Right now in the NBA’s western conference, three teams have clearly separated themselves from the pack.
Of course, there’s the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and their 13-4 record who have been outstanding so far this season. Then, there’s the Los Angeles Clippers who are playing the best basketball in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s time in LA right now and on a seven-game win streak, also sporting a 13-4 record.
After the flashy teams from LaLa land come one many people forgot about coming into this season. Despite the fact they were a Mike Conley near-missed buzzer-beater in game seven from beating the eventual western conference finalists, hardly anyone was talking about the Utah Jazz coming into this season.
Looking back on this, it’s kind of funny seeing as how much hype they got pre-2019-20 after the offseason they had bringing in Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic most notably. However, Conley was bad last year and Bogdanovic missed the bubble with a wrist injury so let’s be honest, the team that lost in the bubble to Denver was hardly the one we expected when they were getting all the preseason love.
So after a season with Conley looking washed and their only real offseason addition being Derrick Favors coming back, it’s relatively understandable the Jazz weren’t the sexy western conference finals pick they were a year ago. Throw in the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell COVID-19 drama and supposed falling out and many were calling for them to blow it up.
Team executive Dennis Lindsey held his ground though and even doubled-down on his roster, extending both Gobert and Mitchell and refusing to dump Conley’s contract as many people argued for (myself included).
The result has been nothing short of exceptional 16 games into the season.
Conley and his seeming career renaissance may be the biggest reason why. He’s currently shooting a career-best from everywhere outside the free-throw line and has produced some of the best advanced stats of his career. Essentially, he’s been exactly what the Jazz thought they were getting when they traded for him in the 2019 offseason.
Conley’s improvement is probably most felt in the growth of the starting lineup. Last year, Conley and the other starters were arguably the most disappointing five-man lineup in the entire league. This season though, the Jazz’ starters of Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Gobert and Royce O’Neale sit third in the NBA in net rating for five-man lineups with over 100 minutes (only the two LA teams starters are ahead of them).
Crazily, the starter’s growth may not even be the biggest change this season to last.
Last year the team’s bench was so bad they were forced to trade for Jordan Clarkson to attempt to have some type of playable group without their starters and Joe Ingles on the floor. Clarkson rewarded them with exceptional play and the team gave him a contract extension as a result.
Now paired with Favors, an actual legitimate backup to save the non-Gobert minutes that killed them last year, Clarkson is absolutely thriving. He’s third in the NBA in scoring off the bench, averaging over 17 a game, shooting a deadly 40.9 per cent from three on over seven attempts a night.
With the starters playing well again and the bench issues officially seeming to be solved, it makes sense to see where Utah sits amongst the league’s elite.
The Jazz are currently the only team in the top five of both offensive and defensive rating. They also sit fourth in net rating. This is quite the improvement from a team that was 10th in offence, 13th in defence and 9th in net rating last season.
What’s craziest about all of this improvement is it hasn’t come off the backs of any of their three best players really.
Mitchell for example is shooting the worst percentage of his career inside three feet and has the highest turnover average of his career as well. Gobert meanwhile is down to a field goal percentage of 60.9, way below the 69.3 he averaged last year. His free throw percentage has also cratered below 50 per cent, causing his true shooting percentage to be the third-lowest of his career.
Even Bogdanoic off wrist surgery has had people wondering if he came back too fast. He’s down in every shooting percentage and his points per game is down from 20.2 to 13.5 as well (and he’s also murdered, my fantasy team).
I’m not sure the Jazz have necessarily earned the right to be in the Lakers or Clippers class just yet, I think that can only happen with a real playoff run. However, they have firmly separated from the rest of the western conference.
This is of course without their three best players truly rolling so if that happens, who knows? All that seems clear is the Jazz are finally the team we thought they’d be after the 2019 offseason and deserve at least some people to acknowledge their existence when we talk about the best the west has to offer in 2021.