Why The Jazz Are A Real Threat
The Jazz are often dismissed as an "I'll believe it when I see it" type of team, but that shouldn't be the case
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Where did this idea come from?
The Utah Jazz are often derided as a regular-season juggernaut that can’t pull it together in the playoffs. No less a luminary than sportswriter Zach Lowe has claimed that nothing the Jazz do matters until they win something in the playoffs. There is a belief that the Jazz dominate the regular season every year but always flame out in the playoffs.
But really, neither parts of that statement are true.
The Jazz have only held home-court advantage in a playoff series once: last year, when they were the #1 seed. Before that, they were the #6 seed in 2020, #5 seed in 2019, #5 seed in 2018, and #5 seed in 2017. So calling them a regular-season behemoth frankly oversells how good they’ve been in the past.
Despite that, they’ve won a first-round playoff series three of the last five years (in 2017, 2018, and 2021). Winning ANY playoff series is difficult; just ask Luka Doncic. Winning without the benefit of home-court advantage is particularly hard.
Last year was really the only year that can be considered a disappointment. The Jazz did steamroll everyone in the regular season, and after dropping the first game to the Grizzlies in round one, won games 2-5 handily. They then faced the Los Angeles Clippers, who buried the Jazz in six games (despite missing superstar Kawhi Leonard for the last two) thanks to a barrage of long-distance bombs from role players.
What’s forgotten in the rush to bury the Jazz is that Mike Conley, the only other playable guard on the Jazz besides young star Donovan Mitchell, missed the first five games and was clearly a liability when he rushed back for Game 6. Mitchell himself was gimpy after an ankle injury, although he still averaged almost 35 points per game on 45% shooting from deep.
Tactically, the Kawhi injury may have helped the Clippers match up better with the Jazz, in a strange way. After Leonard’s injury, Clippers coach/mad scientist Ty Lue leaned all the way in on super-small lineups to great success. Every Clippers possession went the same way: station five guys outside the three-point line, penetrate through the Jazz’s porous perimeter defense, suck in Rudy Gobert to help, and then pass to a random role player in the corner who inevitably swished the wide-open shot.
Long story short, the Jazz lost in six, and the media frenzy to take them down was on. But our most recent NBA champion is a cautionary tale on why it’s too early to dismiss “regular-season champion” teams. The Milwaukee Bucks were a better team for longer than the Jazz have been, and they were similarly written off as a “prove it” team after several years of playoff disappointments. Last year, they finally won a championship after adding a few wrinkles to their undeniably effective base defensive schemes.
This season feels like it could be a similar story for Utah. The Jazz are currently on an eight-game winning streak and have the best point differential of any team in the league. They’re outscoring opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass (the Warriors are in second at 11.4) and have absolutely obliterated everyone they’ve faced recently. Six of their wins during this stretch have been by more than 20 points.
How are they doing it? The same way they always do: a bombardment of threes and dunks on offense and an elite defense anchored by All-Time defender and Ent Rudy Gobert.
I mentioned earlier in the year that the Jazz offense was terrific even without hitting their three-ball and that it could be historically good if their shooting reverted to the mean. Well, it’s happening. The Jazz lead the league in three-point attempts and are now the third-most accurate team from deep. They ALSO lead the league in FG% at the rim, and they even shoot well from mid-range.
Add it all up, and Utah’s offensive rating of 119.5 points per 100 possessions would be the highest of all-time.
The offense is a complex machine with a very thick playbook. Players dart hither and yon seemingly at random, like a school of minnows, until suddenly Rudy Gobert has a wide-open dunk or Donovan Mitchell is canning a three-pointer with nary a defender to be seen. New additions to the team often struggle to pick up the complicated concepts, and even veterans can get confused. But the continuity this team has, and players’ correspondingly greater grasp of the offense, shows up in the team’s improved offensive rank each year (per Cleaning the Glass):
2017-2018: 16th best offense in the league
2021-2022: 1st (and it’s not close)
The key is having four players on the floor who can all shoot, pass, and dribble around a gargantuan screen-setting, hard-rolling center. With Gobert and the shockingly decent (so far) Hassan Whiteside, the center spot is covered.
The guards and wings rotate between:
Mike Conley, an All-Star point guard who’s knocking down every three he’s taking and can hit short floaters with both hands;
Bojan Bogdanovic, who relishes destroying smaller defenders in the paint;
Jordan Clarkson, who’s like if a t-shirt cannon were human;
Joe Ingles, the slow-moving, fast-talking Aussie with the deadeye shot and perfect passes;
Royce O’Neale, a defensive specialist who’s hitting 40% from three and finishing inside better than ever;
Rudy Gay, who can play everything from the 2 to the 5;
Donovan Mitchell, almost superstar
It sounds pretty simple, but the Jazz make sure that all of their players get involved, all can make the right pass, and all can shoot an open or semi-contested three. There are no real weak links for poor defenders to hide on, and they have combinations of size and skill to allow almost unlimited flexibility on offense.
