The Utah Jazz deserve respect as a championship contender


The Utah Jazz are the hottest team in basketball. Utah won its 11th straight game on Friday night by knocking off the struggling Dallas Mavericks, 120-101. The Jazz aren’t just winning, they’re blowing teams out. Even without Donovan Mitchell, who missed his second straight game in concussion protocol, the Jazz ran Dallas off the floor from the opening tip, ending the first quarter with a 23-point lead. It was a wrap from there. This was the ninth time the Jazz have won by double-figures during the streak.

The win pushes Utah’s league-best record to 15-4 overall. It’s not a fluke. The Jazz are leading the NBA in point differential (+8.3) and rank No. 2 overall in net rating. They’re the only team in the NBA that currently sits top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

The Jazz ended last season in the bubble scoring only 78 points in their Game 7 loss to Denver Nuggets to complete a 3-1 collapse. This year, Utah is posting the best offensive rating in franchise history, slightly above the 1995 team that won 60 games behind John Stockton and Karl Malone. Jazz shooters are absolutely on fire from deep. Friday night’s win marked the seven time this year Utah has hit 20 three-pointers or more in a game.

The question now becomes: are the Jazz a championship contender? It feels likely the two teams in Los Angeles are going to enter the playoffs as the favorites regardless of what happens during the season. The good news for the Jazz is they would only have to see one of those teams on their path to the Finals if finish with the No. 1 seed.

What’s fueling Utah’s hot start? Let’s get into it.

The Jazz are fully embracing the three ball

A year ago, the Jazz led the NBA in three-point percentage, making 38 percent of their threes. Their offense was very good — finishing No. 9 in efficiency — but it wasn’t quite great despite having the most accurate shooting in the league.

The big change for the Jazz this year is they’ve ratcheted up how often they’re shooting from deep. Utah is No. 2 in the league in three-point rate this season, attempting a three on 47.7 percent of their field goal attempts. Utah is making 39.8 percent of those attempts, which is the second best three-point percentage in the league.

A year ago, the Jazz were No. 8 in three-point rate, taking a three on 41.4 percent of their possessions.

It might seem like minor change just looking at the numbers, but the Jazz’s ability to get up threes at a record rate is making all the difference. At least for now, those shots are usually falling.

Mike Conley is reviving his career

The Jazz traded two first round picks for Conley ahead of the 2019 draft to fix a point guard position that had remained a problem area for the franchise since it traded Deron Williams to the Nets in 2011. Conley was supposed to give the Jazz the steady hand they needed next to Donovan Mitchell to help the franchise take the next step in its quest to compete in the West. Instead, Conley struggled out of the gates as he adjusted to his new teammates and then dealt with a couple nagging injuries, including a lingering hamstring strain.

While Conley was better in the bubble, there was still concern that he could be declining at age-33. That certainly hasn’t looked like the case at the start of the new season. Conley has been incredible so far. If he maintains this level of play, it should go down as one of the best seasons of his career.

The all-in-one metrics love Conley this season. He’s leading the league in RAPTOR and RAPTOR WAR, a stat by FiveThirtyEight that measures impact on the floor. He’s also second in the league in estimated plus-minus behind Nikola Jokic.

The biggest difference for Conley has been embracing the three-point shot. He’s taking threes on 54.7 percent of his field goals this year compared to 45.1 percent of his field goals last season. He’s also raised his percentage from 37.5 percent to 41.8 percent on those shots. He’s done a great job of organizing Utah’s offense as a floor general, posting an assist rate over 30 percent for the fifth time in his career while doing well to limit his turnovers.

Conley has a +20.5 net rating, which is the by far the best on the team. It took him a year to find his groove after coming over from Memphis, but this is exactly the type of veteran point guard play Utah was hoping for.

The Jazz basically have eight starters

Utah is deep this year. While the Jazz didn’t make too many notable changes to the roster during the offseason, they did shore up one major problem area and still maintained their continuity.

At the start of the 2019-20202 season, Utah signed Bojan Bogdanovic to a $73 million deal in free agency. That meant the Jazz had to trade veteran big man Derrick Favors after spending almost his entire career with the team. Favors became a free agent this past offseason, and Utah jumped at the chance to bring him back.

When Favors started next to Rudy Gobert during his first stint with the team, it meant the Jazz had a major spacing issue. Now he backs up Gobert and gives Utah starter-level production off the bench, keeping their superstar defensive anchor fresh late in games and giving Jazz coach Quin Snyder the ability to deploy Gobert against bench units at times.

The Jazz also gave out a $52 million deal to Jordan Clarkson this offseason, and he’s responded with a career year. Clarkson is averaging a career-high in points and he’s doing it on the best scoring efficiency of his career. Add Joe Ingles to the bench, the veteran Aussie shooter who is used to starting for the Jazz, and Utah has a variety of different lineups they can play without much drop-off.

The Jazz are really good

Utah has had an enviable amount of continuity, both in terms of keeping this roster together and keeping players healthy during a global pandemic. The Jazz have a super sharp head coach in Snyder. They have one of the best defensive players of his generation in Gobert in the prime of his career, a young backcourt star in Mitchell, and a deep bench. They have balance on both ends of the court.

The Jazz don’t have multiple MVP candidates like the Lakers and Clippers. They know they can’t compete with the top-line talent LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. What they’ve done instead is build the best team possible in every other way.

The Jazz will be discounted in the Western Conference playoff picture, because that’s what happens when there’s two super teams in LA. It’s a familiar position for Utah, and they don’t seem to care. The Jazz know they’re damn good. Thus far, it’s made them the best team to start the NBA’s new season.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *