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After an offseason filled with blockbusters, the Western Conference was already thought to be significantly better than a year ago.
Then Oklahoma City traded James Harden.
The defending conference champion Thunder broke up its young core Saturday with a deal that sent All-Star Harden to Houston after the sides failed to agree on a contract extension. The Thunder, in return, received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks. The Jazz reflected the mood around the NBA, with coaches and players saying both teams got better.
"I think [Harden] is a great addition to Houston," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "He's a dynamic scorer and he'll continue to expand his game because he'll be on the floor more in Houston. Oklahoma City [now has] Martin, who can fill it up. They've got guys that already can fill it, that's another guy that can replace Harden that can fill it up off the bench."
Harden averaged 16.8 points per game coming off the bench last season for Houston, while Martin, who will be 30 before the end of the season, has averaged 18.4 points in eight NBA seasons.
The centerpiece of the deal, obviously, was Harden. He will move into a starting role in Houston, with which he has said he will sign an extension. Instead of being the third option, Harden will get the opportunity to be a primary scorer and on one of the teams the Jazz beat out for the eighth seed in last year's playoffs.
"One of the best things he does is he finds a way to get to the basket and get to the free throw line," Gordon Hayward said. "He's hard to guard, especially with his left hand. He gets to the basket."
Last year, the Rockets finished 34-32 in the lockout-shortened season.
On the road to begin
The Jazz open the regular season Wednesday against Dallas, but they shouldn't get too used to the comforts of home. November is a rough month for the Jazz, who play 12 of their first 18 games on the road, including a four-game East Coast trip from Nov. 12 to Nov. 17.
It's a tough way to start the season, but at least one Jazz player said he embraces the chance to play road games.
"I always love playing on the road," point guard Mo Williams said. "Your back against the wall, nobody's in the gym but you or your teammates and the coaches. … Everybody hates you, bullies you, they've got signs that are heckling you. I thrive off that."
In a month that could set the tone for the rest of the season, the Jazz could use some thriving.
Not coming Mack
Once again, Hayward is the only Butler alum playing in the NBA.
The Jazz guard's college teammate, Shelvin Mack, was one of two players cut by Washington on Sunday, bringing the Wizards' roster to the league-maximum 15 players. Mack led mid-major Butler to back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship game appearances, including in 2010 alongside Hayward that included Sweet 16 and Elite Eight victories in Salt Lake City.
"I sent him a text message," Hayward said. "It's hard to know what to do. He's a good friend and I know he's going to bounce back. I know he probably wants his space, but I bet 100 people are texting him right now. He's a great point guard and I know he'll find a spot."
Hayward left college after the title run in 2010, and Mack stuck around for the following year's run. The Wizards drafted Mack 34th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. He served as the Wizards' backup point guard, playing in 64 games. He was beaten out for the job by veteran Jannero Pargo.
Hayward, however, has confidence he won't be the only Butler Bulldog in the league for long. He expects Mack will be back.
"Going to Butler, he's a winner," Hayward said. "He knows how to win in the game and I know somebody will pick him up."
Might the Jazz be interested in reuniting two and resurrecting some of that March Madness magic? Unlikely. The Jazz already have four point guards, including Randy Foye, and have the maximum number of players allowed on their roster.
Dallas at Utah
P Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT