Utah Jazz rebound from struggling start to the hottest team in the NBA

Whether the Jazz win or lose is not always the most indicative reflection of how they are actually playing or the progress they’re making, coach Quin Snyder likes to repeat.

Fair enough, considering that the team’s current stretch of six consecutive wins (and 11 victories in their past 12 games) has largely come against opponents with losing records. Is that run of success (on the heels of a 2-6 slump that preceded it) attributable to Utah’s own improvement? Or to their substandard competition?

Even if the latter is an inescapable factor in this run, it’s not for nothing that the Jazz are at least taking care of business.

“Don’t get me wrong — I won’t complain about a winning streak. But I think one of the ways that you win games and have streaks is to continue to get better, even while you’re winning. That’s the primary focus for me,” Snyder said before Monday night’s win in New Orleans. “For the team, it’s good to get affirmation for the work you’re putting in, and when you win, it breeds confidence.”


The Jazz’s results in the last 12 games, 11 of which have been wins:

Dec. 11 • Utah 127, Minnesota 113 (A)

Dec. 13 • Utah 114, Golden State 106 (H)

Dec. 17 • Utah 109, Orlando 102 (H)

Dec. 19 • Utah 111, Atlanta 106 (A)

Dec. 21 • Utah 114, Charlotte 107 (A)

Dec. 23 • Miami 107, Utah 104 (A)

Dec. 26 • Utah 121, Portland 115 (H)

Dec. 28 • Utah 120, L.A. Clippers 107 (A)

Dec. 30 • Utah 104, Detroit 81 (H)

Jan. 2 • Utah 102, Chicago 98 (A)

Jan. 4 • Utah 104, Orlando 96 (A)

Jan. 6 • Utah 128, New Orleans 126 (A)

*(H) — Home games. (A) — Away games.

And that’s the thing, really — this winning streak is, as much as anything, attributable to the Jazz’s continuing improvement. Another of Snyder’s oft-repeated mantras is that “progress is not always linear,” but Utah sure seems to be on a pretty steady upward trajectory of late.

What’s prompted it, though? What are the reasons behind it? Talk to the Jazz, and three recurring themes come up:

Bench production

It’s an oversimplification to say that the addition of Jordan Clarkson has “fixed” Utah’s bench, but he’s certainly been an integral component in its improvement. In his six games with the team thus far, he’s provided the aggressive spark the Jazz were previously lacking, averaging 13.8 points on 46.2% shooting, including 41.2% from 3.

But it’s hardly been him alone. Georges Niang, thrust into an expanded role since the release of Jeff Green, has proved his worth with his 3-point sharpshooting (46.2% for the season). Emmanuel Mudiay, though not a particularly adept point guard, has shown value with his change-of-pace scoring ability, especially in the midrange. Tony Bradley, now in the rotation ahead of free-agent signee Ed Davis, is hitting the boards, guarding the rim, and running in transition.

“The bench unit, it really feels right, right now. We really feel like we’re clicking, and really jelling, and playing with a ton of energy and flying around out there,” said Niang. “It feels good. You can’t really describe the feeling, but when you’re out there, we know we’re all connected and on the same page now.”


Yeah, it’s a cliché buzzword, especially in the Jazz ecosphere, but it’s clearly something they place great value upon. Time after time when the team had a poor performance earlier in the season, players would extol patience, noting they were bound to improve once they got to know each other better.

The burgeoning chemistry is apparent. Joe Ingles, upon seeing Clarkson come over to sit next to him after a recent shootaround, loudly opined about how the newbie had been “OK” and “all right” since the trade, while deadpanning, “He shoots too much. Doesn’t pass.” Clarkson, subsequently asked what he’d learned about his new teammates, quickly responded (a big grin spreading over his face), “Uh, Joe’s an ---hole.” The camaraderie has been there. Now, it’s also manifesting itself into recognition of habits and tendencies.

“We’ve got better as a group, which we were confident we were gonna do with all the changes and stuff that we had,” Ingles said. “… We’re just kind of figuring it all out together, and that kind of connectivity that you see on-court is getting better all the way around.”

Offensive efficiency

The Pelicans game was a good microcosm of what the Jazz offense is capable of. Though Utah was not particularly effective setting up rolls and lobs to the rim for Rudy Gobert, just every other box was ticked — 3-point shooting, production from the reserves, a big advantage in transition scoring, even the turnovers were kept in single digits.

Yes, the Jazz remain only 17th in offensive rating, but they’ve been trending upward, and they’re showing signs of becoming a potent group on that side.

“For our team, if you look at the last 10 games, you see something different than you saw the first 10 games,” Snyder said. “… Guys know when their shots are coming, they know where to find each other, they’re more efficient in pick-and-roll; there’s all kinds of little things where that shows itself.”

Of course, a few constants come up too when the discussion inevitably switches gears to what yet needs work. The defense is still not quite where anyone wants it to be or thinks it can be. Transition D, specifically, has been a season-long sore spot, in part, Snyder said, because he has to keep harping about the need for constant communication. On the other end, while the tools are there for an explosive offense, there are still far too many empty stretches. Gobert maintains the Jazz are frequently slow to diagnose and respond to unique looks meant to throw them off: “That’s a situation we need to work on,” he said. “We can be better.”

The most oft-cited area for potential improvement, however, centers around getting point guard Mike Conley fully integrated once he returns from a hamstring injury, and getting the players around him comfortable with the changes they’ll have to make to accommodate him.

“We’re still missing one of our most important guys in Mike. He’s our starting point guard. When he comes back, we’re gonna need to adjust our game,” noted Bojan Bogdanovic.

In all, there’s plenty of cautious optimism in the locker room. There’s a definite sense that the momentum of the team has shifted, while yet acknowledging that — more wins or not — there’s still work to do in order to avoid reverting to where they were before.

“We’re doing a good job. I think we can do things better,” Donovan Mitchell said after the Jazz fended off the Pelicans. “Obviously, third game of a road trip, we’re gonna be a little tired, but for us to be able to persevere the way we did, it shows the improvements we have made. Maybe a month and a half, two months ago we don’t. Who knows what happens? I think the Laker game at home (a 121-96 loss on Dec. 4) was really a low point for us, one of the lowest points. … That’s still fresh in our mind. We should always keep that mentality — we don’t want to go back to that.”


At Vivint Smart Home Arena

Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.


Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 24-12; Knicks 10-26

Last meeting • Jazz, 137-116 (March 20, 2019)

About the Jazz • Utah’s six-game winning streak is currently the longest in the NBA. … With Georges Niang, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson all above 40% from 3 in a Jazz uniform, the team leads the NBA in efficiency beyond the arc, converting 39.1%. … Rudy Gobert’s 66.6 FG% ranks second in the league — behind only the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson (70.4)%.

About the Knicks • New York has the fifth-worst offensive rating (104.9), the seventh-worst defensive rating (111.9), and the fourth-worst net rating (-7.0). … Free-agent addition Marcus Morris leads the team in both scoring (19.1) and 3-point percentage (46.9%). … The Knicks actually excel at getting second-chance points, ranking fourth in the league with 14.8 per game.