Fifty-four games into the Jazz’s season, now at the All-Star break, with 28 yet to play, the questions emerge: Who are these guys? How good are they? Are they what they were expected to be?
If they are what their record says they are, at 36-18, they are twice as likely to win as they are to lose. That may not be statistically sound reasoning, but, either way, they have shown both a propensity and an ability to stumble and bumble, then learn and fight back, then fumble, then climb back again.
“We’ve tried to keep getting better in all phases of the game, offensively and defensively,” is the way Quin Snyder put it. “There’s always going to be ups and downs. These guys have been willing to be honest with themselves about where we need to be better.”
“… We should feel good about the fact that when we hit bumps in the road, when we hit walls we can figure it out. We’ve played hard and we’ve learned to play smarter. If we keep building on those things, we’ve got a chance to improve after the All-Star break.”
“Improve” is Snyder’s codeword for “be a damn good team.”
Perfect recent examples have been when the Jazz won 19 of 21 games, then lost five straight, then won four straight. It’s the ebb and flow of an NBA season, but in the Jazz’s case, on account of their undulations, they seem to be much better prepared, in a much better place for the battles down the stretch and through what matters most — the playoffs.
They have stared into the mean mug of adversity and responded.
Early expectations were high, but at this natural juncture, it’s not stupid or unreasonable or homeristic to say the Jazz have slightly exceeded them. Their offense is what Snyder had in mind, all along. It is modern-NBA quintessential, an inside-outside attack, or outside-inside, with Rudy Gobert better, more adept, more aware, more coordinated, around the basket than he’s ever been, and with perimeter passers and shooters — Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Donovan MItchell, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Georges Niang, Royce O’Neale — who can punish defenses when those defenders scramble.
The two most sought-after shots in the league now are dunks and bombs, and the Jazz are adept at creating and finishing both.
But there’s more. On the occasions when opponents are successful in crowding 3-point shots, in disrupting passing lanes, in pushing around Gobert down low, the Jazz have multiple players beyond Mitchell who can get their own in the midrange. Guys such as Clarkson, Conley and Emmanuel Mudiay. That’s not Snyder’s preferred option, but it’s an effective bailout when needed.
All told, the Jazz have the NBA’s eighth-rated offense, and in recent weeks it’s been considerably better. They rank second in the league overall in effective field goal percentage, at 55.2. They are the NBA’s best 3-point-shooting team. That’s a function of having accurate shooters and encouraging/enabling those shooters to move the ball efficiently enough to get good looks.
That’s become a trademark of the Jazz, at times swirling defenses into a dizzy mess. It will be a steeper challenge to achieve that in the postseason, when a quality opponent has more time to dial in on the specifics of attack and resistance over a best-of-seven series.
The Jazz’s ninth-rated defense, no surprise, centers on Gobert, same as it ever was. He’s on his way to his third consecutive defensive player of the year award, and not just because his team funnels all the action to him. Gobert this season has become more versatile, been compelled to become more versatile, as opposing offenses have attempted to draw him away from the basket.
But Gobert has gained instincts, if that’s the proper way of saying it, where he’s capable of contesting shots and turning to cover ground back to the restricted area where his teammates need help. Opponents typically want the same shots the Jazz work to get — dunks and bombs — and Gobert, despite the other guys’ strategies, effectively limits the former, while depending on his mates to handle the latter.
Good as he is, Gobert can’t cover everyone.
And that’s an area of ongoing concern for the Jazz. Perimeter defense, while being improved upon of late, remains a weakness. The Jazz have no elite individual defenders up top, the closest thing to it being O’Neale, on a decent night.
It’s well chronicled that some of the better guards and wings have had their way, working over the Jazz with major point production. That could and likely will come around to hamper the club as it attempts to ascend to the top of the West over the next couple of months. It will take connection and communication for them to remedy their problems there, both clear buzzwords, indicators that whenever they are used to describe the team, it is an absolute confession, an admission of desperation in the absence of defensive physicality, athleticism and quickness.
“We need each other defensively and that requires us to be disciplined,” Snyder said.
Another worry for the Jazz is turnovers, at both ends. The Jazz average 15 a game, which is too many, ranking them toward the lower-third of the league in taking care of the ball, and they cause just 12, which ranks them 29th.
When possessions become more significant in every game, as teams position for the playoffs, and then, most particularly in the playoffs, the Jazz cannot be punting away those possessions with sloppy, careless play. Since they stress sharing the ball, moving it in a hurry in the half-court, it might be expected to suffer a few goofs more, but, still, with the Jazz’s lofty goals of contending, easy points going the other way will not only not aid them in their cause, they might slam the door on that cause.
On the whole, though, the Jazz are coming to be what, who they should be.
The starting unit is strong. The bench, sparked by Clarkson, is strong. The cohesion is ample. The Jazz have an assortment of closers, including Mitchell, Bogdanovic and potentially Conley.
They have earned the reputation they now enjoy in and around the NBA as an authentic threat, grouped as they are with the West’s elite. They feature two All-Stars, and much will be required of each, covering that formula/requirement in the equation to be taken seriously, they have substantial players in support roles and they have strong coaching.
It’s up to them now to see where, how far all of that takes them.
“We’ve begun to develop an identity,” Snyder said. “An identity that can help us win.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.