The Utah Jazz won’t say it, but opponents and NBA observers will: They’re legit title contenders

Historically great 3-point shooting, renewed defensive vigor, and a connected, supportive roster have all added up to ‘the best team that we’ve seen this year.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), dunks the ball, as LA Clippers guard, Nicolas Batum (33) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers at Vivint Arena, on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.

We’ve all heard Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert say it, multiple times, over the past several seasons.

“The goal for us is to win a championship.”

And he is equal parts honest and earnest when he says it — the former because an NBA title truly is what inspires and drives him, the latter because even though the Jazz have not yet remotely approached the feat during his time here, there is nevertheless firm belief that it is not out of the realm of possibility.

Still, given that this Utah franchise has been mired in good-but-not-great territory of late, given that they have yet to go beyond the second round of the playoffs in this era of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and Quin Snyder, given that they have not even advanced past the first round of the postseason these past two years, there is always something of a sneering, snickering view from the critics that Gobert’s championship-aspirant proclamations are little more than wishful hyperbole.

Except — what if they aren’t now?

What if the team branded as realistic contenders in the summer of 2019 after the acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic has finally found its way to the top, merely a year behind schedule? What if the Jazz’s early-season performance — wherein they’ve shown themselves to be on a record-setting 3-point pace, and to have regained much of their previous defensive mojo, and to have matched the best 25-game start in franchise history — is not an aberration to be dismissed by small sample size, but an accurate reflection of their true standing in the league?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

If that’s the case … the Utah Jazz are NBA championship contenders.

Perhaps it is premature to say so, especially with an upcoming schedule that includes such bona fide top-tier outfits as the Sixers, the Clippers (twice), and the Lakers. And the Jazz themselves will certainly not admit as much.

The thing is, many of the opponents they’ve faced already are more than willing to say it for them.

“When you have a team that can play fast offensively and still get back and sit down and have a possession mentality defensively, you have the makings of a championship team,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “… They’re in that handful of teams that is really, really good.”

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, in the days after his team faced the Bucks, Clippers, Nets, and Lakers, was blunt and straightforward in his praise of Utah.

“I think they’re the best team we’ve played this year. And I say that strongly,” Pierce said. “… They’ve been the best team that we’ve seen this year. I’m not saying they’re the best team in the NBA; I think that will be resolved at the end of the year. But I think they’ve played the best basketball this year thus far.”

Celebrating the Jazz’s sameness, but also their newness

You talk to coaches throughout the league about the Jazz, and the word that keeps coming up is “continuity.”

It can be jarring when juxtaposed against the massive roster reshaping that occurred two summers ago, when the front office determined that the team simply lacked sufficient offensive firepower to truly compete at the top levels of the modern game.

And yet, from a broader and longer perspective, it makes all the sense in the world. Dennis Lindsey has been making the big decisions since 2012. Quin Snyder is now in his seventh season as head coach. Gobert is in his eighth season with the team, Joe Ingles in his seventh, and Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, and Georges Niang their fourth. Derrick Favors, after one season away, is now back for his 10th season in Utah. And Conley, Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson are all far more acclimated in their second seasons with the franchise.

That can make an immense difference in how a team plays.

“The continuity — Quin has done a great job of putting a system in offensively and defensively, and Dennis Lindsey has done a great job of putting a team together that fits. They’ve had time and years,” said Pistons coach Dwane Casey. “Unless you have a Michael Jordan or Larry Bird walk in the door, it takes time to build that. And Quin has done that — they’ve built calluses over the years of trying to get there. And it seems like it’s all clicking right now.

“They’re running the same sets, the same plays, the same defensive schemes that they’ve done,” Casey added, “but they’re just executing it better because of the continuity and familiarity that they have.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jazz coach Quin Snyder as the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Other opposing coaches have praised the Jazz for utilizing that familiarity as a building block without remaining completely static, for augmenting and continuing to adapt.

“Their core’s been together for a while, and I think that’s important. [But] they’ve added good pieces that fit them well, and they’ve adjusted,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. “They’ve put a premium on the shooting … and the way they’re playing is a lot different than they were three years ago. But the foundation was built on their defensive unselfishness, and that part hasn’t changed at all.”

