falgoust of the The Indianapolis Star.
Eppers: The Jazz had a strange loss to the Wizards last night, but I don’t think it affects their standing or trajectory at all. Utah appears to be cruising to a top two seed in the West, perhaps top three at worst. Yet, the Nets, Lakers and Clippers (when presumed healthy) remain the betting favorites to win the title. Are we still underrating the Jazz?
Medina: I don't think anyone is "underrating the Jazz." Everyone takes them seriously and knows they're legitimate. They just won't ever get the same kind of coverage as the Lakers and Clippers because of the market size and the lack of a generational superstar. But the Jazz are the real deal.
Falgoust: I agree with Mark on that one. Just because not many aren't picking them to win it all doesn't mean they're being disrespected. Top two or three in the best conference is pretty good recognition.
Ridenour: I love the Jazz. Six players averaging 12 or more points. Donovan Mitchell has scored 40 in three of the last four games. Rudy Gobert having an incredible season (14.5 points, 13.4 rebounds). Mike Conley reborn. Instant offense off the bench from Jordan Clarkson. They remind me of an old school "TEAM."
Zillgitt: Lots to like about the Jazz (despite the clunker Monday night against the Wizards), from coaching to players and the way they player on both ends. A fun team to watch. Conley has been fantastic with Mitchell and Gobert and a deep team. But I need to see some playoff success. Not sure they're the favorites even with their record.
Rankin: The Suns lost to the Wizards. The Nets lost to the Wizards. Twice. The Lakers lost to the Wizards. So have Portland and Denver. The Clippers lost to the Wizards. So the Jazz losing to the Wizards twice is alarming, but Utah has a formula. They shoot 3s. They make threes. They defend. Fourth in the league in defensive rating. So like Mark said, they're not underrated. They're just not the Lakers when healthy or the Clippers when they put it all together. Mitchell can be a volume shooter, but he's special. Gobert does his thing and they've got several guys who can fill it up from outside. Would like to see more midrange from them, but they'll be a tough out in the postseason. Should finish top three at worst.
Zillgitt: Looks at all those nice wins for the Wizards!
Ridenour: What's hurting the Jazz is not only the market but the fact that no players are perceived to be superstars.
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Falgoust: Good teams lose to bad teams during an 82- or in this case 72-game regular season all the time. They're not up for them and especially at this stage it's about the marathon and not the sprint. I can't roll with Utah winning the title for the same reason I hadn't with Milwaukee these last 2 years: At some point, the 5 has to come out of the paint and not play in a drop every ball screen. If you do that vs. Kawhi, he's going to kill you by mid-range in crunch time every time. In the playoffs, actual mid-range becomes more en vogue. Teams that shoot it well (Toronto with Kawhi) will do well. Defenses are giving it up. With no closeouts most of the time.
Medina: This isn't a slight on the Jazz or any other team. But if the Lakers have a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the separation between them and the rest of the West is pretty staggering.
Rankin: That health part could be a big if and I'm talking more about Davis that James. I expect LeBron to come back fine. Davis is a different situation. He's had his share of injuries.
Falgoust: Who is their Rondo this year? Made all the difference for them last season. I completely slept on Rondo going into the Finals. When he was hitting 3s, they became impossible to beat.
Ridenour: Funny when I last saw the Lakers without LeBron and AD I was thinking this team has less around LeBron than some of the LeBron 1.0 Cavs teams.
Zillgitt: I acknowledge there's also a lot more randomness to the outcomes this year because of circumstances. With that said, this version of the Jazz need to prove it with series victories. Really tough to go from losing in first round to NBA Finals from one year to the next.
Rankin: Agree with Jeff. They've made the jump in the regular season. Now it's time for them to do it in the postseason.
Medina: The Lakers made a calculated risk in going younger this season partly because of health concerns and also because proportionally Schroder would be able to handle a bigger workload than Rondo did last season. But Rondo got his health right and stepped up his game in the playoffs – which is when it matters most.
Falgoust: I think some of these results are impacted by little or no fans. Some teams rely on them to get over the hump more than others. That's what I think explains the Pacers' home record. Just a hunch.
Zillgitt: I can see that, J. A lot more like neutral court, even at home.
Falgoust: Right, so if you're solid (like the Pacers) but not great and you're playing teams with greater talent, that boost at home matters more to them. Or so I think.
Eppers: How important does that make the No. 1 seed for a team like the Jazz? They've always had a pretty good home-court advantage. Even with limited fans, will that advantage be worth anything in the playoffs?
