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The Utah Jazz Ran It Back — And Got Way Better

Aside from a brief blip on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, the Utah Jazz have been absolutely rolling of late. Including Monday night’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets — in which Utah buried Charlotte with a franchise-record 28 three-pointers — the Jazz have won 10 of their past 11 contests and 21 of their past 23. In doing so, they became just the 69th team in NBA history to rattle off such a run at any point in a season. Suffice to say, the Jazz are currently on a pretty rare hot streak.


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Utah sits atop FiveThirtyEight’s classic version of the Elo power ratings, representing the teams that have played best so far this season based on game results. The Jazz passed the Los Angeles Lakers for the top spot on Feb. 17, as part of a run that has seen them gain nearly 150 points of Elo in the first 31 games of the season — rising from a rating of 1542 in preseason to 1692 now. Among NBA teams since the 1976 ABA merger, that’s the 11th-most rating points any team has ever gained over the first 31 games of an NBA season:

Elo quickly changed its tune on these teams

Biggest gain in Elo rating (from preseason) over the first 31 games of an NBA season, along with measures of team continuity,* since 1976-77

Elo Rating Continuity %
Season Team Preseason Thru 31 Gms DIFF. Minutes WAR
2007-08 Celtics 1396 1671 +275 49.5% 48.8%
2004-05 Suns 1453 1659 +206 58.7 61.8
1989-90 Spurs 1345 1518 +173 27.1 22.3
1997-98 Spurs 1346 1512 +166 58.9 63.4
2013-14 Blazers 1430 1594 +164 64.6 77.3
1979-80 Celtics 1397 1559 +162 65.4 66.0
1998-99 Raptors 1309 1468 +160 57.7 75.2
1991-92 Cavaliers 1454 1611 +158 79.2 97.1
2003-04 Nuggets 1330 1485 +155 37.9 44.5
2019-20 Mavericks 1462 1614 +152 68.5 72.3
2020-21 Jazz 1542 1692 +149 91.6 100.5
2014-15 Bucks 1318 1464 +146 66.8 85.6
1995-96 Bulls 1592 1733 +141 80.9 95.4
2019-20 Lakers 1473 1613 +140 52.0 54.2
2001-02 Wizards 1341 1479 +138 66.6 72.6
2019-20 Clippers 1517 1651 +135 55.0 48.5
2013-14 Suns 1391 1525 +134 46.1 59.2
2008-09 Cavaliers 1548 1682 +134 77.7 89.1
2011-12 T-Wolves 1328 1460 +132 73.4 75.4
2018-19 Bucks 1518 1647 +129 64.6 76.7

*Continuity represents the share of a team’s minutes or wins above replacement that came from players on the team’s roster in the previous season. For WAR, this can exceed 100 percent because of negative contributors.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Looking at the other teams on that list of Elo’s biggest gainers, a theme emerges: Most of them added a lot of talent before making their early season runs. The 2007-08 Celtics, for instance, had a low preseason rating based on the 2006-07 edition that went 24-58 without Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen (and with Paul Pierce playing in just 47 games). The championship-winning 2007-08 team had only 50 percent of its minutes and 49 percent of its RAPTOR wins above replacement in common with the bad 2006-07 roster, which helps explain Boston’s sudden rise. The same can be said for the 2004-05 Suns (who added Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson), 2003-04 Nuggets (Andre Miller, Carmelo Anthony) and 1989-90 Spurs (David Robinson, Terry Cummings) — all near the top of Elo’s most-improved list.

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What’s unique about the current Jazz is that they’ve gotten so much better despite not turning things over much from last year’s roster. A full 91.6 percent of Utah’s 2020-21 minutes are being filled by players from the 2019-20 team, and 100.5 percent of the team’s WAR is being created by holdovers from last season. (The share can exceed 100 percent for WAR because of negative contributors.) Utah ranks No. 1 in both categories among the top 20 above, far above the respective averages of 61 percent and 68 percent for the other teams on the list.


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In other words, it’s odd to see a team improve this much without churning through its roster to make it happen. Among the Jazz’s top 10 players by WAR, only one — Derrick Favors, who played for New Orleans a year ago — was not on Utah’s 2019-20 roster. And even he comes with an asterisk of sorts. Before being traded to the Pelicans in July 2019, Favors spent some or all of his first nine years in the NBA with Utah; he then rejoined the Jazz as a free agent last November.

With so much roster overlap between seasons, we can really only point to improvement from within to help explain Utah’s recent upswing. While several Jazz regulars (such as Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale) have simply maintained a high level of play between seasons, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Georges Niang have all increased their RAPTOR ratings by at least 1.5 points per 100 possessions between 2020 and 2021, with Conley improving by an astonishing 10.2 points per 100.

Many of the Jazz’s regulars have gotten a lot better

Change in RAPTOR plus-minus per 100 possessions between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 NBA seasons for Utah Jazz regulars

RAPTOR +/-
Player Pos 2019-20 2020-21 DIFF.
Mike Conley PG -0.7 +9.5 +10.2
Jordan Clarkson SG +1.1 +5.2 +4.1
Donovan Mitchell SG +0.4 +2.9 +2.5
Joe Ingles F +1.1 +2.9 +1.8
Georges Niang PF -1.0 +0.7 +1.7
Royce O’Neale SF +2.1 +2.6 +0.5
Rudy Gobert C +6.2 +6.5 +0.3
Bojan Bogdanović SF -0.7 -2.6 -1.9

To qualify, a player must have played at least 20 games and 10 minutes per game for the Jazz in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Clarkson was already good offensively last season, but he’s found another level as an efficient scoring guard and improved his defense markedly. Mitchell is just entering his prime and building on his explosive performance in last year’s playoffs. And Conley’s change is nothing less than historic: Among players since the merger who played at least 500 minutes in consecutive seasons, Conley’s 10.2-point improvement currently ranks No. 1, well ahead of Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (who has also improved by 9.0 points per 100 this season) and the pre-2021 record of 8.3 points per 100 by Channing Frye, who played much better after moving from Portland to Phoenix in 2009-10.

