The Utah Jazz have been the best team in the regular season by a wide margin and on paper should be title favorites. Why aren’t they being treated that way?
At the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz had the best record in the NBA. After a 4-4 start to the season, the Jazz went on an absolute tear, winning 20 of their next 21 games, with 18 of those victories coming by double-digits. They are the only team in the NBA in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, have the league’s highest net rating, and were the lone team to have three representatives in the All-Star Game. By all objective standards, the Jazz should be the presumptive favorites to win the NBA title this summer, but for many, it’s hard to see that actually happening.
The Utah Jazz have a definite identity. They know who they are and how they want to play and that if they are able to utilize their preferred style of play they have a very good chance of winning any given game. But they are also a team that appears set in their ways. While this can help a team throughout the long stretches of an often interminable regular season, it can just as often be a hindrance once the postseason begins. More and more, the NBA playoffs are contingent upon particular match-ups and how coaches and teams can find ways to exploit deficiencies in one’s opponent. Another way of saying this is that flexibility is more important than ever.
One only has to look at the postseason fizzling-out of the Milwaukee Bucks over the last two seasons as evidence of this. After looking like the best team in the NBA two years in a row, Milwaukee failed to make the Finals either year due in part to inflexibility. Coach Budenholzer, seemed intent on following the blueprint that had gotten them so far. Though he failed to realize until it was too late that this blueprint would take them no further. The Jazz have refined their style down to a practical science, but how much will that benefit them when they face teams with top-level talent that can frustrate them?
Is the Utah Jazz’s biggest strength also their biggest weakness?
As good as Rudy Gobert is at frustrating smaller opponents, blocking shots and forcing missed shots possession after possession, he struggles to guard big men who are more versatile, skilled, or athletic than he is. In two games against the Jazz, Nikola Jokic has combined for 82 points, 26 rebounds, and 14 assists on 63 percent shooting. This would be worrisome on its own, but it’s not Jokic alone that Gobert struggles to contain. In the last game before the All-Star break, the Jazz lost an overtime game to the Sixers in which Joel Embiid scored 40 points. It’s not that performances like this show that Gobert is a bad defender, but that he is an occasionally limited one. While it’s true that Jokic and Embiid have made any number of defenders look silly this season, most of them aren’t considered cornerstones of a team that is hoping to contend for a title.
Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz’s other bonafide star is a very skilled and athletic scorer and playmaker. However, there is reason to wonder if he can really be the lead offensive threat on a championship-level team; both his effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage are below league average. While his ability to get to the line and shoot 3s makes up for this a bit, he is in many ways a throwback to the trigger-happy 2-guards of the 2000s but without the insouciance that made them so cool. He’s often just Monta Ellis or Ricky Davis with a more modern shot profile. And while there’s nothing wrong with that — Monta and Ricky both ruled, after all — you’re likely not going to be able to build a title team around a player like that even if the supporting cast is great, as the Jazz’s admittedly is.
Championship teams are built around superstars, accompanied by a solid supporting cast. The Jazz have stars, sure, and a very good supporting cast — most teams would immediately be better if they added Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, or Derrick Favors — but are the Jazz’s stars transcendent enough to lead them to a title? Utah seems to be banking on their overarching structure and supporting cast being good enough to make up for the fact that their star duo of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell is not as good as that of LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George or a handful of others.
It’s hard to see how the Jazz can defend more versatile teams. Both Gobert and Derrick Favors are more traditional centers, but will likely struggle in the postseason in a series that finds them pitted against the Lakers, Nuggets, or Sixers who all have multi-dimensional big men that will force them into uncomfortable situations. The Jazz do not have any troubles stretching the floor offensively — they are first in the NBA in both 3-pointers made and attempted — but as the Houston Rockets’ consistent postseason failures have shown, relying on 3s too much in the postseason can be a death sentence. Can they count on Rudy Gobert’s low-post game for offense or a too-often inefficient Mitchell to buoy them consistently?
A title contender often never seems like an actual threat to win it all until they’re already hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Fans often assume players or teams that have yet to become champions have some fatal flaw that will keep them from ever doing so. Perhaps it’s hard to buy the Jazz as champions simply because they’ve never pulled it off before. Also, as good as they have looked, it’s also true that Utah has only won a single playoff series in the Mitchell/Gobert era.
While this is only year four, Jazz fans have reason to be both optimistic and wary about their future. Utah clearly has a high floor, but are they a true title contender as currently constructed? Perhaps if the seeding and match-ups are right, they could be NBA champions, but unless they become more adaptable, a little less rigid, then they could become this year’s equivalent of the 2015 Atlanta Hawks — a team that was stellar in the regular season but fizzled out in the postseason after running into an opponent with greater star power. Of course, it’s also possible they’re actually as good as they’ve looked so far.