Why the Utah Jazz are Legitimate Contenders

Jan 26, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) slaps the hand of center Rudy Gobert (27) during the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah Jazz wins 108-94. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz didn’t make a splash in free agency or trade for a superstar over the offseason. They’re very similar to the team that has won just one playoff series over the last three years. But somehow, they’ve shocked the NBA world by jumping out to the league’s best record at 21-5.

On the surface, this sudden improvement seems inexplicable. But in reality, this season shows that Utah was talented enough to be contenders all along. They’re just now putting it all together. And best of all, the Jazz aren’t a fluke.

Unlike other teams on their level, the Jazz don’t have a bonafide MVP-caliber superstar at the helm. Ironically, it’s worked to their benefit. The Jazz ability to focus on a team-oriented play style has allowed several pieces to flourish alongside each other simultaneously. Everyone knows their role and fulfills it for the good of the team. There isn’t just one player who’s always leading the charge; it’s a team effort that involves everyone’s contributions.

But while Utah’s success has been collective, the players themselves have plenty of individuality; they’ve all brought something unique to the table.

3-Headed Monsters at Guard and Wing

Jan 12, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) react in the second quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Running the point for the Jazz is veteran Mike Conley, whose performance is perhaps the most significant difference between this Jazz team and the 2019-20 squad. Conley struggled mightily for much of the 2020 season and was written off by many as washed. But he’s quietly had a resurgence in 2021 and appears to be the missing piece from last year.

Conley’s box score stats don’t jump out but are rather impressive since he plays just 29.3 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, Conley is averaging a respectable 20.2 points and 7.2 assists while posting an efficient 59.3% true shooting and playing strong defense.

Conley’s impact is evident in the analytics, which suggests that he’s a surefire all-star. He’s third in the entire NBA in�538’s RAPTOR�and makes the Jazz better by an unbelievable�18 points per 100 possessions. Those stats are likely to drop as the season progresses but are impressive nonetheless.

Conley’s accompanied in the backcourt by 4th-year shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, who plays with poise and aggressiveness that makes him look well beyond his years. After a slow start, Mitchell has regained his footing and leads the Jazz in scoring at 24.1 points per game on career-high efficiency.

Although he’s not always known for his playmaking, Mitchell has taken a step forward in that facet as well. He’s eclipsing the 5 assists per game mark for the first time in his career and successfully took on more of a playmaking role in Conley’s recent absence, totaling 28 assists over the 3-game span.

As the postseason rolls around, Mitchell’s importance to this Jazz team will be heightened. He was the driving force behind their near-victory in the 2020 first round and willingly took on responsibilities as Utah’s go-to guy down the stretch. Every championship team needs a player like that, and Mitchell should give Jazz fans plenty of hope in tight playoff situations.

What makes Utah’s backcourt so unique is that their excellent guard play doesn’t stop with their starters. Coming off the bench is Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson has flown under the radar but is averaging 17.7 points in just 25.7 minutes. When Mitchell or Conley leave the court, Utah’s offense rarely misses a beat, thanks to Clarkson’s scoring surges off the bench. 

On the wing, Utah’s trio of Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale all add a touch of everything. They each shoot north of 40% from beyond the arc, and their abilities to play both on-ball and off-ball help fortify the offense’s cohesion. When asked to, they can create as capable ball handlers and shot creators. Even better, they have no problem with contributing without the ball as spot-up shooters.

And to top it all off, none of them are poor defenders. O’Neale, in particular, is one of the best wing defenders in the entire NBA despite his undersized 6’4″ frame. He could turn into an X-Factor in the playoffs, as he gives the Jazz a versatile defensive weapon to throw at several opposing scorers in crunch-time.

3-Point Excellence

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The Jazz led the league in 3-point percentage last year but only attempted the 10th-most 3’s in the entire NBA. That’s changed in 2021. Utah has made it a firm priority to use their outside shooting to their advantage more than ever.

