Remember the days when Jazz fans went berserk for their team, naming their kids after Jazz stars, hammering banners to their house balconies, throwing watch parties for playoff games, flying logo flags off their car roofs and out of their truck beds, as though the Jazz weren’t a basketball team, rather a breakaway republic?
To this day, I remember a married couple who admitted on the radio during one deep playoff run that whenever they had … um, relations in the morning, the Jazz would win that night, and the pressure that mounted on them to always get their business done before the opening tip — friends and neighbors calling them to make sure everything had been properly taken care of — that they ultimately felt they were carrying an entire community into their bedroom.
Is that kind of passion in the Jazz’s near future, again, in Jazz fans’ near future?
That’s one way of asking two other questions: Are the Jazz not good, but great? Are the Jazz at long last what Jazz fans always wanted them to be, since Stockton retired and Malone left?
Finding accurate answers is what this regular season is, what it’s always been about, seeking clues to what the Jazz really are. Even the players — Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — talked in the preseason about shoving aside prospects of getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, as had been the team’s habit of late.
No, not anymore, they said.
And then, the Jazz bolted to the best record in the NBA, and they’ve held onto that top spot for more than a month now.
Is it the truth? Jazz fans, heretofore hesitant and sheepish, desperately want to know.
For years, it’s been easy to respect fans around here … most of them, anyway, fans who have stayed with the Jazz despite heartbreak, despite some losing, despite the changeover from Hall of Fame players to players bouncing and skidding to lower heights, despite being mostly good, but never quite good enough.
As with all fan bases, there are exceptions, a troubled few who have lost their minds over their fanaticism for a team that on the whole has deserved their righteous support, but not their unrighteous idiocy. Russell Westbrook, among others, would concur on that.
Some fans have lost interest because … well, the Jazz have never won a title and, by a certain way of thinking, never will in a league that seems to tilt everything toward destination markets, teams such as the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Can anyone imagine elite players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis seeking out an opportunity to move from other teams to play in Salt Lake City?
On the other hand, maybe the Jazz are in the midst of growing — and retaining — elite players of their own.
Either way, the masses here in Utah have remained largely devout in their partisanship for the Jazz, all that notwithstanding, even in leaner years.
There are other ways of measuring such things, but here’s one way: Since the Jazz made the NBA Finals back in 1997 and 1998, when the club ranked fourth in overall attendance both years, with the exception of one season, they have remained in the top half of the NBA’s attendance figures. They’ve slipped a bit, relative to other teams, but not in any drastic manner.
The Jazz have averaged a ranking of just higher than seventh among all NBA teams over the span of those 23 years, including this year’s rank of third, skewed as it is by the limitations of COVID. As mentioned, total attendance has declined a bit in recent seasons, but only once have the Jazz fallen below the middle of the pack, and in that case they were 16th. More often than not, they’ve landed in single digits.
That indicates the care factor for the club is high, even though the Jazz have only made it to the Western Conference finals once since 1998.
An informal poll of national writers reveals that many of them believe the Jazz can — or at least might — make it back in 2021.
“They have the makeup, the game, the talent and the coaching, to sustain the winning they’ve established so far, one of them said.
While their defensive rating has slipped in recent weeks — it now sits at sixth — the Jazz rank third in offensive rating. They have maintained their No. 1 net rating. That’s the kind of achievement at both ends necessary for them to reach their goal.
If there’s a single thing that has become apparent, if it wasn’t obvious before, it’s that, like Gobert always says, the Jazz’s attack is triggered by their resistance. When they D up, they get into transition, get into a flow, they stop and pop, they move the ball and raise their effective field goal percentage. The Jazz rank 17th in pace, so it’s not as though they are constantly bolting down the floor, but when they do, it benefits them greatly.
Some hoop philosophers believe good offense leads to better defense. With the Jazz, it seems to be the opposite, good defense equaling better offense. Although, there is evidence that both are true. The Jazz’s half-court defense is top drawer. But their transition defense ranks 18th (as of this writing), and often what triggers that scrambling, sloppy D is when the Jazz aren’t making their normal percentage of shots. When they make a decent amount, no problem.
The Jazz currently rank first in 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers made. They are dead last in 2-point shots taken. They’re third in points scored and second in defensive and total rebounding. All healthy stats that back up their glistening win-loss record.
In addition, as the Jazz emphasize shooting so many 3s — last time we checked, three is more than two — their opponents struggle to do likewise against them, having lofted 518 fewer bombs. Meanwhile, the Jazz have Gobert anchoring their rim protection. On account of the fact that some 40 percent of their shots are 3s, and they make some 40 percent of those launches, better than all but a couple of teams, advantage Jazz.
If there’s an area where they need improvement, other than transition defense, it’s in their tendency to get sloppy with the ball. They turn it over more than 14 times per game, which lands them in the bottom half of the NBA in that category.
Still, there is a double-barreled aspect to the Jazz’s attack. They can move the ball around the perimeter and run the pick-and-roll, using a group approach to break down and build leads on opponents. But they also can go iso-ball, what with Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley able to find or create spaces and lanes for shots in and around the paint.
Which is to say, the Jazz can make plays for each other or rely on playmakers to score on their own, a big help against teams that like to switch up defenses, as long as the right reads are made.
Also, Mitchell has proved to be the kind of star player who can raise his game in the fourth quarter, even when he hasn’t been efficient prior to, a time-worn device for title-contending teams, able to count on one sure scorer to carry the load when other options fail.
That all sounds pretty good, as long as the Jazz focus on playing their defense, getting back to prevent early offense, and then putting pressure on the ball, staying between their man and the basket in the half court. Gobert, after all, can’t cover everybody. Basic stuff. When they don’t do those things, they lose games they should win. And if they lose games they should win, that puts in jeopardy everything they’ve planned and been working for this season.
And everything Jazz fans have been waiting and hoping for through ups and downs, through wins and losses, through promising and less-than-promising seasons over the past 23 years.
Those fans have earned and deserve a run to a title. The question remains, will the Jazz players earn and deserve it, too?
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the company that owns the Utah Jazz.