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It began with a simple question: Is this year’s Utah Jazz team the best in franchise history?
Naturally, that simple query led to tougher conversations. Are we talking the most talented teams top to bottom, or those that performed the best? How do you weigh a team with a better regular-season record that underwhelmed in the playoffs against a slightly lesser regular-season team that made a big postseason run? Are we always looking for balance across the board or is there room to reward singular brilliance in specific areas? How do you account for different styles of play across different eras of basketball?
There was a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of honest debate, a lot of devil’s advocacy. One conclusion we agreed upon fairly early in the process, though: With the ultimate fate of the present team as yet unknown, we could not yet justify naming it the best Jazz team ever. We need to see how this plays out. Beyond that, there were some tough omissions — the 1994-95 team that went 60-22 but got shocked by the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets in the first round of the playoffs; the ’95-96 team that won 55 games and went all the way to a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals; the promising 2009-10 team featuring Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko that won 55 games but which ran into a Lakers postseason juggernaut?
It’s an admittedly imperfect process, one divided between cold, hard statistical data, and purely subjective eye-of-the-beholder personal preference.
Anyway, that ample preamble dispensed with, let’s get on with it. The Top 5 Utah Jazz teams of all-time are …
OK, so with that baseline of excluding the present team from top-spot consideration established, do you go with the first team to go to the Finals, or the second, which had that extra postseason experience? Do you make an allowance for the latter of those teams only having John Stockton for 64 out of 82 regular-season games?
Let’s not overthink it — the ’96-97 team went a franchise-best 64-18 in the regular season, posted top-10 ratings in both offense (second) and defense (ninth), outperformed its successor in offensive, defensive, and net rating, and — while their postseason records were an identical 13-7 — it could be argued they had a more dominant playoff run, as they were never in any substantial danger until the Finals.
They rolled through the Western Conference — outpacing the second-place Sonics by seven games. Then they dispatched the Clippers in a three-game opening round sweep. They ousted the Lakers in five. They took out the Rockets in six. And in their six-game series against the Bulls saw them outscored by a total of four points.
There are those who believe that the follow-up squad was the franchise’s best-ever, and there’s certainly a case to be made for it. In spite of Stockton missing the season’s first 35 games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to remove loose cartilage, they still finished 62-20 — tying the Bulls for the best record in the league.
And they had to outlast an absolute beast of a Western Conference to do it, as both the Sonics and Lakers racked up 61 victories in that campaign.
While the ’97-98 squad led the league in offensive rating that season (112.7), they were actually a slightly worse-scoring team than the season before. The real separator, though, is that they were a significantly worse defensive team — ranking just 17th in the league in defensive rating.
Furthermore, while they eventually got rolling in the playoffs — losing just one game combined in the Western semis and Western finals against the Spurs and Lakers, respectively — they almost didn’t make it out of the first round at all, needing to rally from a 2-1 deficit in their best-of-five series vs. the Rockets. And we can’t forget (much as we’d like to) that their 54-point performance in Game 3 against the Bulls set the records for fewest points in a Finals game and biggest blowout.
Could we ultimately see this present-day Jazz team emerge as the best in franchise history? It’s a distinct possibility. How they perform in the postseason will eventually determine how their story is told, but for now, this group warrants inclusion near the top based solely on the strength of its regular-season merits.
After a middling 4-4 start, they won 20 of their next 21 games to surge to the top of the league table. Most of the attention has been focused on their dynamic and explosive offense — and for good reason. They lead the NBA in 3-pointers made by a wide margin, but have also converted them at an efficient clip. This season has seen the team set franchise records for points in a game (154, while playing without injured All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley), and 3s made in a game (28).
This team is about far more than just bombing opponents into oblivion, however. While they do indeed boast a top-five-rated offense, they also boast a top-five defense, thanks to their talent for keeping opponents off the 3-point line, as well as a certain soon-to-be-three-time Defensive Player of the Year. They’re also among the NBA’s best rebounding teams.
In a wonky season featuring a condensed and compressed schedule, and less practice time than ever, they’d still be on pace for 60 wins if they were playing a full 82-game slate.
The Jazz have lost in the Western Conference Finals four times in their existence, in 1991-92, 1993-94, 1995-96, and 2006-07. Of those teams, the 1991-92 and 1995-96 teams won the most games (55 each). But there’s something to be said for variety, and the 1995-96 team was very similar to the two teams profiled above.
There’s also something to be said for breaking through, and after eight consecutive years with first or second-round exits, this team found its way to the brink of the NBA Finals. Perhaps it was the additional home-court advantage provided by a raucous crowd at the brand-new Delta Center, or perhaps it was the midseason acquisition of Tyrone Corbin in exchange for Thurl Bailey.
