This time last year, much of the basketball life had been sucked out of Utah. Or so we thought.
The fans of the Jazz, who had just watched their beloved team piece together its first 50-win season and playoff-series victory since the Jerry Sloan era, likely felt let down when star wing player Gordon Hayward left the small-market club to join the Boston Celtics during free agency. His departure threatened to stymie the ascendant squad’s progress and render it irrelevant to basketball fans leaguewide, who might not tune into a game in which the Jazz were competing.
But in a bit of a plot twist, the Jazz were just as good without Hayward last season; while they won slightly fewer games, they posted a superior point differential compared to the 2016-17 club. Despite losing Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to injury for almost a third of the season, they were arguably the NBA’s stingiest stoppers. And rookie Donovan Mitchell looked like anything but a first-year player, averaging more than 20 points while making Utah fans forget about Hayward.
That means the Jazz likely won’t catch teams by surprise anymore. But the team probably won’t have to, as Utah has the talent and skill to stand toe-to-toe with almost any team in the league.
That may sound strange considering Utah didn’t add any significant names to the roster this summer. Still, it’s not unrealistic to think that a healthy Jazz team could beat the Rockets, who knocked them out last year, or even push the Warriors, who will enter the season as heavy favorites to win a third-straight NBA title.
The key word there, of course, is healthy. It wasn’t until late January — after an ugly December span in which the Jazz played what ranked as the toughest scheduling month that any team would see last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group — that Utah got Gobert back from injury, found a rhythm and then finished the year winning 29 of its final 35 contests.
The unit’s defense — already decent anyway — morphs into something that’s flat-out disgusting with Gobert in the middle, forcing players to rethink whether it’s worth the potential embarrassment to try their luck at the rim. Utah surrendered a league-best 96 points per 100 possessions on defense after the All-Star break last season, a whopping 4.8 points better than the Sixers, who were next closest. (To put that into context, a gap of 4.8 points was the same as the gap between second-place Philadelphia and Golden State, who finished 14th — basically league average — in defensive efficiency.)
That unbridled optimism on defense doesn’t even fully take into account guard Dante Exum, who is a pest on that end and can be a difference-maker if he can just avoid injury for once. Jae Crowder is also no slouch on D and appeared to be a better fit with the Jazz after being dealt there from Cleveland, where he didn’t play well.
Of course there are a handful of defining questions worth posing as well. Chief among them: Which Ricky Rubio will show up for Utah this season — the one who was something of an offensive liability in Minnesota because of how defenses could ignore him outside the free-throw line, or the one who last year made teams pay when they gave him too much space to shoot?
It was noteworthy when Rubio had the game of his life against Russell Westbrook in the postseason. But on some level, that showing was merely the culmination of an incredible second half of the season. Rubio, who’s almost always been a poor jump-shooter, hit 43 percent of his triples in February, March and April while logging career-bests from the midrange and 3-point parts of the floor last year. If he can keep that up, it will open up lanes for him and allow him to be more aggressive. Rubio is one of the most shy players in the league after putting the ball on the floor. He dribbled through the paint on a drive without shooting, drawing a foul or committing a turnover almost 49 percent of the time, the highest percentage of any starting point guard last year, according to STATS SportVU.
The team is far from reliant on Rubio. If anything, it depends on Mitchell’s creation or on setting more screens and reversing the ball more than any other team until it finds an advantage. Still, there’s no doubt that Utah’s offensive potential soars when the point guard is a scoring threat.
Rubio being able to shoulder the burden more often would make life easier for Mitchell, who, since becoming the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony to lead a playoff team in scoring, figures to be a marked man this season. The rate of his progression was hard to believe at times, particularly at the rim, where he grew more aggressive during the season. He went from kicking the ball out on his drives to the basket 30 percent of the time prior to the All-Star break to passing on such plays just 19 percent after the break, according to Second Spectrum. Still, he averaged more potential assists after the break, highlighting his commitment to playmaking.
The team’s ability to score will factor heavily into how far the Jazz can go, as evidenced by their anemic 102.9 offensive rating last postseason. Of the teams that finished in the bottom six in that category, Utah was the only one that managed to make the second round of the playoffs.
When it comes to Utah’s defense, the identity of the offense it faces may end up holding more weight — especially in potential matchups with the two Western Conference foes Utah will almost certainly be chasing.
Unlike clubs who have matchup problems with a particular player, for the Jazz it was their scheme that was exposed. During the postseason series with Houston, Chris Paul and the Rockets showed a willingness to exploit the Jazz’s funnel-everything-inside-to-Gobert scheme by feasting on midrange jumpers — a shot that most elite defenses welcome with open arms. The challenge for Utah, of course, was that Paul has long been a great midrange shooter, and the Warriors — maybe the best shooting team ever — have begun hitting that shot at a ridiculous clip, too. And such an attempt mitigates Gobert’s best skill of protecting the rim.
It’s too early to ask, “What can we do differently?” But for a team that could be as good as the Jazz should be, they’d be wise to at least begin formulating an answer. If they can generate one come postseason, it could put them on close-to-even footing with their conference heavyweights — and on the short list of true NBA title contenders.