They have a nice mixture of experience and good young players, but they're not physical enough. Carlos Boozer is their enforcer up front, but apart from his backup, Paul Millsap, Boozer needs more help than he gets from Mehmet Okur, who plays on the perimeter. This is a good finesse team that will win with a controlled style against opponents that don't play in a disciplined system. If you're a more talented or athletic team, you're not going to beat Utah. But the talented teams that have a system -- the Lakers or Spurs or Celtics -- are going to win because they're more physical than Utah.
Boozer appears short for a power forward, but it doesn't hurt him. He has very long arms, great hands, good instincts, the best footwork of any forward in the league and he's as strong as an ox. He is fearless as a finisher -- try to bump him and it's going to affect you more than it affects him. He's a better athlete than people think, he's improved his shot and they can play through him because he's a good passer. He'll do the dirty work. He'll set a good screen even when he doesn't get the reward of rolling to the basket, or if he's not scoring, he'll continue to rebound. He isn't a shot-blocker, but they get that from Andrei Kirilenko. Defensively, Boozer will sacrifice his body by taking a charge, and he's aware of where the circle is under the basket.
I wouldn't say Okur is a one-dimensional player. When you guard him with a center, he'll go out to the three-point line to pull your big man out of the paint, and if you put a small guy on him, he'll go inside and he becomes a very good post-up player in those situations. Starting him on the perimeter definitely helps his teammates and creates awkward defensive assignments for the opposition. He's so deep in his pick-and-pops -- well beyond the three-point arc sometimes -- that you've got to switch out on him. You can't rotate past Okur because if you hesitate he'll pick you apart with his passing. But here's the problem: defense. He doesn't move his feet well, and he couldn't guard a chair on the perimeter. He's not meek in the paint -- he'll bump you -- but he's not a good athlete and my impression is that he doesn't put in the effort to make up for that defensively. If they want to win a championship, they need a more complete package at his position.
Kirilenko seems so unhappy, and I still don't think they've done a good job of addressing that. Coach Jerry Sloan doesn't kowtow to his players. He treats everybody the same, and in this particular case, it probably hurts his relationship with Kirilenko. In this league, a lot of people say that you shouldn't necessarily treat everybody equally, but just try to be fair to everybody. I think Kirilenko has a lot of value in the league, but by trading him they would have to find a way to make up for his defense against all kinds of forwards as well as his shot-blocking.
The other issue moving forward is that Boozer could become a free agent after the season, so he's a guy they could -- or may have to -- move in a sign-and-trade. Another guy who could be tradable is Kyle Korver. It's going to be a hard thing for them to figure out, but unless they make some kind of move, I don't see them getting to the very top.
On the other hand, I think they have a backcourt that could win a championship, starting with point guard Deron Williams. If you're asking me whether I like him better than Chris Paul, my answer depends on the context. If you're going to run and push the ball, I like Paul. But if you're in the Utah system, then I like Williams better. He's more of a half-court player while Paul is better when he has floor space. Of course, both are good no matter what. Williams is more physical than Paul, and he can finish in the lane strong. Williams can play in the open floor, too, but he's better when he's playing a more physical style. He obviously takes it as a challenge when he plays against Paul, and there was no question in the Olympics that Paul was viewed as more of a stud because he has more flair. But I don't think Williams is obsessed with any kind of rivalry with Paul because in his system he has all the tools to do what the team wants him to do.
I love Ronnie Brewer as their shooting guard because he's so long and energetic, and he's tough to guard because he moves so well without the ball. He's a good defender with long arms, quickness and toughness, and he's a great complement to Williams. Brewer is still learning how to play, but I envision continued improvement for him. He was a terrible shooter when he came into the league, but he's upgraded that area of his game a great deal. He's so active and good at getting to the basket, and he has big-time scoring instincts.
Millsap is a Jason Maxiell type of contributor. He's very tough and a big overachiever -- not quite good enough to start, but if you're bringing a guy like him off the bench, then you know you're in the thick of things.
Matt Harpring is a physical player and a good offensive rebounder, but he plays so hard that he's always beat up. Brevin Knight, if healthy, is a good backup to Williams.
They could win in the first round, but I don't see them getting to the conference finals. Going forward, I see them continuing to build around Williams, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a major move or two at the end of the year.
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