Utah Jazz

Are the Utah Jazz surging into NBA title contention?

Right on cue, the Utah Jazz are hitting their stride. What are we to make of them entering the second half of the season?

It has become a rite of winter for the Jazz to find their rhythm just as they begin to inspire doubt. This time last year, Utah was just beginning a 29-12 run over the second half of the season after starting the year 21-20. In 2018, the Jazz rattled off a 26-6 stretch to close the season. After starting this season 12-10, they have taken off — right on cue — over the last month and ascended into the upper echelon of the Western Conference.

Heightened expectations recalibrated the public perception of Utah entering the season. No longer just an interesting regular-season team with unique aesthetic appeal, the Jazz emerged from the past offseason with a chance to compete in earnest for an NBA title. Expectation colors evaluation, and for the first two months of the season Utah didn’t quite hold up to a greater degree of scrutiny at first.

An offense that should have been dynamic and versatile sputtered while a perennially elite defense failed to rise to its usual standard. Mike Conley’s arrival slowed Utah’s initial takeoff, and a hamstring injury further delayed his immersion into Utah’s system. A team that long relied on continuity and collective strength is still integrating eight new rotation players. These processes take time, and the Jazz have only just begun to figure them out.

“Our habits aren’t there yet,” Quin Snyder said. “But to the extent that you run into adversity and you’re not winning as much as you want to or you feel like you can, the challenge is: what can you do about it? … I think the challenge for us is to keep getting better no matter who’s on the court.”

Challenge accepted. The Jazz are 16-2 since Dec. 7, with the best net rating in the NBA over that time, and gradually coalescing into the team they expected to be. Despite leaning into a defensive identity for most of Quin Snyder’s tenure, it’s Utah’s offense currently propelling them up the standings. Donovan Mitchell does most of the heavy lifting on that end, and while he isn’t yet the kind of singular scorer who singlehandedly drives an efficient offense, he’s a reliable enough anchor to absorb pressure his more limited teammates cannot. Mitchell isn’t a world-class isolation scorer, but he does it adequately enough to bail the Jazz out in a pinch. He lacks elite vision in the pick-and-roll, but Utah has enough ancillary weapons that it can create looks in other ways.

Inserting Joe Ingles back into the starting lineup seems to have energized the Jazz and restored some of the connectivity and shared intellect upon which Quin Snyder’s system is built. No player better embodies Snyder’s offensive philosophies than Ingles, who stabilizes the entire unit. He fills every gap, offering elite shooting, a touch of secondary playmaking and competent defense across multiple positions. That allows Bojan Bogdanović to fit right in without being overextended and Royce O’Neale to thrive even with a usage rate under nine percent. Mitchell initiates most of the action anyway, and Gobert’s hard rolls to the rim create uncontested dunks:

When help defenders crash down to help on Gobert, the Jazz punish them with 3-pointers:

That is the theory of Utah’s offense put into action. What are opponents to do against Mitchell and Gobert in the pick-and-roll with three 40 percent 3-point shooters spacing the floor? A defense cannot realistically take everything away, and in lieu of a single, dominant force, the Jazz deploy five threats capable of exploiting whatever it concedes. That idea is paying off as well as Utah could have hoped recently, and while a 58.4 effective field goal percentage over the last 18 games might not be entirely sustainable, the process behind that number could be.

Their defense, rounding into form at last, might be more lasting than the Jazz’s recent offensive surge. The loss of Derrick Favors on the second unit has dragged down Utah’s overall defensive efficiency (they rank seventh in the league after three consecutive years in the top three), but the Jazz remain dominant with Gobert on the floor and have more versatility along the perimeter than in years past. Opponents have a hard enough time figuring out how to navigate Gobert at the rim, but must also deal with Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanović, and O’Neale switching across the other four positions.

The Jazz fly around the perimeter, constantly funneling the ball toward Gobert with the knowledge that they can take more risks with an all-world deterrent behind them. Utah concedes very few 3s or layups and holds opponents to the third-lowest expected effective field goal percentage in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass’ data. Teams shoot just 47 percent against Gobert within six feet of the rim and take fewer shots at the basket with him on the floor. It’s one thing for a center to block or alter shots at the rim, and quite another to prevent altogether the shots an opponent most wants to take.

“Everybody’s system is different, and in a lot of ways ours is built around Rudy,” Snyder said. “So there’s things that you want to adjust to when you have a defender like Rudy. That’s something I think we’ll keep working on and hopefully our defense will continue to get better throughout the year.”

That raises the question of how the Jazz should handle Conley’s return. Utah needs the best version of Conley — likely in starting and playing aggressively — to compete for a championship but has been markedly worse with him on the floor this season. Mitchell, Gobert, and Ingles all feel to central to Utah’s identity not to start and close games, while Bogdanović has been too good to keep off the floor. Bringing O’Neale off the bench makes sense in theory, but he is the kind of low-usage, defensive-minded role player who benefits most from playing in the starting unit.

The postseason will test Utah in ways the regular season doesn’t, and only two of its last 16 wins have come against teams currently slated to make the playoffs. The advantages the Jazz create on offense with movement and quick decision-making become less pronounced the more time opponents have to prepare for them. The playoffs have a way of mitigating the impact of dominant interior defenders like Gobert. Mitchell may still not be good enough to propel Utah’s offense when it sticks, and O’Neale will become all the more essential if the Jazz meet the Lakers or Clippers this spring. But Utah will have counters and advantages of its own, with enough collective firepower to push even the most top-heavy teams in the Western Conference. The Jazz can get into the conversation with the NBA’s best, they only needed time to figure out how.

Next: Ja Morant and the Grizzlies aren’t going to go away

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