NBA

Do the Utah Jazz Fit in the Top Tier of Contenders?

Jan 26, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) pass the ball under the arms of New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) to center Rudy Gobert (27) during the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah Jazz wins 108-94. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

People assumed a clear cut tier with the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks for real NBA contenders (Brooklyn is now in that group). They all have star power and continuity within their organization and roster. However, by the quarter-point of the season, the Utah Jazz have the best record in the NBA.

The Jazz, in past seasons, have struggled to create offense. The blame could be attributed to was multiple guys: the surrounding cast not being talented enough, Donovan Mitchell’s lack of playmaking, and Rudy Gobert’s lack of offensive skill. Most viewed them as a competitive playoff team, but not much more.

Now the Jazz are one of the best offenses in the NBA due to a philosophical change. They’ve made a concerted effort to shoot more threes and empower their players on offense. They are second in three-point percentage, first in three-pointers made, and second in three-point attempts.

Mike Conley Sr. has also emerged as a great secondary option next to Donovan Mitchell. He carried over his strong end to the season and has proved to be a great pick and roll partner with Gobert.

Lastly and most importantly, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have improved offensively and as Jazz leaders.

Great Shooters Taking Great Shots

Feb 2, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) reacts after a three point shot with forward Joe Ingles (2) in the first quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

What separates the Jazz from every other team that also shoots threes? Every NBA organization understands that the three-point shot has the highest value per shot. That’s not a mystery anymore.

For the Jazz, it’s not just anyone shooting threes. The difference is that they have high-level three-point shooters taking open shots. Their whole wing and guard rotation are all great shooters.

Additionally, all those same shooters bring some on-ball juice to create these looks. Mitchell and Conley take most of the load, but Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson can run a two-man game well. When they’re swinging the ball side to side and cutting, they create open looks.

The Jazz don’t have the same level of on-ball playmaking the Lakers, Clippers, and the Nets have. Instead, they move the ball on offense to get into their second or third action on offense to soften up the defense. That’s where they generate open threes.

Mike Conley Sr. Off to a Strong Start

Feb 2, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) drives to the hoop against Detroit Pistons guard Josh Jackson (20) in the first quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Conley took a lot of flak for starting last season off poorly. He couldn’t establish chemistry with Rudy Gobert as he was more of a lob threat than Conley’s previous partner, Marc Gasol. However, they started clicking in the bubble.

He’s a perfect supplement to Mitchell as a creator. Conley’s signature move is his ambidextrous floater, which contrasts with Mitchell’s downhill style. A team may utilize a drop coverage against the Jazz to contain Mitchell, but Conley can pay with a floater. He also is a great catch and shoot guy and can play off of other drivers.

Conley is a smaller guard on defense, but he’s a pesky point of attack defender, a crucial part of a strong defense.

In all, Conley helps the team keep afloat by supplementing offense and playing a valuable defensive role.

Rudy Gobert is emerging as a two-way threat

Feb 9, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks the shot of Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the second half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Gobert, in the past, has been considered a defensive presence only. However, his screening, decision making, and physical tools are perfect for the Jazz’s offense. He isn’t a Jokic-level passer where he can wave the ball in the air and zip it to a cutter, as a dribble handoff guy, and in the short roll.
On handoffs, he’s comfortable waiting for the action to develop and then getting out of his roll to the basket. With a spread, floor defenders are reluctant to tag him. If they do, Mitchell can dot the weakside shooter. If the defense is late, Gobert’s height and wingspan make him a huge target and. He places himself well for dump-offs off drives as well.

Gobert’s rim running takes advantage of Utah’s spacing. Their shooting and his inside presence work symbiotically and force a defense to pick their poison.

Defensively, Gobert is outstanding just by himself. Utah doesn’t have the most athletic wing defenders, so they funnel ball handlers to him. When players attack the basket, Gobert is so good at contesting the rim and getting back to defend his man.

The one knock people try to put on Gobert defensively is that he can’t handle switches. He’s always been a solid on-ball defender for a big. He uses his length to get contests. However, he’s not so bad on these switches that he’s unplayable.

The real critique is how he will handle Jokic. Gobert has to step out to the three-point line with Jokic. The Jazz could play the game where they dare him to shoot, but they need to apply ball pressure to make his passes harder. Keep an eye out for Denver and Utah matchups.

Donovan Mitchell Has Taken A Leap

Quin Snyder’s Jazz have always relied on ball movement, but in the playoffs, that ball movement has tended to go away. Mitchell took the burden of hero ball, which is necessary at times, but that’s not the team’s identity.

So far, it looks like Mitchell is buying into being a facilitator in addition to his scoring. He’s actively seeking out teammates, whereas before, he tended to force drives.

Look at this dish to Derrick Favors against the Celtics on Tuesday. He flows into a pick and roll with Derrick Favors. When Jaylen Brown hits the deck, Grant Williams is left guarding two on the baseline. Instead of hitting Bogdanovic in the corner, he throws a no-look pass to Favors for an easy dunk.

If Mitchell hit Bogdanovic, Williams could’ve got a late closeout, and the defense would’ve rotated to pick up Favors. By manipulating Williams with his eyes, he got the highest percentage shot.

That’s one example of improved instincts. He had more high-level reads against a stingy Celtics defense, such as weakside skips, no-look dump-offs, and lobs to Gobert. At the end of the game, Mitchell and Gobert worked the two-man game beautifully on back to back possessions when the Celtics blitzed the screen. He hit Gobert on two lobs in a row.

He’s anticipating the game now. He understands the defensive rotations and how to exploit them. If he can continue to improve in this area, he’s going to prove Shaq wrong.

Do the Utah Jazz Fit in the Top Tier of Contenders?

The short answer is yes, but wait and see. If the Jazz revert to the issues that plagued them in the playoffs (scoring droughts), they might be another first-round exit. However, from the looks of it, Mitchell is looking to get his teammates involved more.

All of the Jazz’s pieces are coming together nicely. They have dangerous shooters and an elite rim runner. Collectively, they have enough on-ball prowess to make up for top tier playmakers. People may point to the fact that very rarely do the non-superstar teams win. The counter is that Mitchell and Gobert could be those stars.

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