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Sheridan: Utah Jazz Are Not a Bad Bet, Says a Big 3 Vet

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

BROOKLYN — Jermaine O’Neal knows a thing or two about chemistry, having seen what a lack of it can do (he was on the first USA Basketball team to lose with NBA players, along with the infamous Jail Blazers) and what an abundance of it can do, which happened for him under Rick Carlisle with the Indiana Pacers

With age comes wisdom, and he has seen enough NBA basketball over the years to know what looks promising.

And he likes the Utah Jazz. A lot.

And on DeMarcus Cousins, he sounds far from convinced that his situation will work out well in Golden State.

Jun 29, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Tri State player captain Jermaine O’Neal blocks a shot against Ball Hogs player captain Brain Scalabrine during a BIG3 3-on-3 basketball league game at the United Center. Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking exclusively to one night prior to the Big 3 championship at Barclays Center, O’Neal offered his thoughts on a variety of subjects in a courtside interview. He is living in Dallas these days, keeping himself in fantastic shape and taking part in the basketball relevance litmus test that the Big 3 has become.

Allen Iverson spent some time in the league last season, and Amare Stoudemire, who will be playing for Hoepel Jerusalem next season, has used it to extend his career after aging out of the NBA.

Gary Payton and Nancy Lieberman are coaching in the Big 3, and rapper Ice Cube is a co-founder and will perform at 6:30 p.m. on Friday night — giving him enough time to make it across the East River for Drake’s show at Madison Square Garden should he so choose.

A night before the event, O’Neal assessed the biggest sleeper team in the West. He believes it is located in Salt Lake City.

“They have a great young nucleus, they’re well-coached, and they’ve improved every year to the point where they’re primed to take the next step,” O’Neal said. “I think there are quite a few teams out there like that, but that one in particular. They were one of few teams to beat Golden State multiple times last season. So they are equipped for it, they just need that maturity to take the next step.

“Maturity is measured  in years under your belt, and I think those guys are getting those years that they need to compete in a tough Western Conference,” O’Neal said.

Utah is currently slightly favored (+220) over Oklahoma City (+225) to win the Northwest Division title. To win the West, they are 35-1.

To win the NBA championship, the odds are 75-1.

The Jazz finished fifth in the West last season as just two wins separated third place from ninth place, and they went on to beat the Thunder in six before losing to Houston in five in the second round.

Donovan Mitchell finished second in the Rookie of the Year race behind Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles tied Klay Thompson for fourth in the league in 3-point accuracy, and Ruby Gobert finished third in the league in blocks per game but did not play enough games (he missed 26) to qualify among the official league leaders.

May 8, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) dribbles against the Houston Rockets in the first half in game five of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

After going 3-1 against Golden State last season, including a pair of 30-point victories,  they will face the Warriors just three times in the upcoming season, including their second game of the 82-game slate.

Their legitimacy was underscored by the NBA when the schedule for the upcoming season was released, with the league office scheduling them for the nightcap of the Christmas quintupleheader with a game against Portland.

To the casual NBA fan, the Jazz have had a pretty boring offseason. They re-signed Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto, guaranteed the contracts of Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh, drafted Grayson Allen 21st overall and signed Naz Mitrou-Long and Georges Niang to a two-way contract and multi-year contract, respectively. The only offseason loss so far has been the waiving of Jonas Jerebko, who’s already signed with the Golden State Warriors.

Boring? Or just part of the general manager Dennis Lindsey’s plan?

O’Neal believes it is the latter. One old adage says if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

And another says things get better as they age.

So sleep on these guys at your own peril.

Jan 26, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins (0) is assisted off the court after suffering an apparent injury during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center. Pelicans defeated the Rockets 115-113. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The one victory of their three that did not come by 30 points against the Warriors was a 19-point victory. So yeah, they match up well … unless Cousins is added to the equation, which will be the case this season in the Bay Area if he does not rush back from a torn Achilles.

Will he be a good fit?

“I don’t know,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been following him on social media, and been running a little bit, but it’s never been about talent with him. One of the things you learn, and I learned this when I injured my knee, is that you have to be truthful to yourself. Your mind will play games on you.

“And the other thing is this: The teams he’s played on have thrown him the ball, thrown him the ball, thrown him the ball, thrown him the ball. He was getting touches on two of every three trips down the court. In Golden State he might not touch the ball on four out of five trips, plus they take a lot of quick shots.”

So there you have it: At least one guy think there is a team out there capable of beating Golden State, and the evidence from last season backs up his case.

As O’Neal noted, sometimes your mind can play tricks on you. Right now, everyone has their mind made up that Golden State is a cinch to win the title.

Give it a second thought, and bet the Jazz if you respect Jermaine O’Neal.

Written by Chris Sheridan

Chris Sheridan is a veteran sports journalist who previously covered the NBA for ESPN. He worked for the Associated Press for 18 years, and also served as the 76ers beat writer for Sheridan is the host of Sports Betting Tips, a podcast covering all things gambling.

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