Although the system itself provides a framework for ~90 points every night regardless of who’s running it, Donovan Mitchell’s explosive drives are the ceiling-raiser. Every true contender needs a guy who can flat-out get buckets in late-game scenarios, and Mitchell is That Guy.
He averaged 36 points per game in one of the best playoff series in NBA history, the seven-game barnburner against the Denver Nuggets in 2019-2020 where Mitchell and Murray traded 50-point games like heavyweights throwing haymakers. He averaged 31 points over 10 playoff games last year. Mitchell’s a bonafide playoff stud with the rare combination of shooting ability and turbocharged athleticism to score from anywhere and on anyone.
The Jazz offense isn’t the issue here. They might have an off night or two over the course of a long series, but this team is way too good not to fill up the scoreboard. The defense is what let them down in the playoffs, and the Jazz approached this year planning to experiment during the regular season.
The basic Jazz defense is simple. Let perimeter players chase ball handlers off of the three-point arc and into Gobert’s Kraken-like tentacles. Gobert (or Hassan Whiteside) usually drops back into the paint and uses his length to deter opponents at the rim and force difficult mid-range shots.
And man, what length it is. Gobert has the second-longest wingspan in the NBA (7’9”), and you see the effect every night. Watch him block a hook shot here:
People, that was a hook shot. A hook shot is literally designed to be unblockable, and yet Gobert gets it while barely jumping against a fellow seven-footer.
The Jazz are playing around more with how high Gobert comes up when guarding the pick and roll. Sometimes he will rush to the level of the screener, and other times he’ll sink back like normal. I’ve even seen the occasional blitz (running past the screener to trap the ball-handler), something Gobert virtually never did in the past.
He’s also switching more than previous seasons, although it’s still rare, and he is quite good at it, with one of the best isolation defense marks in the league. So many opposing players get a step on Gobert and foolishly think that means they’re safe. Inevitably, Gobert, like the bad guy in a slasher film, jumps out of nowhere for the block:
Notice when watching the clip how happily the Jazz switch. It’s the end of the quarter, and they know Gobert is up to the challenge of snuffing out whatever drive the speedy Tyrese Maxey will try.
As I noted above, perimeter defense from the Jazz’s other players was their problem in the past, particularly when Conley was hurt. None of the rotation players besides Clarkson are bad, exactly, but only O’Neale is consistently good. Last year’s small-ball Clippers were able to get into the paint at will and spray passes to the corner for open threes.
The Clippers are one of the very few teams with enough shooters to pull this off, but Gobert’s inability to post up little guys on offense (just 0.5 post-ups per game this year, barely up from 0.4 last year) means that more teams will likely try the same strategy. So this year Utah decided to bring in two new players who may give them a little more defensive versatility: Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall.
Paschall is interesting as a brick house of a small-ball center who can switch on the perimeter but still bang with the big fellas underneath. His lack of a jumper and short stature (for a center) make him an unusual fit with the Jazz’s traditional player archetypes, and he hasn’t received much playing time yet this year.
Rudy Gay was the more prominent addition. He’s a power forward by nature, but his signing was clearly a knee-jerk reaction to last year’s playoff flameout. He’s played as a center for the Jazz for a handful of minutes this season to uneven effect, but it’s something that we will definitely see in the playoffs at some point for a switch-everything defensive lineup.
The Jazz are also running more zone than ever before. It’s clear they’ve realized, much like the Bucks did last year, that you need some level of flexibility no matter how effective your base scheme. NBA playoff teams are too good at adjustments and exploiting mismatches to run the same thing every time. Zone defense is on the rise around the league, and it’s an essential card to have up your sleeve.
Reports also indicate that the Jazz are sniffing around for another defense-first wing in the trade market. The Jazz’s window is now, with Gobert and Mitchell in their primes and Conley, Bogdanovic, and Ingles approaching the end of theirs. As good as the Warriors and Suns look, and even with the Nets and Bucks lurking on the other side, the Jazz are good enough that they should absolutely be going for it all.
The Jazz believe they would’ve won the NBA championship last year if Mitchell and Conley had stayed healthy. This is the second straight regular season that they’re rolling through opponents, but the extraordinary starts of the Warriors and Suns have overshadowed the quiet juggernaut lurking in Salt Lake City. Last year they went in as favorites and were summarily dismissed. This year, with less fanfare than ever, they’re looking forward to righting those wrongs.
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