What a difference a month makes.
On Dec. 10, the Jazz stood just 13-11, in seventh place in the Western Conference. The team was coming off a 1-4 road trip in which they endured convincing blowout losses, and probably weren’t playing even as well as that 13-11 indicated.
And then — blast-off. The team proceeded to win 15 of their next 16 games, the only blemish a three-point loss to the Miami Heat. It’s been an excellent run for the team that leaves them standing at 28-12, with the second seed in the West in hand for now.
And believe it or not, the season’s halfway over; Thursday’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans will be the Jazz’s 41st game of the year. So just as we did at this time last year, it’s time to review the season so far and hand out some awards.
MVP, Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
How do you choose between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for midseason MVP? Mitchell is the offensive leader of the squad, averaging 24.2 points per game and greatly upping his efficiency this season. Meanwhile, Gobert is the Jazz’s defensive system: coach Quin Snyder funnels traffic to the big man, and opposing offenses find themselves with little recourse at the rim.
In the end, two factors point in Gobert’s favor: the Jazz are still a better defensive team than an offensive one; they rank 8th on D and 11th on O this season. Second, whereas Mitchell has lots of help to push the Jazz’s offense forward in Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Mike Conley, and others, Gobert’s more of a singular force on defense — not to take away of the contributions of perimeter defenders like Royce O’Neale.
Gobert, the two-time defensive player of the year, has even improved this season. He’s been much more comfortable defending out on the perimeter on switches, and he’ll attack the mid-range defensively too. Once considered a paint-bound defender, Gobert is now all over the court.
LVP: Jeff Green
Some thought the veteran Jeff Green was a contender to find a slot in the starting lineup for the Jazz this season. Nope. Instead, Green was a major contributor to one of the worst bench units in the league early in the year, with a mix of nonchalance and ineffectiveness that frustrated the Jazz’s coaching staff, front office, and fans alike.
Remarkably, it got bad enough that Green was waived after the Jazz’s loss to Miami, even though he played nearly 20 minutes in that game. Rather than have Green as a bench option, the team decided to send him away; Georges Niang took his spot as the bench power forward and the Jazz haven’t lost since. Thanks to his minimum deal, Green could have been picked up by any team in the league in the waiver process, all 29 other teams passed.
Most Improved Player: Emmanuel Mudiay
The Jazz have seen improvements up and down their roster: we’ve discussed Mitchell and Gobert, while Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and others have added to their games. But no one other than Emmanuel Mudiay has undergone the complete 180 from negative to positive. When he was with the Knicks and Nuggets, Mudiay’s inefficient 3-point shooting, finishing, turnovers on offense and low-effort defense made him — by the numbers, anyway — one of the worst players in the NBA.
And for the first 10 games or so, Mudiay showed many of those characteristics in a Jazz uniform as well. But all of a sudden, something clicked: Mudiay seemed to focus more on finding his teammates offensively, and his defense became relatively reliable. Under Quin Snyder, he went from me-first to team-first, and now is a solid bench stalwart. The Jazz don’t have his Bird rights for next season, so whether or not they’ll be able to keep him is up in the air, but this experiment has shown surprisingly solid results.
Sixth Man: Jordan Clarkson
As NBA number-cruncher Seth Partnow likes to point out, the NBA’s Sixth Man award usually favors bucket getters, so let’s honor the Jazz’s bench scorer as the Sixth Man locally. Clarkson’s only played 10 games with the Jazz, so this honor is a little dubious, but he’s won all 10, and played a big role in many of those wins. He’s taking good shots and Snyder has been happy with his effort on defense. So far, so good.
Top Rookie: Rayjon Tucker
The Jazz have a remarkable six rookies on this year’s roster, but only one has cracked the regular rotation: Rayjon Tucker, who plays just seven minutes per game, usually mostly in the first half. Still, Snyder is excited about Tucker’s future, thanks to his scoring ability on offense and defensive energy shown so far.
Best Dunk: Donovan Mitchell’s alley-oop over Nicolo Melli
Joe Ingles threw the lob pass a little far away from the basket, but Donovan Mitchell caught the ball then transferred it to the right hand, before throwing it down over New Orleans’ Nicolo Melli. Melli’s fingers bend backwards in ways they’re probably not supposed to on the play.
Best Assist: Donovan Mitchell’s two-handed pass
Or how about this Mitchell pass, also against New Orleans? Mitchell jackknifes his body, throwing this ball nearly 70 feet down the court at speed to the cutting Bojan Bogdanovic.
Best Block: Rudy Gobert’s rejection of Giannis Antetokounmpo
Not many can successfully challenge league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim. But Rudy Gobert stuffed him on this possession, a play that led to a Mitchell dunk on the other end that was incorrectly ruled out due to traveling.
Best Shot: Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winning corner three vs. Milwaukee
The Jazz allowed the Bucks to get back into a game that looked over. But Gobert’s defensive closeout of Khris Middleton in the corner forced a travel, giving the Jazz one more chance to win in regulation. They took advantage, as Bogdanovic and Mike Conley worked together with Quin Snyder to draw up this game-winning play.