In many ways, it’s already been a dream season for the Utah Jazz.
A campaign which began with external doubts about the ability of their two foundational stars to coexist has instead morphed into unprecedented success — three players and one coach participating in the All-Star Game, an NBA record for 3-pointers made per game, top-five ratings in both offense and defense, a spot among the league’s elite in the final standings.
This truncated, abbreviated, compressed and condensed regular season has exceeded all rational expectations.
And now, just like that, it is no longer nearly enough.
There is an obvious next step, and with it, an equally obvious question:
Can they actually do it? Can they go beyond stellar regular season team and become NBA champions?
After years of steadily ascending, only to experience postseason heartbreak repeatedly, this iteration of the Jazz realizes they’re in a rare position to break through and bring a Larry O’Brien championship trophy to permanent residence in Utah for the first time.
“After what we went through as a group in OKC [the night Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19] and then kind of in the bubble and all that, you just realize the opportunity that you’ve got, and these opportunities don’t come around that often,” said Joe Ingles. “I’ve been here seven years, and for those first few years, we obviously weren’t a championship contender team. But we were building towards that. … We’ve learned a lot from it — the realization of the opportunity and the sacrifice and everything that goes into what we’ve built for this year. It’s been a fun ride so far, but we’ve obviously still got a fair bit of work to do.”
And they certainly have got a number of doubters, those who maintain that — for a variety of reasons — no matter how much work the Jazz put in, it may not matter once the games get more physical, the pace slows, the shooting windows get tighter.
“While they have the best record, and they have an excellent coaching staff and players, there’s no element of intimidation or fear,” Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said on NBA TV. “That aura that winning teams have when they walk into the building or when they play a game, Utah is missing that right now. … That badass aura is not there.”
A USA Today network online roundtable featuring Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina of USA Today Sports, Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal, and J. Michael Falgoust of the The Indianapolis Star included plenty of praise for what the team has accomplished, but also sincere concerns about them.
Ridenour latched onto tropes about an apparent lack of top-end talent: “What’s hurting the Jazz is … the fact that no players are perceived to be superstars.”
Falgoust touched upon the idea that Gobert has been and will be again played off the court by his lack of versatility: “I can’t roll with Utah winning the title for the same reason I hadn’t with Milwaukee these last 2 years: At some point, the 5 has to come out of the paint and not play in a drop [coverage] every ball screen. … In the playoffs, actual mid-range becomes more en vogue.”
And Zillgitt noted that, with the team coming off back-to-back first-round defeats, he cannot make the leap to deeming them contenders: “I need to see some playoff success. … This version of the Jazz need to prove it with series victories. Really tough to go from losing in first round to NBA Finals from one year to the next.”
Of course, Jazz fans are accustomed to the team having detractors.
What they may not be used to, though, is also having believers. Turns out, they’ve got a number of those.
Two NBA coaches, in fact, took aim at the perception that Utah’s recent lack of postseason success would be an impediment this time around.
“I think that may apply to very young teams, but I don’t think it would apply to this Jazz team, given that they’ve gained experience in the playoffs the last few years, [and] you’ve got Mike Conley, who’s been deep in the playoffs,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “It’s a different, different situation for this team. … I have no doubt that the Jazz are ready to make a great run.”
Rockets coach Stephen Silas agreed.
“They are a legitimate contender. One of the things that they have going for them is they’ve been together for a long time and they know each other so well,” he said. “Regardless of the first-round losses or whatever, that experience that they have just getting to the playoffs, and now the success that they’ve had this season, makes me believe that they’re a contender.”
Reporter Zach Harper of The Athletic, in reflecting why he was so wrong in his preseason prognostication that had the Jazz finishing sixth in the West, recently wrote, “Their offense was way more potent and consistent than imagined. … The Jazz have been a machine all season long, and while they’ve had a couple of dips here and there, they’ve pretty much been the best team in basketball consistently.”
And Medina, the USA Today reporter, countered his colleagues in that roundtable discussion with a simple declaration: “The Jazz are the real deal.”
Well, they have been in the regular season anyway. Whether they can be in the postseason remains to be seen.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder, of course, is a bit biased on the subject. Still, though, when asked to explain why this season’s team can do what previous ones could not, the Duke law school grad laid out a compelling closing argument centered around continuity, availability, and, plain-old improvement.
“The team has been together longer, it’s more seasoned. This team has had Bojan [Bogdanovic], [Jordan Clarkson], and Mike together for a year. Last year in the bubble, we didn’t have Bojan, and we only had J.C. for half the year. The synergy that guys have acquired together hopefully can carry through into the playoffs when people do try to get more physical and slow the game down,” Snyder said. “We went into the bubble talking about absorbing 3s and taking 3s, and that’s obviously continuing — we’ve tried to amp that up. And, defensively, guys get to know each other, and players [are] utilizing supporting each other, particularly with Rudy.
“So, hopefully we’re better,” he concluded, “and that means more wins.”