Steve Kerr, who guided the Golden State Warriors to three championships and five NBA Finals appearances, has particularly been impressed with how fully the Jazz have embraced their newfound offensive explosiveness.

“What stands out on tape is, No. 1, they’ve been good for a long time, so the continuity is apparent right away. They all know each other so well, they execute their stuff beautifully,” he said. “And what’s different this year is they seem to be hunting 3s more quickly and more often. And that’s given them an even tougher dynamic.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone agrees with that assessment.

“They’re putting up historic numbers from the 3-point line, so [they pose] a hell of a challenge. … The number of shooters they have on the floor at all times, it’s scary,” Malone said. “So you worry about the 3s. I also worry about Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, Clarkson, their ability to get into the paint and finish; I worry about Rudy Gobert at the rim. And that’s the reason that they’re the best team in the NBA right now, because they can hurt you in so many different ways.”

Pierce, after extolling the virtues of the Jazz’s volume 3-point shooting, also praised their work on the other end.

“[Gobert’s] presence, altering and changing shots, obviously blocking shots as well, allows them to be aggressive on the ball and up the floor,” he said. “Not only do I think they have good defenders, I think they have really smart and versatile defenders.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens also marveled at their defensive acumen.

“If you’re trying to challenge Gobert at the rim, you lose,” Stevens said. “… This is an expertly coached team who make every shot difficult to come by. They’re the standard-bearer at that right now.”

Charlotte’s James Borrego summed it all up, saying that with their balance on both sides of the ball and their all-around excellence, they’ve become all too adept at putting opponents in impossible situations.

“They can shoot the 3-ball extremely well; they’ve got multiple playmakers; they’ve got a big man that can put pressure on the rim. And I don’t know many teams that can take away both the rim and the 3 from them,” Borrego said. “The biggest thing is they defend. I mean, they’re an elite defense. … They pursue, they fly around at guys, they can stay home and limit 3s. That’s what allows them to be a title contender this season.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) reacts after hitting a 3-point shot, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Golden State Warriors at Vivint Arena, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Developing an identity, developing consistency

All the compliments and external praise that came the Jazz’s way as they rolled to an 11-game winning streak in January and then began a new winning streak in February made for some nice recognition. Not that they’re swooning over the newfound attention.

“If this isn’t a contender, then I don’t know what a contender looks like,” former Memphis Grizzlies front office exec John Hollinger wrote for The Athletic on Monday. “For years we’ve mentally put this team in the ‘others receiving votes’ category, but no longer. Utah is a legitimate threat to break the city of Los Angeles’s stranglehold on the top of the Western Conference.”

Cool, cool.

Except, knowing that it does them zero good to focus on suddenly fawning national media, and recognizing in the aftermath of a loss to Malone’s Nuggets and an uncomfortably close win over Casey’s Pistons that they still have plenty of shortcomings to address, the Jazz instead remain constant in their devotion to making constant progress, to getting better today than they were yesterday.

“I don’t know what other people have said, so I don’t really care. It’s great to be winning games, and we’re playing at a high level, but we’re not satisfied,” said Ingles. “We just want to keep pushing. We’ve figured out the style and pace that we want to play at. We’ve got to keep going.”

Indeed, there are plenty of facets to their game that remain a work in progress if they’re ultimately to topple the Lakers or Clippers or Nuggets as the best team in the Western Conference.

Offensively, they’ve developed an identity — “Playing fast, shooting 3s, getting in the paint, and just being us,” Clarkson explained — though they recognize the need to become more consistent about it. When things bog down, as they did late against Detroit and early in Atlanta and most of the time in Indiana, they must get back to pushing the pace and spacing the floor.

“We have our spurts and moments … but we have a ways to go,” said Mitchell. “We’re really doing a lot of things the right way, but there’s things we can do better. We have our capabilities, we’re really raising our level, and when we shoot the ball well and defend, we can be pretty scary.”

