Utah Jazz: Western Conference Powerhouse

March 11, 2020. It was a day that many basketball fans (and sports fans) won’t forget.

On that day, the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, there were some concerning developments that took place before the game started. Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and as a result, the Jazz-Thunder game was canceled. Fans were asked to leave the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and the NBA suspended its season due to Gobert’s positive test.

What followed afterward was reported friction between Gobert and his running mate, Donovan Mitchell. Many experts suggested that the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell was ruined and that there was a point of no return. Some even insinuated that the Jazz should trade either one of Gobert and Mitchell, and start over from scratch.

Fast-forward eleven months later, and the Jazz sit at the top of the Western Conference. Head coach Quin Snyder has led Utah to a 24-5 record. Mitchell is putting up an All-Star season, and Gobert is still holding it down on defense.

Before the season began, many pundits predicted that teams like Bucks, Lakers, or Clippers would be the best team in the league. But the Jazz have asserted themselves as the best team, with the NBA’s best record. Typically a fixture for the fourth seed in the West, Utah is now a worthy title contender.

How did they do it? All the success can be attributed to Mitchell and Gobert…and a handful of other players.

Donovan Mitchell, NBA All-Star…and Playmaker

Former NBA player and TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal had a rather awkward post-game interview with Mitchell, following the Jazz’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Shaq told Mitchell that he was one of his favorite players, but he didn’t believe that he had what it takes to get to the next level. Mitchell’s response? “Alright.” It was safe to say that Shaq was trying to motivate Mitchell by showing some tough love, but his attempt fell flat.

Regardless of how Shaq feels about Mitchell right now, there’s no denying that Mitchell has definitely been taking things to the next level. His scoring average of 24.2 points per game is career-high for him, so far. His shooting percentage from behind the arc has improved. Additionally, his game has been evolving over time, too, with an added playmaking ability.

Over the years, Mitchell has shown some progressions in his passing skills. But his knack for making plays for his teammates wasn’t put on full display until this year. This can be attributed to Snyder adding more cutting to the Jazz offense, opening up more passing lanes for Mitchell. Over the course of the past six games, Mitchell has averaged seven assists, with eleven assists in a win against the Indiana Pacers.

While Mitchell is known for being a score-first shooting guard, there’s no denying that he can pass the ball just as effectively.

Defensive Stalwart Rudy Gobert

Compared to other centers, Gobert isn’t that much of a dominant offensive threat. But what the French seven-footer makes up for on offense is his elite defense. He is averaging 2.7 blocks per game, which is second in the NBA behind fellow center Myles Turner. His average of 13.4 defensive rebounds per game is good for third in the league.

But in order to fully understand Gobert’s defensive impact on the court, one has to look no further than advanced stat metrics. According to FiveThirtyEight, Gobert has the best defensive RAPTOR in the league; he’s been in the top 3 in terms of defensive RAPTOR since 2016. Whenever Gobert is in the lineup, the Jazz’s defensive rating improves by 10.2 points per 100 possessions. His defensive rating (102.0) is currently in the top ten.

Still not impressed? Here are a few advanced defensive categories in which Gobert is in the top ten in:

  • Win shares (2.1) – first in the NBA
  • Box plus/minus (2.0) – ninth in the NBA
  • Rebound percentage (37.5%) – third in the NBA
  • Defended field goal percentage (41.7%) – third in the NBA

It is safe to say that Gobert has the Defensive Player of the Year award in the bag. (Provided that he doesn’t actually shut the league down, of course.)

The Resurgence of Mike Conley

Throughout his career, Mike Conley has always been a borderline All-Star player. As a floor general for the Memphis Grizzlies, he has led Memphis to several playoff berths. So when Conley was traded to the Jazz in the summer of 2019, many expected Conley to take Utah to great heights.

However, during the 2019-20 season, that didn’t appear to be the case. Conley’s numbers were down across aboard. He went from scoring a career-high 21.1 points per game in 2019, to 13.8 in 2020 (prior to the season going on hiatus). His shooting averages were down compared to years past, and injuries have also taken a toll on him as well.

This season, Conley’s play has improved. He is averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 points per game, with a career-high effective field goal percentage of 56 percent. Not only that, but he also has the best net rating and defensive rating (yes, better than Gobert) on his team, with 17.7 and 98.9, respectively. In terms of plus-minus, he is leading the league in that category.

Even with Conley sidelined with a hamstring injury, the Jazz continue to win in dominant fashion. That shows how flexible the Jazz can be without their starting point guard in the lineup.

Jordan Clarkson – Sixth Man of the Year

On December 23, 2019, the Jazz traded Dante Exum to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson and some future second-round draft picks. So far, Utah appears to be the winner of the trade, and by a very considerable margin.

Right now, no other bench player in the NBA is playing better than Clarkson. He’s averaging 18.2 points per game off the bench, and no other sixth man has come close. Since January 1, in a game where he only scored nine points against the Los Angeles Clippers, Clarkson has consistently scored in double figures…and has shown no signs of slowing down.

Clarkson’s main role for the Jazz is to provide scoring whenever his team is in a crunch. This was showcased recently when Clarkson scored a whopping 40 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in a 134-123 Jazz victory. When the Jazz were down 20-10 in the first quarter, Clarkson entered the game and reeled off four straight three-pointers (in less than two minutes!) to help bring his team back into the game.

At the moment, Clarkson has the Sixth Man of the Year award all locked up, provided that he doesn’t slow down anytime soon. And Vegas is inclined to agree.

Jinglin’ Joe Ingles

From 2017 to 2019, Joe Ingles was a fixture in the Jazz’s starting lineup. He may not be much of a starter anymore, but he’s still a contributing factor for the Jazz and thriving in his new role.

Ingles is known around the league as a very gritty player, one who is able to defend on the perimeter. He is a very reliable 3-and-D player and has routinely pulled Utah out of pretty tough spots.  Coming off the bench for Utah, Ingles currently has career-highs in shooting averages across the board. He’s also breaking franchise records, too, as he continues to stuff the stat sheet in any way that we can.

Swiss Knife Royce O’Neale

Rocye O’Neale is one of the more overlooked role players in the NBA. The small forward plays a crucial role for Utah, being able to defend just about any position on the court. In most cases, he often guards the best scoring player on the opposing team. While Gobert gets all the praise for his defense, O’Neale isn’t that far behind, as he’s able to accumulate defensive stats with ease.

O’Neale is having his best season so far, putting up career-highs in points per game (7.9), rebounds per game (6.9), and three-point shooting percentage (.429%). With many of his teammates egging him to shoot the ball more, O’Neale has upped up his field-goal attempts, and so far it has been paying off.

How Far Can the Jazz Go?

There is a lot to like about the Utah Jazz this year. They have dominated since their January 6th loss to the New York Knicks, winning 20 out of 21 since then. (Their only loss came to the Denver Nuggets.) What’s even more impressive is that the Jazz won those twenty games in double figures. Because of this, they have the best margin of victory in the NBA, by far. The team with the second-best margin of victory, the Milwaukee Bucks, trails Utah by 2.5 points in terms of point differential.

With a combination of role players surrounding their two All-Stars, Mitchell and Gobert, the Utah Jazz seems poised to reach the NBA Finals. As long as they can keep their dominance ongoing, seeing Utah in the Finals for the first time since 1998 wouldn’t be that unlikely.

 

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