Ridenour: Jazz may have a feeling of invincibility with a 24-3 home record. Might not matter how many fans are there if they have that mindset.
Zillgitt: I always go back to what LeBron says about home-court advantage: it only matters if you get to a Game 7. Now, teams would rather have it than not and maybe by time playoffs get here, the Jazz will be allowed to admit more fans.
Rankin: The advantage is waking up in your own home and not in a hotel in a bubble, but the mental part is important. If you believe you can't lose at home, you tend to play with confidence.
Medina: On home-court advantage, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry have all said the same thing, among others. Health is most imported followed by team chemistry. Home court usually ranks third or fourth in importance. And to Jeff's point, can be more important if there is a Game 7. But top teams are aware they need to know how to win on the road to advance.
Falgoust: I think it matters in regards to the visiting team. Aside from the boost it gives a home team, those really crazy settings can cause a mental mistake in a key part of a Game 7. I mean, talent usually wins out. But when it's razor thin line between winning and losing little things matter. I just think certain teams rely on it more than others.
Rankin: The Suns are the team that could really shake up all this. They've got two closers in Booker and Paul, who is the ultimate floor general. They defend. Fifth in defensive rating. Multiple guys can knock down 3s and Ayton, while he averages a career low, has improved overall as a player, especially on the defensive end. Now they don't have the playoff experience as an overall group in terms of Ayton, Booker, Bridges and Cam Johnson, but Paul and Jae Crowder have been there. Monty Williams is leading candidate for coach of the year. If they can put it together and stay healthy, they're a problem. They've beaten the Jazz twice. The wins over the Lakers aren't as eye popping as Davis was out for both and LeBron was out for the last one, but Phoenix is not the team to play in the second round.
Zillgitt: Phoenix is the great story of the season. Love what Monty Williams has done.
Ridenour: Like what you said about the Suns, Duane. They're more of a sleeper team than the Jazz. Chris Paul may be the difference-maker and Booker can go crazy on any given night.
Falgoust: I like Phoenix up until a certain point.
Rankin: We talk about defense. Two years ago, Devin Booker was a defensive liability. He's not that anymore. Still can be over aggressive, but his effort is at a different level. He's had chasedown blocks. He's had steals. He's made defensive stops. The Suns play team defense but pride themselves on keeping the ball in front. Booker has done that far better than he did two years ago. So while this is his sixth year, for essentially four of those, he had issues on that end. You can improve over the course of a year.
Zillgitt: This should be a great experience for the Suns in the playoffs and winning a round will be a success in my book. Love seeing this team improve.
Medina: What's your prediction, Duane? You see the Suns every day. On the presumption that the Nuggets are the only West team in the playoffs with serious health issues, how far do the Suns go?
Ridenour: The Suns are one of those prove-it-to-me teams. But Suns GM James Jones is the smartest player when it comes to basketball IQ I ever met in the league outside of LeBron. He's putting together something special there.
Falgoust: Phoenix not being relevant for so long is one of the greatest disappointments in the last decade. Who doesn't like road trips to Phoenix?
Rankin: What can hurt Phoenix is having guys who simply haven't been there when they play against teams and players who have. Those end-of-game moments. They've had their struggles with that. Do you blame it on the marathon season or is it just they're not completely there chemistry-wise. The difference with them is they have Paul. He'll have them ready mentally. They'll be prepared, but can they rise up when the time comes to get that key stop or key bucket from a guy like Bridges when teams trap Booker to get the ball out of his hands. Can Ayton get that rebound or protect the rim down the stretch. I see the Suns getting out of the first round. From there, you're talking about matchup. Say they draw the Clippers. That's a bad matchup because the Clippers have perimeter defenders, Kawhi and now Rondo, to go along with those other pieces. A healthy Lakers is beyond a problem, but Phoenix will be a problem come playoff time.
What Phoenix does is force you to play your best to beat them. You don't do that, you're going to lose to the Suns.
Zillgitt: For all the reasons Duane just mention, that's why this experience in the playoffs is so important — to learn about of those end-of-game moments and what it takes physically and mentally. I'm a little old school but I loved seeing the Pistons and Bulls of the 80s, 90s figure it out by losing and then coming back stronger the next season.
Eppers: Duane, how are the Suns feeling about their place among the contenders? Chris Paul is a supremely confident guy. How has that rubbed off on his younger teammates?
