How do you get your arms around what the Jazz have done this offseason?
Look to the past.
In order to really understand what adding Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green and more to come means to this Jazz team, perhaps it is best to compare this Jazz team to teams through NBA history. Which ones are most similar?
We’re looking for a team that is built around a stalwart defensive center, one of the very best shot alterers in the league, if not the best — as Rudy Gobert has been, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards. We’re looking for a team with formidable shooting in the other frontcourt spots: Joe Ingles, a 40% career 3-point shooter who also has playmaking skills, and Bojan Bogdanovic, a 39% career 3-point shooter who also can score from mid-range and inside.
And we’re looking for a team with a skilled backcourt. Mike Conley’s intelligence, shooting, and smarts has pushed the Grit n’ Grind Grizzlies, while Donovan Mitchell’s athleticism and flair for the dramatic has pushed him to international stardom.
The Jazz don’t have talents that have been universally recognized as elite, though: No one in their starting five has yet made an All-Star team.
So with that in mind, who do you compare the Jazz to?
The Tribune asked a number of NBA experts that question, and consistently, three answers came up: The mid-90s Denver Nuggets, the mid-aughts Detroit Pistons, and the late-aughts Orlando Magic.
The Nuggets are the first of those teams, and probably the worst. But you see why the comparison was made, as the Nuggets featured Dikembe Mutombo at the peak of his defensive powers, garnering the most blocks at any point of his career. They also featured a young dynamic guard, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who scored up to 19.2 points per game albeit as a point rather than as a two-guard. Beyond that, the comparison gets a little sketchy: LaPhonso Ellis and Reggie Williams were athletic forwards more than shooting ones.
And they had only limited success. In 1993-94, the Nuggets made the playoffs only as an eight seed, but then came back from a 2-0 deficit to the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round to shock the NBA world. One of the NBA’s most iconic images, Mutombo lying on his back grasping the ball over his head with both hands, came out of that series. But they faced the fifth-seeded Jazz in that series, and after coming back from the brink again — the Jazz had a 3-0 series lead, only to see the Nuggets get it to 3-3 — the Nuggets lost in Game 7. The next year, they lost in the first round.
A decade later, the Pistons turned themselves into a championship contender with a similar, but more developed formula. The Pistons centered themselves around the defensive talents of Ben Wallace, who won four DPOY awards in the course of five seasons. At the 2004 trade deadline, they acquired Rasheed Wallace, who would prove to be the missing piece: a terrifically talented, enigmatic big man who could shoot and defend.
There’s no one on the Jazz like Tayshaun Prince, a long-limbed defensive forward who never really figured out the shooting thing. But Chauncey Billups and Conley could serve similar roles as veteran point guards, steady and solid in their games. And while Rip Hamilton and Mitchell are very different in style, Hamilton’s scoring might approximate Mitchell’s.
That Detroit team, famously, beat the star-laden Los Angeles Lakers in only five games in the NBA Finals, before making it to the Eastern Conference Finals four consecutive years after that. They are the best team on the list.
But as a stylistic match, perhaps the best comparison is the 2009 Orlando Magic. Part of that is just because the game has changed: One of the skills the Jazz now figure to be best at, 3-point shooting, has only been a significant part of the NBA landscape for the last 15-20 years. The title-winning Pistons took only 11.8 threes per game, while the Magic shot 26.2 per game, second in the NBA that year. (Last year’s Jazz took 34, and with the addition of Conley and Bogdanovic, could take more this season.)
NBA writer Brett Koremenos had a fascinating, related exercise: go through NBA history, and look at how many players 6-foot-7 or taller played at least 2,500 minutes, took a lot of threes and made a high percentage of them (39% or more). In nearly every season, it’s only a handful of guys who achieve this; last season, there were seven.
Two of those players were Ingles and Bogdanovic. If you go through NBA history, it turns out that there are only two other teams that featured two tall shooters like the Jazz have: the 2007-08 Pacers and that year’s Magic. The Pacers finished just 36-46, but had next to no talent at guard.
The Magic, though, are a pretty solid representation of the problems the Jazz could present opposing teams. Orlando also featured an imposing, DPOY center in Dwight Howard, one that could also roll to the rim and dunk with ease. (Remember, Gobert broke Howard’s dunk record last season.) Rashard Lewis stood outside and nailed open outside shot after shot. He could do more, of course, but so can Bogdanovic. Ingles can play a role similar to Hedo Turkoglu, a terrific shooter that ended up running pick and roll frequently thanks to his adept passing.
BEST OFFSEASONS IN JAZZ HISTORY
Summer of 2019: In a draft-week trade, the Jazz acquired point guard and 20 PPG scorer Mike Conley, then followed it up by adding Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, and Emmanuel Mudiay in a wild free agency period.
Summer of 2004: Given three first round picks, the Jazz poorly selected with two of them, drafting Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries (the third was traded away). But in the most successful season in Jazz free agency history, they successfully signed Carlos Boozer and Memo Okur, two huge players in their playoff runs for the rest of the decade. They also gave Andrei Kirilenko his 6-year maximum extension this season, one they’d regret later. In other moves, the Jazz hired future head coach Ty Corbin as an assistant coach and re-signed Carlos Arroyo and Gordan Giricek.
Summer of 1985: The Jazz drafted Karl Malone with the 13th overall pick, a franchise-changing pick in itself. They kept future Defensive Player of the Year Mark Eaton on a cheap 5-year contract, as well as role player Bobby Hansen. But most importantly, 50% of team ownership was transferred to car dealer Larry Miller, the move that kept the team in Utah for years to come.
Summer of 2000: It may not have worked out the way the Jazz wanted to, as they lost in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks the following season, but the Jazz acquired two starters in John Starks and Donyell Marshall — the former in free agency, the latter by trade. Former No. 1 overall pick and former All-Star Danny Manning was also signed at the end of his career.
The guard comparison is interesting. Orlando featured an All-Star guard in Jameer Nelson — the only time he would make the game in his long career — but Nelson was injured for most of the end of the season and the playoffs until the Finals, where he returned at less than 100%. His backcourt mate, Rafer Alston was a nice role player, but certainly not as talented as either Conley or Mitchell.
The Jazz won’t really be able to surprise the opposition like the Magic did: their style of play was far more unique in 2009 than the Jazz’s figures to be in 2019. But given the Jazz’s additional strength at the guard positions, they could prove to be even tougher than Orlando was — they got through a weak Eastern Conference before losing in five to the Lakers.
Utah still could fall short of the ultimate title, like those Magic teams did. Or, given additional talent, they could rise above them. But if we’re looking for a historical comparison, the Finals-reaching Magic may be the closest.