The Utah Jazz are quietly a trendy pick to challenge the top teams in the Western Conference. They can do it, but health remains the biggest question mark.
The Western Conference is packed right now.
The Golden State Warriors seemed to double down and hit it big with their free agency moves — after they had already seemingly lapped the field. The Houston Rockets are still the defending regular season champions. And it seems like team after team in the West got stronger. There will be a logjam of teams who do not make the Playoffs and plenty of surprises along the way.
It is not the best place to be for a growing team trying to break into the top tier to be. The going logic is a lot of teams will have to bide their time for the Warriors’ ultimate luxury tax implosion (that may never happen).
For a franchise like the Utah Jazz, things are much more difficult. Utah is famously not a free-agent destination. At least that is the perception. And adding players even this summer has been difficult.
The rest of the Western Conference has had plenty of moving and shaking. But the Jazz have remained relatively still. The biggest addition this offseason was draft pick Grayson Allen. The little cap room they had they used to re-sign Dante Exum, an oft-injured guard prospect who finally made an impact last season.
Despite this inactivity, the buzz around the Jazz is palpable. Rookie of the Year runner-up Donovan Mitchell took the league by storm and the Jazz made the second round of the Playoffs for the second straight year. This even after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency the year before.
All of a sudden, people are whispering the Jazz are the third best team in the Western Conference. And if the team takes the kind of internal growth young teams are often projected to make, then maybe they can challenge to get into the top two.
The Jazz have built a strong organizational culture under Quin Snyder. One that has survived plenty of struggle in the least few years to create this kind of opportunity.
Utah though is far from a sure thing. The team was hardly a sure thing last year.
The Jazz started last year 16-24. This was a team that was below .500 in the first half of the season. Their turnaround to get to the fifth seed in the Western Conference and upset the Oklahoma City Thunder was astounding.
The big reason for that is Rudy Gobert.
Much of what the Jazz have built, specifically on defense is on his shoulders. In the first half of last season, where Gobert missed 23 of 41 games, the Jazz had a 104.8 defensive rating. That was still 10th in the league. But with the team’s other offensive options, that was not the elite defense the team needed to succeed.
With Gobert healthy in the second half of the season, Utah turned it on. The Jazz posted a 98.5 defensive rating — all while increasing their offensive efficiency.
He essentially became Defensive Player of the Year last year on a little more than a half season’s worth of work.
As exciting as Mitchell’s offensive ability can be, Gobert is still the fulcrum this team turns upon. He sets their defense and closes down the paint. Utah’s ultimate playoff success will come down to whether they can keep Gobert on the floor against teams that force them to switch. That is how the Rockets dispatched the Jazz so easily.
Gobert’s injury history has not boded well for Utah. He played in only 56 games last year and has played in more than 70 games just twice in his five-year career. The Jazz’s season has derailed in those off years because of Gobert’s injuries. Last year proved to be an exception for the team. So perhaps they are on some stronger footing.
Utah’s roster is such that every piece feels like it has to fall perfectly into place for the team to take that next step. Dante Exum finally looked healthy toward the end of last season as a defensive game changer off the bench. But he still only played in 14 games. He got a big contract on an incredibly small sample size.
Ricky Rubio has had a long list of injuries throughout his career. His injury in the Playoffs derailed some of the Jazz’s offense as they went up against the Rockets. But three straight years of playing 70-plus games suggest Rubio will be reliable manning the point and helping set up the Jazz’s offense while anchoring their perimeter defense.
The Jazz’s ultimate growth falls on how Mitchell matches and improves upon his stellar season. The one where he averaged 20.5 points per game and shot a 50.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Only 17 rookies all time have scored at least 20 points per game and shot a 50 percent effective field goal percentage. Only three of them were guards — Michael Jordan, Walt Bellamy and Donovan Mitchell.
That is some elite company.
Ultimately, the Jazz will go as far as Mitchell’s development will take him. What he can do for an encore will set the rest of his career in motion and show just how far he can take them.
Utah is full of solid veteran stalwarts and a system they know can work. There are few teams with the kind of cultural backing the Jazz have. Their system seems to work no matter what chance and fate throw at them every year.
That is why it is easy to believe this team could be the one to take the next step and could be the team that provides the greatest challenge to the Rockets and Warriors’ monopoly over the championship conversation.
Utah still has a long way to go to get there though. They are still relying heavily offensively on a second-year player and lack a ton of outside shooting — outside of Joe Ingles and a suddenly surging Ricky Rubio (35.2 percent last year).
Utah’s biggest problem is how every piece has to fall into place perfectly for the whole thing to work. That means Gobert has to stay healthy for the team to realize most of its ambitions for the 2019 season.
If that happens, they might very well challenge for their place in the Western Conference next year.