Rankin: Oh, it's definitely rubbed off. They're following Paul. He's constantly in Ayton's ear and you can see Ayton has taken heed to it. They're definitely contenders. They've got so many guys who can hit 3s, but they don't rely on 3s every game. Booker is the master at midrange. Booker has been waiting for this. He's in his sixth season and has been part of the irrelevant Suns era. He's the face of it. Now he's going to have a chance to play in the postseason. Take what he did in the bubble and now put in a playoff situation where he's on that stage. He wants this. He's playing like it and with Paul, they've got two guys down the stretch who can play iso, pick and roll and can make plays for their teammates. That's playoff basketball.
Ridenour: Don't think you necessarily have to come of age by losing in the postseason and coming back next year. I think it can happen during a season. Love Booker as the cold-blooded guy coming up with the dagger. Seen a lot of Kentucky guys play that way (shameless plug for my home state again).
Rankin: The key is the rest of the guys. Can they make shots. Can Crowder deliver. Bridges. Cam Johnson. Dario Saric. Can they get stops and score when a team can now study them and them only. That's the part of playoff basketball they haven't experienced as a group. Paul can only help but so much in that area. He can help, it's a benefit for Phoenix, but when the other team knows what you're going to do, how do they respond to that.
I agree with the whole making the come up, but if there is a year to skyrocket, this is the year.
Medina: Regardless of how far or short the Suns end up in the playoffs, I have so much respect for how Chris Paul has still been the player he is. He'll admit that he can be difficult to play with and he had some injuries at the worst times during the playoffs when he was with the Clippers and the Rockets. But with the Thunder and the Suns, CP has shown he can still keep his body healthy and knows how to elevate his younger teammates. They might be more receptive to his message than other star teammates, but CP also seems aware that he also doesn't want to come across as the smartest guy in the room and be the “back in my day" vet.
Ridenour: The "makes everyone around him better" list is shorter than many would think, but Chris Paul is definitely on it. This is the capper for him in that regard.
Zillgitt: Don't know where Chris Paul fits in the MVP discussion but there's a place for him in that discussion. Not sure it's top five. But maybe?
Rankin: They've got weaknesses now. Backside rebounding when Ayton goes to help. Teams are attacking them on the inside, especially when Ayton is out. He's so important to this team. How he plays is going to be huge in the playoffs because he's really their only main rebounder and rim protector. He has to be on his game. You talk defending pick-and-roll. he switches out and guards the guards. Very good at it. The Suns can get enamored with the 3 at times and at times have trouble keeping the ball in front, which leads to Ayton helping and then teams going crazy on the offensive boards. But they're so good and versatile offensively and overall very good defensive. They hope these close games they're experiencing now will help them come playoff time.
Falgoust: They better learn how to be in sync defending 3-point shooters that they're top locking. In crunch time, if you only need a 2, use that as a decoy and they'll be out of position to stop the back cut for uncontested layups. Big is always up even against a non-shooter which leaves that seam to the rim open. As good as they are, defensively, that's their soft spot whenever I watch them. Every team has flaws. Some easier to exploit than others. I can't see them being Finals contenders yet but hope they get there in time for Chris Paul to still be Chris Paul.
And yes, CP3 should easily be top 5 MVP discussion. The Suns could lose in the first round for all I care, but it's a regular-season award.
Ridenour: If you vote for MVP thinking how good is the team without him, I definitely see Chris Paul in the top five.
Rankin: Paul is playing well and should be in the conversation, but again, without Booker, they're OKC from last year. Good story, but not a championship contender.
If I had to pick an MVP, it'd be Embiid, Jokic 1-2. Everyone else can get in where they fit in.
Falgoust: But MVP is an individual award. I think we use team success a bit too much to devalue individual accomplishment. I have a love-hate relationship with MVP balloting.
Then again, the criteria is so open-ended, that's inevitable.
Zillgitt: Jokic and Embiid are my 1-2, as well. But like J, I have issues with MVP voting, too.
Medina: Not to put blame on the NBA per se, but part of me wonders that the leagues prefer for there not have a specific criteria on what to measure for MVP because it creates varying opinions, conversation and content. If the league spelled out the specific criteria, maybe there wouldn't be much of this dissension ever year.
Ridenour: My pick would be Jokic. Incredible how he's improved.
Rankin: Anyone who voted for Giannis wasn't wrong. The problem was he was back home accepting the MVP at night on some roof and not on the court in a playoff series. It was a bad look, so everyone was like, should've voted for LeBron. Now LeBron is the better player, but Giannis had the better record. It was the worst year to vote because of the gap in the season with COVID. Giannis had a special, historic regular season.
Falgoust: Mark, I think you hit the nail on the head. They like the drama it creates.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Do Jazz or Suns deserve more attention as serious NBA title contenders?