Stage set for new Jazz age

Utah's young pieces are in place: Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward. Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Western Conference looks like it will be a three-team race again this season between the conference defending champion Thunder, the newly reloaded Lakers and the aging but timeless Spurs.

Other upstarts, such as the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers will make noise as well. And no one is quite ready to write off the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies.

But if you look beyond 2012-13, a dark-horse contender is quietly emerging in the mountains, one that could be the NBA's team to beat in the near future.

In August, John Hollinger and I ranked the Utah Jazz No. 4 in our Future Power Rankings. When Hollinger and I aggregated the numbers, it raised a few eyebrows -- including ours and those of a number of observers around the league.

Newly hired Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey was among those taken aback.

"We are a long way from No. 4 right now," Lindsey said. "I can understand on the future ratings why there's reason to be optimistic -- with the cap flexibility Kevin has created and the young players that we do have -- but cap room doesn't win you games. Young players, almost by definition, don't win you games."

No one can predict the future precisely in a league where injuries, trade demands, complicated cap rules and luxury tax thresholds can shift a team's fortunes overnight. But over the past few years, our Future Power Rankings have done a solid job of giving us some clues. Most recently, the FPR signaled the rise of the Pacers well before Indiana finished with the third-best record in the East last season.

Will the Jazz be the next young team to take the league by storm?

I spent some time in Salt Lake City over the past week to dig a little deeper.