After that trade, the Jazz played extremely well. They won all but four of their home games, and finished third in the NBA in Net Rating that year — good for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
The Rodney King riots disrupted a first-round series against the Clippers the Jazz would eventually win, which set up a 4-1 outshining of the Seattle SuperSonics in the second round. The Western Conference finals were against the Portland Trail Blazers, with the two teams both taking their home games through the first four contests. But in Game 5, Hall of Fame point guard Stockton took a swipe to the eye, forcing him to sit out the rest of the game, an overtime Jazz loss. He played in Game 6, but the eye still bothered him — Stockton shot just 5-19 for the contest.
With that eye injury presenting an all-time “What If?,” Jazz fans know that year’s team, which already broke through, could have been even more.
While the 2007-08 Utah Jazz didn’t get to the Western Conference Finals like their 2006-07 counterparts, they were unquestionably the better team. The 2006-07 team needed a dose of luck to be able to face the No. 8 seed Golden State Warriors in the second round before being smoked by the Spurs in the semis.
The 2007-08 team, though, was legitimately dangerous. First, it was only the second time in Jazz history that the team led the league in offensive rating, along with 1997-98. They popped up to 12th defensively, after ranking 17th the year before.
More importantly, the team featured Deron Williams at the height of his powers, working with Carlos Boozer in a pick-and-roll tandem that could seemingly score when it wanted. Mehmet Okur knocked down threes from deep in clutch situations. Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer added defensive skills and around-the-rim finishing, while Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles could shoot from deep. Long-time NBA players Matt Harpring and Paul Millsap rounded out the formidable rotation.
The first-round matchup against the Houston Rockets was relatively straightforward — a 4-2 series win against a team that they beat the year before. But in the second round, they faced the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
It was a closer series — both home teams won the first four games again, then came two climactic games. The Jazz trailed by one with a minute left in Game 5 and by two with a minute left in Game 6, but couldn’t hit the right shots at the right time. In the end, the Lakers’ acquisition of Pau Gasol was enough to get them over the top of the Jazz, and eventually, to the trophy.
AND THE BOTTOM 5 JAZZ TEAMS …
While the Jazz organization has mostly been known for stability and success, it’s had some bad years, too — and not solely in New Orleans, either. We couldn’t do the best without also addressing the worst, now could we? And so, here are the five worst Jazz teams in franchise history:
There are two ways to start an expansion franchise: build with youth and picks, or trade those assets to compete immediately. Those in charge of the first season of the New Orleans Jazz chose the latter ... and then still went 23-59 anyway. Before they hired a coach, or even had a stadium to play in, the Jazz traded nearly every asset they had for “Pistol” Pete Maravich from Atlanta — a deal so lopsided that Hawks head coach Richie Guerin called it “the biggest steal since the Louisiana Purchase.” Two of the picks traded away (Alex English and David Thompson) became NBA Hall of Famers, and Maravich, while himself a legend, never was too concerned about leading his rag-tag group of teammates to wins. In many ways, the trade set the New Orleans Jazz up for failure from the get-go, and eventually led to their move to Utah five years later.
The team’s inaugural season in Utah was less than promising. Yes, Adrian Dantley was one of the league’s elite scorers (28.0 points per game), but the Jazz actually were the lowest-scoring team in the league that season. That was partly on account of their league-worst pace — turns out their offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was merely 15th out of 22 teams. On the flip side, their defense was legitimately bad — they were dead-last in defensive rating. Add it all up and you got a team that went 24-58, tied for the worst record in the Western Conference, and the second-worst record in the league.
There’s a case for this being the least fun Jazz team in history. Sure, the 25-57 record this year reflects an extra victory or two compared to the teams above. But at least those teams had star power — this team had leading scorer Gordon Hayward shooting 30% from three as he tried to figure out how to carry an offensive load. General Manager Dennis Lindsey signaled his intent to lose games by letting Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson walk, while the likes of iffy veterans Richard Jefferson, John Lucas III, Brandon Rush, and Andris Biedrins didn’t help matters. Head coach Tyrone Corbin was a lame-duck coach without much of a long-term plan. The result: an 82-game slog.
The Jazz’s third season in Salt Lake City certainly produced a more exciting product — third in pace! seventh in points per game! — but not much more winning. Dantley was third in the NBA at 30.3 ppg, and second-year guard Darrell Griffith averaged a shade under 20. Problem was, they weren’t good at much else. They were mediocre at rebounding (15th of 23), bad at passing (19th in assists), and downright terrible at stopping other teams from scoring (20th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponents’ ppg). Add it all up and you had a team that went 25-57 — second-worst in the West, third-worst in the league.
The 2004-05 season started with such promise. The previous year’s team finished just short of the playoffs, and during the offseason, the front office signed Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer to free agent deals. The team introduced new uniforms that season, and they won six of their first seven games. Then, calamity: point guard Carlos Arroyo disappointed, then was traded. Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Raul Lopez and Raja Bell got injured. Young players Kirk Snyder, Kris Humphries and Curtis Borchardt disappointed. And a team that most expected to make the playoffs finished 26-56, second-worst in the West.