They might not be with the bookmakers, and they’re not going to be grabbing headlines, but both teams have had brilliant offseasons so far.
Indiana have been very competitive over the last two seasons. They were the third seed in the Eastern Conference before Victor Oladipo got injured. Malcolm Brogdon was picked up in a sign-and-trade with their conference-rival Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers also signed Jeremy Lamb from the Charlotte Hornets.
Both of these teams are led by athletic two-guards who were surprise stars in 2017/18. Donovan Mitchell was the 13th overall pick in the 2017 Draft, but he immediately became an offensive force, leading Utah to the playoffs. Victor Oladipo was acquired in the Paul George trade, earning Most Improved Player honours as the Pacers pushed LeBron James’ Cavaliers to seven games.
Both needed upgrades at point guard. Both got it done.
Constructing small-market rosters is tough. Free agents aren’t keen on the Jazz or Pacers; neither are in the running to acquire max-contract guys. As we’ve seen with George and Anthony Davis, All-Stars are hard to keep hold of, too.
Stuck in the midriff of the playoffs without a realistic title chance, this was a pivotal offseason for Indiana and Utah. Both (once again, at the time of writing) have done superbly well.
Brogdon and Conley are perfect partners for Oladipo and Mitchell respectively. Lamb and Bogdanovic provide scoring that both teams need to accompany their star guards have struggled with at times.
Their successes have been built on elite defence. The Jazz led the league in adjusted defensive rating last season, while the Pacers were fourth. Their offseason moves have, if anything, enhanced their defence.
Not so long ago, these two teams were in a challenging spot. The Pacers were having to let go of their franchise star George. The Jazz lost Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in free agency and only had the 24th pick in the draft.
Talent evaluation has to be faultless for small-market teams. Indiana nailed it in the George trade, Utah did too in the trade for Mitchell.
Those two victories opened up opportunity this summer. Again, they have got it spot on, addressing their needs without mortgaging the franchise’s future or compromising the balance of the roster.
The front offices will get praised this summer – as they should be.
Picking either team to win the championship is still an outside shout, but it would no longer be a surprise to see Utah or Indiana in the Conference Finals. Who knows, maybe it’ll be Oladipo versus Mitchell and Conley versus Brogdon in the 2020 NBA Finals.
It isn’t all about the end result though, particularly for the smaller markets. The Jazz and Pacers have – even if they don’t get past the second round next season – improved their chances of winning a championship in 2020 and beyond. That alone is impressive from where they were just over 24 months ago.