RAPTOR’s biggest year-over-year improvements

Biggest change in RAPTOR plus-minus from one season to the next for NBA players with at least 500 minutes in both seasons, since 1976-77

RAPTOR +/-
Player Years Age Team Year 1 Year 2 DIFF.
Mike Conley 2020/21 33 Jazz -0.7 +9.5 +10.2
De’Andre Hunter 2020/21 23 Hawks -3.8 +5.2 +9.0
Channing Frye 2009/10 26 Suns -6.3 +2.0 +8.3
Dwyane Wade 2008/09 27 Heat +1.5 +9.7 +8.2
Alonzo Mourning 2005/06 35 Heat -6.0 +2.0 +8.0
Devean George 2001/02 24 Lakers -5.5 +2.3 +7.8
Kevin Durant 2009/10 21 Thunder -0.3 +7.4 +7.7
Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot 2019/20 24 Nets -6.6 +0.9 +7.5
Hedo Türkoglu 2003/04 24 Spurs -3.1 +4.4 +7.5
Scott Burrell 1997/98 27 Bulls -3.2 +4.3 +7.5
Mo Bamba 2019/20 21 Magic -6.2 +1.2 +7.4
Xavier Henry 2013/14 22 Lakers -6.2 +1.1 +7.3
Trey Burke 2017/18 25 Knicks -5.3 +2.0 +7.3
Tim Thomas 2006/07 29 Clippers -5.4 +1.9 +7.3
Sly Williams 1980/81 23 Knicks -5.4 +1.8 +7.2
James Johnson 2013/14 26 Grizzlies -5.1 +2.0 +7.1
Bobby Portis 2020/21 25 Bucks -2.9 +4.2 +7.1
Drew Gooden 2004/05 23 Cavaliers -5.9 +1.1 +7.0
Jusuf Nurkić 2018/19 24 Blazers +0.2 +7.2 +7.0
Andray Blatche 2012/13 26 Nets -5.4 +1.5 +6.9

Some players didn’t spend consecutive seasons on the same team; only a player’s Year 2 team and age are listed.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Also worth noting: At age 33 this season, Conley is among the oldest players on the most-improved list above — along with Alonzo Mourning in 2005-06, he is one of only two players who were age 30 or older in the year of their drastic improvement. Although Conley is bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2019-20 season, we still would not normally expect a player to elevate his performance so much between seasons at Conley’s age.

Conley’s rating is so otherworldly in part because of his own numbers — he’s generating a career-high 1.24 points per possession with a 23 percent usage rate on offense and has the ninth-best steal rate in the league on defense. But the Jazz also play significantly better with Conley on the court, particularly in combination with Gobert; no other two-man combination in the league has a better on-court scoring differential than Conley and Gobert’s +226 mark.

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Conley was back at it again Monday with a +22 plus-minus in his second game since returning from a hamstring injury that kept him out six games, making four of those 28 threes and assisting on four others. But even when they were without their point guard, the Jazz won all six of their contests, with Gobert, Ingles and Clarkson all delivering more than 0.16 WAR per game — well above their overall season averages — over that stretch, and Mitchell playing above a +5 points per 100 level on offense:

Gobert and friends carried the load without Conley

Most RAPTOR WAR for members of the Utah Jazz from Feb. 7-17, 2021

RAPTOR +/-
Player Pos Games MPG Off. Def. Tot. WAR
Rudy Gobert C 6 32.7 +1.7 +7.5 +9.2 1.19
Joe Ingles SF 6 31.2 +4.7 +4.0 +8.7 1.08
Jordan Clarkson SG 6 30.0 +5.1 +2.7 +7.7 0.97
Donovan Mitchell SG 6 35.3 +5.0 -0.6 +4.4 0.78
Royce O’Neale SF 6 34.5 -1.7 +3.8 +2.1 0.52
Georges Niang PF 6 16.7 +3.2 +2.6 +5.8 0.42
Miye Oni SG 6 9.8 -1.0 +5.7 +4.8 0.22
Bojan Bogdanović SF 6 31.5 -3.3 +1.8 -1.5 0.13
Shaquille Harrison SG 2 1.5 -6.2 +4.8 -1.5 0.00
Derrick Favors C 6 15.8 +0.4 -3.4 -3.0 -0.02
Jarrell Brantley PF 2 2.0 -19.0 +6.8 -12.3 -0.02
Juwan Morgan PF 2 2.0 -22.9 +6.1 -16.8 -0.03
Trent Forrest PG 2 2.0 -29.4 +5.2 -24.2 -0.05

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

So as great as Conley has been, the Jazz have shown they can do it without him as well.

Of course, none of this meteoric improvement will be worth much if it doesn’t carry over into the playoffs, where Utah fell short in a seven-game first-round classic against the Denver Nuggets last season (their second-straight first-round ouster). And in that regard, our full model — which accounts for team talent and various postseason effects1 — is slightly less convinced (assigning Utah an 18 percent chance at the title) than our pure Elo model (29 percent).

But still, that 18 percent probability ranks second-best in the league right now, behind only the Clippers. And in their more immediate future, the Jazz will also get another regular-season tune-up against a star-laden Western Conference contender (in the form of the slumping Lakers) on Wednesday. With it will come yet another chance to show just how impressive Utah’s improvement from within has been so far this season.

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Footnotes

  1. Including roster-wide playoff experience and adjustments for each player’s history of elevated or disappointing play in the postseason.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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