The Jazz are shooting a blistering 40.1% from beyond the arc, and more importantly, they’re making a league-best 16.9 3’s per game on an increased number of attempts. They’re doing more of what they’re good at, and it’s paying dividends. Thanks to their fantastic shooting, the Jazz have a top-3 offense that hasn’t shown signs of slowing down anytime soon.

At any given time, the Jazz have four capable 3-point shooters on the court that can all make defenses pay if they sag off. Their knockdown shooting creates numerous driving lanes as defenders have to respect the 3-point line. Everyone benefits as a result.

The Man in the Middle

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In 2021, center Rudy Gobert has arguably been the most valuable player on the league’s best team. No one saw that coming.

Like many of his teammates, Gobert buys into his role and is the glue that holds the Jazz together. On offense, he won’t wow the audience with a contested fadeaway 3 like Nikola Jokic or a tenacious dunk at the rim like Joel Embiid, but he’s one of the best at what he does. 

Utah’s surplus of ball-handlers combine with Gobert’s screen-setting and rim finishing to form multiple elite pick-and-roll connections. He’s fourth in the NBA with 5.4 points per game as a roll man and adds a vital element to Utah’s efficient offense.

Furthermore, the Frenchman doesn’t just create scoring opportunities for himself either. Gobert generates 15.9 points per game from screen assists, good enough for second-best in the league.

And although he doesn’t shoot jumpers himself, Gobert is partly responsible for Utah’s aforementioned 3-point clinic. Gobert’s rim running is so effective that it sometimes forces defenses to help on his rolls to the rim. This help might neutralize Gobert but usually comes at the price of leaving Utah’s deadeye shooters wide open.�

That, combined with Gobert’s efficiency, offensive rebounding, and low tendency to make mistakes, make him a positive and underrated contributor on the offensive end. 

Can Gobert’s Production Translate to the Playoffs?

Feb 12, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (11) shoots the ball past Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

As usual, Gobert is supplementing serviceable offense with elite defense and should contend for a third Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s living up to his nickname by swatting 2.7 shots per game as the league’s premier rim protector. 538’s Defensive RAPTOR also rates him as the NBA’s fourth-best defender thus far. This regular season defensive dominance isn’t new.

But in previous years, Gobert’s elite defense has taken a swift downturn come playoff time. Teams like the 2020 Denver Nuggets keyed in on his weaknesses as a slow-footed perimeter defender and exposed Gobert by luring him away from his comfort zone: the paint.

As the game continues to spread outward and players get more well-rounded, defensive versatility is becoming necessary. Gobert couldn’t adapt and paid the price as opponents rendered his defense less and less effective in multiple series.

But this year’s playoffs project to be different. This season, Gobert has had more success defending the pick-and-roll (0.79 points per possession allowed against the roll man in 2020-21 compared to 0.98 in 2019-20). If this holds, playoff teams won’t effectively hunt Gobert in space as they did in the past.

Gobert has also improved at defending the 3-point line despite his reputation as a poor perimeter defender. On 3-pointers this season, opponents shoot 32.6% with Gobert as the primary defender, 4.8% below their average rate. That’s a marginal improvement from last year when opponents shot just 0.3% below their average 3-point % when guarded by Gobert. The sample size isn’t huge, but still very encouraging nonetheless.

And while he’s not perfect � he’s vulnerable to getting beat off the dribble and sometimes reluctant to contest shots on the pick-and-pop � Gobert’s steady improvements bode well for Utah’s postseason chances. He doesn’t have a very exploitable weakness as he did in years prior. Utah’s excellent regular season defense should be just fine in the postseason, thanks to Gobert’s newfound versatility.

There’s still plenty of basketball to be played, but the early results speak for themselves: the Jazz are for real. Their difficult upcoming schedule will test them, but Utah has shown to be up to the challenge all season. 

It’s time to stop treating them like lucky pretenders in the midst of a random hot streak. The Jazz are legitimate contenders, and they have the pieces to go deep in the playoffs.

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