Are the Utah Jazz on their way to the best offensive season ever?

The NBA is experiencing an offensive explosion. With an arsenal of experienced 3-point shooters, the Utah Jazz are leading the way this year.

Utah Jazz's Mike Conley (11) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' Darius Garland (10) and Kevin Love (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Editor’s note: Zarin Ficklin is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.

The Jazz own the NBA’s best offense this season, and it’s not close. At the start of this week, they were three full points better than second-place and almost eight points better than the average offense. They’ve lapped the competition despite the fact that several of their shooters are shooting below their career averages from 3.

All of that begs the question: when individual shooters trend back toward the norm, will the Jazz be capable of posting the best offensive efficiency ever?

First, let’s define what that means. There are several versions of offensive rating that value efficiency over output, so they look at the most effective offenses on a per-possession basis, not just the teams with the highest scoring averages. Stats like NBA.com’s Offensive Rating favor teams that take better shots — free throws, rim attempts, and 3s. There are other versions of the same thing — Basketball-Reference’s ORtg is calculated slightly differently, and the one at Cleaning the Glass even filters out garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves. For this exercise, we’ll use NBA.com’s Offensive Rating.

The Jazz currently have an Offensive Rating of 116.2, three full points ahead of second-place Atlanta. The best ORtg of all time belonged to last season’s Brooklyn Nets, at 117.3.

Another piece of context is helpful: the NBA is undergoing an offensive explosion. You can credit rule changes, the 3-point proliferation or the talent pool, but we’re in an era where the bar for “best offense ever” is continually being raised. No team in history reached an ORtg of 115 or better until the 2018–19 season (Golden State) and another team matched the feat the year after (Dallas). Last season seven teams eclipsed that mark, including the Nets and the Portland Trail Blazers, who finished mere decimal points behind Brooklyn at 117.1. We may see a new all-time best offense every season.

So another way to look at this is how good is a team’s offensive rating compared to the league average for that season? That crown belongs to the 2003–04 Dallas Mavericks, whose ORtg of 110.4 was 9.0 points better than the league average. Last season’s Nets were 5.5 points above league average.

This season the league average Offensive Rating is 108.2, so the Jazz (currently at 116.2) also have a chance of posting the biggest offensive differential since possession tracking started in the early ‘70s.

How is the offense so good?

Several things are working in Utah’s favor.

1) The Jazz play with a math advantage every game

The Jazz shoot the most 3-point shots in the league, and take the fourth fewest midrange shots, per Cleaning the Glass. They don’t take a particularly high amount of rim attempts, but their accuracy there is the best in the league (70.1% inside 4 feet). They hunt the best types of shots relentlessly, with an egalitarian system that leads to ball movement and great shots — “blender”-type plays, as they’ve come to be known on the club’s broadcasts.

By contrast, they are also elite at forcing opponents to take the least efficient shots, per CTG. They are in the top five in dissuading both threes and rim attempts.

2) Multiple Jazz players are shooting lights out

The Jazz lead the league in effective field goal percentage, the product of many individual stand-outs:

  • Rudy Gobert’s eFG% is 73.1%, a top-three figure in the league

  • Mike Conley leads all point guards at 64.5%

  • Rudy Gay is elite among power forwards at 65.7%

  • Royce O’Neale (61.9%) and Joe Ingles (61.7%) are elite among forwards

3) Utah’s experience can counter just about anything

Continuity is paying off. Players know their roles. Mike Conley runs the offense with clockwork precision. The Jazz simply have an answer for everything — they read, react, and cycle to the appropriate action. Sure, some defenses fare better against the Jazz. But whatever hand-wringing over switching defenses exists, the Jazz have largely handled it fine. Yes, it would have been great to see Gobert punish mismatches in last postseason’s Jazz-Clippers series -- not because the Jazz needed more offensive punch, but to force the Clippers to size up their center-less lineups that crushed Utah’s defense.

We’ve seen the Jazz bothered by athleticism and length this season, but we’ve also seen them figure out those defenses with increased passing.

“I gotta give Coach credit… We’ve been through every situation,” Donovan Mitchell said on Friday night of his team’s availability to thrive against different defenses. “We’ve seen everything eight times in practice.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots, with Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) defending, as the Utah Jazz host the Boston Celtics, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

How could the offense improve?

With the Jazz only a point behind the best ORtg off all-time, it’s worth looking at a few players whose upside could push the team over the edge.

1) Jordan Clarkson

It’s no secret that Clarkson has struggled with his shot. In fact, this is his least efficient season ever. His shooting should regress (or progress, if you prefer) toward the mean. But Clarkson could try some things with his shot profile. He’s shooting a staggering 61% of his shots from 3. At surface level this seems like a good thing, right? Not so much when his shooting percentage is 30%. Clarkson is a fantastic finisher, particularly so in the short midrange (four to 14 feet), with his array of floaters and shifty footwork. Perhaps he’d be better served attacking the rim more often. Or maybe Clarkson will keep doing his thing, naturally heat up, and lift the team offense by extension.

2) Donovan Mitchell

It’s also no secret that Mitchell had a slow start by his standards. But Mitchell usually starts slow. He also usually improves month-to-month, finding supernova stretches later in the season. He may be starting one now, after averaging 33 points per game on 67.5% eFG over the last three, stats that helped him capture his third career Player of the Week honor. Mitchell should ramp things up: even after this hot stretch, he’s hitting 33.7% of his threes this season, well below his 36% career mark.

3) Rudy Gay

Hey, it turns out the 35-year-old Gay has a lot left in the tank. On the offensive end, he’s providing nearly 11 points in under 19 minutes and shooting the three at a blistering 48% accuracy. It makes sense that he’s shooting nearly half his shoots from downtown in Utah’s system — much more than he did in San Antonio. While we can expect his shooting to cool down, he’s getting better looks than he’s probably ever had in his career. It’s also worth noting that Gay is a willing ball mover. While he’s capable of beating his man one-on-one, he plays within the system and produces smart offense.

The numbers prove this. In Gay’s nine games with the Jazz, the team’s ORtg is 121.3! That’s an absurd number, and as his role increases he’s another player who could bring the offense up a bit.

How could the offense regress?

At this point, no other teams are close to the Jazz. The Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, and Charlotte Hornets are all in 112 range for ORtg. But the Jazz offense could slip moving forward. Utah has enjoyed one of the easier schedules so far. They’ve also been relatively healthy, aside from the games Gay missed with a heel issue and random one-off absences of their guards. And while the system generates quality looks, some of the shooting numbers may not sustain through the full season. Frankly, there’s a large measure of luck in shot outcomes. But the Jazz are on track and they’re largely executing their advantage-based offense the right way.

In a regular season that has less significance to a team that is focused on proving itself in the post-season, chasing history is a fun diversion. We’ll see if Utah’s hot shooters remain hot, and if the guys who are struggling get dialed in at some point. If some combination of those two things happen, Utah could have a chance at posting a historically great offensive season.