Speaking of which, after falling out of the league’s top 10 in defensive rating a year ago, they’ve all recommitted to making that a strength again this season.

“Losing, last year, was a tough pill to swallow for all of us. All of us went into the offseason with a nasty taste in our mouth when it came to the game of basketball. And defense was a point of emphasis,” said Niang. “That’s something that we came in here and realized, that being lackadaisical or having off plays on defense, we know what that gets us — that gets us out in the first round. All of us here work too hard for that to be something that we can accept.”

Utah Jazz's Joe Ingles (2) and Donovan Mitchell, bottom right, sit on the floor after their 80-78 loss to the Denver Nuggets during an NBA first round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, Sept. 1,2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The early results have been encouraging, with base principles of perimeter defenders limiting opposing 3-point looks while Gobert and Favors shut down easy attempts at the rim. There has been an additional focus of late on perimeter defenders striking the right balance between being fundamental enough to keep their man in front of them and aggressive enough to generate some additional turnovers.

The issues have primarily come when the guards and wings over-help and/or the bigs under-help, but Snyder is generally of the opinion that all the work the Jazz have put in there has served to drive home the importance of it all.

That’s extended to other areas as well. When news of Gobert’s contract extension broke on Dec. 20, Snyder said a big reason for the center’s continued growth is because he recognized that “to be a great player and a great teammate, you’ve got to care as much about the little things as you do the big things.” That sentiment now seems to have spread throughout the whole team.

“I don’t even think we’re looking at the record right now. The biggest thing for us is just focusing on getting better each and every day, moving the ball, getting better defensively, still communicating, still pushing the ball. We’re just trying to find every little thing,” said Clarkson. “We’re just in a flow right now, we need to continue to play hard, and stay aggressive, and not even worry about the record, where we place, or anything. We’re just so focused on ourself and what our goal is in terms of getting better every day.”

‘This group wants to keep getting better’

It becomes easy to get everyone onboard and to forge good habits when they see the team’s leaders setting the tone.

In that, Conley explained, this Utah team has had extraordinarily good fortune.

“This is a very special group. And that starts with that stars, with Rudy and Don, two of the most unselfish stars you’re going to find in the league,” he said. “That trickles down to every player on our roster — we sacrifice for each other, play our basketball, and whether the outcome is what we want, we know we’re going to leave it out there.”

The example that Gobert and Mitchell set is not merely with their work ethic, but also with their demeanor, Ingles added. In joking that the team was perhaps not as “unsalvageable” as a certain infamous article last year may have led people to believe, the sarcastic and easygoing Australian pointed out that team truly doesn’t care who gets the credit so long as they get the win.

“I’ve said it numerous times, but over my seven years, we’ve had injuries and guys have had to step up and play bigger roles or different roles. And the the funnest thing about being on a team like that is that there’s no ego involved in it,” Ingles said. “We love playing together. We enjoy playing together.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) speak as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat in their NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

Will that be enough? Well, it can’t hurt.

Snyder, when asked if there was some tangible or visceral or even ineffable quality to this team that distinguished it from those of years past, would not take the bait: “Let’s look at it in another month,” he replied with a sly grin.

He’s long been known as a coach who values process over results — that is, for being able to accept a game’s result, win or lose, so long as his team played the right way. Now, though, he’s taking that process to its natural extension, noting that seeing victories become the byproduct of those good habits naturally reinforces them and creates a self-perpetuating system.

If the Jazz are to really, truly become championship contenders, that is what they will need to achieve first.

“When you play well, you gain confidence in the things that you’re doing. That’s the important thing to me: Why are you playing well? And if you’re playing poorly, why are you playing poorly and how do you continue to address those things?” Snyder said. “[We know] not to get ahead of ourselves. This is not a group of guys that is going to be motivated one way or the other by some of the external stuff. They’re mature enough to know that it’s a long season.

“And I’m going to keep hitting it because it’s true: This group wants to keep getting better,” Snyder added. “…That’s the most important thing for us, to continue to do the things that will make us successful. And if that results in wins more than losses, that’s great.”