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Northwest Division Preview: Will the Utah Jazz dethrone Oklahoma City as Division champs?

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Will the much improved Utah Jazz dethrone Oklahoma City as Northwest Division Champions?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets
Can the Utah Jazz dethrone Oklahoma City as Northwest Division champions?
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After falling one game short of the 2016 playoffs, the retooled Utah Jazz are now considered front-runners for this season's Northwest Division crown. Such bullish expectations are due to rejuvenated health, and a superlative influx of free-agents.

Joining mended defensive stalwarts Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors will be summer acquisitions George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. While veterans Johnson and Diaw provide on court and locker-room stability, Hill's addition is paramount to a diverse Utah collective.

Last season, 30-year-old George Hill joined MVP Stephen Curry as the league's only other player to average at least 12 points, four assists, and three rebounds while shooting better than 40 percent from three. The rangy Hill provides crucial floor spacing and additional ball-hawking prowess to a prefabricated defensive powerhouse.

As training camp approaches, a strong argument for Utah’s status as the NBA's most improved team has been made. However, over 82 games, will the Jazz live up to the hype?

2015/16 Record

40-42 (.488) 9th in Western Conference

Offensive Rating

103.1 (17th in NBA)

Defensive Rating

101.6 (8th in NBA)

Net Rating

+1.6 (12th in NBA)

Departures

Trey Burke (Washington Wizards, Trade), Trevor Booker (Brooklyn Nets, Free Agency), Tibor Pleiss (Philadelphia 76’ers, Trade)

Arrivals

George Hill (Trade), Boris Diaw (Trade), Joe Johnson (Free Agent), Quincy Ford (Rookie), Marcus Paige (Rookie), Joel Bolomboy (Rookie)

Retained Free Agents

Head Coach Quin Snyder (contract details undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineup

(C) Rudy Gobert, (PF) Derrick Favors, (SF) Gordon Hayward, (SG) Rodney Hood, (PG) George Hill

2016-2017 Team Salary

$80,314,153 (27th in NBA)

X-Factors

Team Depth/Free-Agent Acquisitions

With the strategic off-season acquisitions of Hill (PG), Johnson (G/F) and Diaw (PF/C) the Utah Jazz currently boast a deep roster devoid of any singular weakness. Dante Exum's return provides Utah with a glut of quality point guard options.

Meanwhile, underrated signee Joe Johnson joins a talented wing grouping of Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Joe Ingles and rising star Rodney Hood.

The 6'8 Hood connected on a team-high 161 (36%) three-pointers last season. Of Jazz players to log 1500-plus minutes, Hood's plus/minus of -plus 2.5 is second highest.

Any combination of Hood, Hayward, Ingles, Lyles, Neto or Hill will keep opposing defenses spread whilst opening prime space for Utah's towering bigs to operate.

Championship power forward/center Boris Diaw perfectly compliments an imposing inside corps comprised of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Jeff Withey. The latter three combined for 4.7 blocks per game — this impressive number is greater than 13 NBA teams overall. While Diaw isn’t a legitimate rim protector, he does bring a play-making (4.6 assists per 36 mins), stretch-four (36% 3p%) dynamic to a unit in desperate need of such.

It seems as though these intricately assembled pieces have potential to form a sum much greater than their collective parts.

Projected Performance & Team Record

51-31, 1st in Northwest Division. For a non 15’-16’ playoff team, Utah’s -plus 1.6 net rating was superior to post-season qualifiers Houston, Dallas, Portland and Detroit. As the Oklahoma City Thunder have lost MVP performer Kevin Durant, the likelihood of Utah ascending to the division’s apex is certainly reasonable.

The Jazz will implement a defensive oriented, ground-and-pound style similar to last season’s (93.26 pace, last in NBA). However, unlike last season, if injuries occur to key contributors, there will be requisite depth to see the team through tough stretches.

Come April, the Utah Jazz may be hosting a playoff series for the first time since Jerry Sloan roamed the sidelines in 2008.

How will the Thunder fare against them?

Oklahoma City unceremoniously swept the Utah Jazz 4-0 last season. In those contests, OKC’s average margin of victory was 13.5 points. The Thunder bench largely outperformed Utah’s during the series.

However, with both rosters undergoing stark summer changes, this season’s competitive slate will be wiped clean.

Though Utah may fare better against the league, one major factor tilting the head-to-head matchup closer to OKC is Russell Westbrook’s 18.5 points, 16 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game vs. George Hill in 2016.

The Northwest Division denizens first meet in Utah Dec. 14. Oklahoma City welcomes Utah Feb. 28.

Projected Head-to-Head Record: 2-2