It's Time To Talk About The Utah Jazz As NBA Championship Contenders
With nine wins on the trot, the Utah Jazz are now 13-4 and just a half game back of the Los Angeles Lakers for top spot in the Western Conference.
The market, personnel and playing style all contribute to the lack of hype the Jazz generate. So too does their history, or rather, lack of history, when it comes to championship-contending teams and deep runs into the playoffs. They've not played in the NBA Finals since 1997-98 and have made it as far as the Conference Finals just once since then.
But it's time to talk about the 2020-21 Utah Jazz as genuine championship contenders.
Cynics have told us the NBA is predictable and only two or three teams ever have a chance of winning it. However, the last two years have given hope to the outsiders. Right now, the Jazz are the best of the outside bunch.
Doing It With Defence
It's never a surprise to see the Jazz towards the top of the list in defence. The 105.8 points they're giving up per 100 possessions is the second-fewest in the NBA behind the Lakers (103.9).
Rudy Gobert acts as the pillar of Utah's defence. His 28.3% defensive rebound percentage is in the 96th percentile, his 12.0% on offensive boards is good for the 84th percentile and Gobert is alongside Anthony Davis at the top of the league in defensive win shares (1.1). Teams get to the rim 7.8% less with Gobert on the floor (99th percentile) per Cleaning The Glass, and when they do, the Frenchman's 2.7 blocks per game (2nd in the NBA) then come into play.
The Jazz are a top tier defensive unit, but it all revolves around Gobert.
Despite the commentary around his $205 million extension, and Utah's apparent foolishness for spending so much on a guy that can't make a jump shot, the Jazz simply wouldn't be where they are without him.
They give up 15.4 fewer points with Gobert on the floor. He is their defence. However, unlike previous seasons, there is more to the Jazz than defence in 2020-21.
Adding The Offence
The first name mentioned here will surprise a few people: Mike Conley.
Conley has been outstanding for the Jazz on the offensive end this season. His struggles of 2019-20 are long behind him. Now, Conley is arguably Utah's most important offensive player.
His 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists through 16 games in 2020-21 dwarf his numbers of last season (14.4/3.2/4.4). Most notably, his effective field goal percentage has risen from 49.4% to 57.7%, while he's now hitting 42.2% of his shots from behind the arc.
Fittingly, Conley is alongside Gobert to lead the Jazz in win shares (2.0). But the 33-year-old is out by himself to top Utah's list in box plus-minus, value over replacement, and his on/off numbers are outrageous.
Conley's +24.8 on/off differential is in the 99th percentile. The Jazz are an elite team with Conley on the floor, and they're doing it by tearing teams apart in transition.
Utah is comfortably the NBA's best team in transition per Cleaning The Glass. They add 5.1 points per 100 possessions to top the league ahead of the Toronto Raptors at +3.9.
When six of the first seven guys in the rotation are shooting above league average from beyond the arc with, and with three above 42%, the Jazz possess a bevy of available shooters in transition. It's all about passing to the right one. At the moment, the Jazz are making the right decision more often than not.
The Jazz made 20 three-pointers against the Golden State Warriors. It's the sixth time the Jazz have cracked 20 made threes this season having previously hit the mark just six times in franchise history.
Steve Kerr compared this Jazz team to his championship squads, telling Tony Jones of The Athletic: “They are trying to win a championship right now, and I think they are capable of doing so. You know, they are where we were three or four years ago.”
As it stands, Utah's current 116.6 points per 100 possessions (4th in the NBA) is the best offence in franchise history. But that isn't an accurate reflection of their improvement. Many teams are putting up massive numbers given the offensive focus running through the NBA right now. It's the '4th' that puts them in the championship conversation. The Jazz haven't been in possession of a top-four offence since 2007-08. In fact, keeping this position would mark Utah's first top 10 offence since 2012-13. They didn't have the defence to back it up that season.
The Utah Jazz are the complete package right now.
Their famously top-tier defence is at the pointy end of the league, and this year, Utah's offensive output is keeping pace.
We have to assume some of their numbers come down. The three-point shooting percentages, in particular. But the Jazz are the only team with both their offence and defence inside the top-five and one of just three teams (Lakers & Hawks) inside the top-10.
The Lakers will be tough to get through in the West. So too will the Clippers. The Denver Nuggets are improving, and it's surely only a matter of time before the Dallas Mavericks make a run. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets are all making waves in the championship conversation.
While they are likely to regress, and the Stats Insider futures models 5% is hardly optimistic, Utah look like a legitimate contender as we cross the quarter-mark of the season.
A first NBA title has already been a long time coming for the Utah Jazz. But with the roster they have now playing at this level, this looks like their best chance to win it since back-to-back Finals losses in the late nineties.
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