Coming off their promising performance during the Playoffs, the Utah Jazz are surprising everyone being the best team in the NBA thus far. Are they legit or just an early season threat?
No one expected the Jazz to be talked about with the likes of the Clippers, Lakers, and Bucks in terms of championship aspirations. They have definitely slid under everyone’s radar as they sit atop of the West at 25-6. As they continue to take down one contender after another, Quin Snyder and his coaching staff have done an excellent job thus far tweaking their system to distribute the scoring load, utilize their strengths from the deep, and shrink the court through Rudy Gobert’s paint defense. Many consider the Jazz as a tier 2 or 3 team, but given their current run, they could be a wildcard pick to make it to the Finals.
So how exactly did Snyder get his team in tune to become formidable contenders this season?
Some analysts have compared this Utah Jazz run to the 2015 Atlanta Hawks or the 2018 Toronto Raptors. A team you knew could make noise in the Playoffs, but never looked dominant as a favorite. So far, they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games in February though and they don’t look like they’ll stop winning anytime soon. This streak is not a fluke in beating contenders such as the Bucks, Clippers, Celtics, and Heat along the way. As one of the few teams that allow crowds in their arena, they are certainly putting on a show for their loyal fanbase in Salt Lake City.
The majority of the credit for their success has to be given to their head coach and the job he is doing to adjust his system according to the roster. They are virtually sporting a similar roster to last season with their only addition being Derrick Favors. This similar composition has seemingly helped in their chemistry and transition into this compressed season. The Jazz have modified their approach on offense and defense by having multiple ball handlers besides Donovan Mitchell on offense and funneling their opponents into Rudy Gobert in the paint to contest shots. Mitchell and Gobert aren’t standing out in the box score given this hot streak, but the eye test shows that their impact to keep the offense moving and the willingness to trust their teammates have made the Jazz top five in both Offense and Defensive Rating.
The small tweaks to their system have caused a dramatic increase in the production of their supporting cast. These have led to them being first in the league in threes at nearly 17 makes a game and second in rebounds at a little over 48 boards a game. In stark contrast to last season, the Jazz now have six players averaging double-figures and six players who are making at least two threes a game. Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, and Bogdan Bogdanovic had their fair share of inconsistency last season due to injuries, but have found their rhythm as scoring threats this season. It is a bonus as well that the Jazz are one of the healthiest rosters in this battered COVID-19 season at only two changes to their starting lineup this year.
Part of the resurgence of this edition of the Jazz is the play of their supporting guards, Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson. The veteran point guard had a disappointing first season in Utah last season plagued with injuries, but looks to have adjusted to sharing the ballhandling duties and finding his spots for easy jumpers unlike being the primary scorer in Memphis. Meanwhile, Clarkson is having the best season of his career thanks to his highest scoring clip of his career in 18.2 points a game with 3.2 triples a game on 37.5& shooting. Our kababayan has so far been the runaway candidate to be the Sixth Man of the Year this season—a goal he mentioned at the start of the campaign. Their play has meshed well with the rest of the roster, especially with Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Mitchell also being capable playmakers.
Overall, the Utah Jazz have done excellently throughout a 30-game sample. Their roster has fared well under the national spotlight and on off-days. While Shaquille O’Neal may have a point about the Jazz not getting “over the hump”, the signs are there to make a lot of noise in the Playoffs. They still have another 40 games to play before the postseason, and that’s where their mettle will truly be tested against the championship favorites, Clippers and Lakers. Yes, one bad match-up can take down a title front runner but this year’s version of the Jazz could very well become the favorites if they can sustain this level of play all the way to the postseason.