Usually, it’s pretty easy to figure out why an NBA team got better. The Sixers, who were the NBA’s most-improved team this year, got Joel Embiid and an extra 18 wins compared to last season. Houston, 14 wins better, got MVP-level play out of James Harden, who’s been a perfect fit for new coach Mike D’Antoni’s pace-and-space offense.
Then there’s Utah, a team that was 40-42 last year, yet has pieced together a fringe NBA title contender this season. The Jazz’s improvement isn’t as straightforward as the Rockets’ or Sixers’, though — they did it by tinkering with the margins of a roster that had missed the postseason for four consecutive years, and they’re capitalizing on their two young stars finally coming of age.
Perhaps the best comparison for this Jazz team is the Indiana Pacers from three or four years ago: Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s souped-up version of Roy Hibbert, the leader of a very stingy defense that forces a ton of midrange jumpers. Gordon Hayward is the analog to Paul George, a talented wing player who can score over just about anyone. And Utah’s George Hill is … George Hill, who joined the team in July following an offseason trade and is now the conductor of a Pacers-like slow-paced offense. And even that lofty comparison to the two-time Eastern Conference finalists may be selling this club short; the Jazz shoot and pass the ball better and far more than Indiana ever did.
Much of Utah’s jump stems from two key trades that bolstered each of those areas. The first deal landed Hill, a respected veteran point guard1, and the other yielded skilled forward Boris Diaw2. Both players, who once played for San Antonio, have helped the Jazz become a rare team that has been able to replicate the Spurs’ style. Watch the Jazz for long enough, and you can see San Antonio’s influences baked into some of Utah’s offensive plays and sets; particularly when Diaw is on the floor3.
The team’s transactions weren’t the sexiest, which is reflected by the NBA’s national TV ratings, in which the Jazz still rank near the bottom of the league. But as of now, those two moves — plus the Joe Johnson signing — look prescient. Hill, despite battling injuries all season, forced opponents to guard the perimeter more honestly and logged a career-high scoring average. Diaw, Utah’s best passer despite playing power forward, finished with a team-high six assists in the Game One victory over the Clippers. And Johnson, who connected on 41 percent of his 3s during the regular season, had 21 points in the series opener, including the game-winning floater at the buzzer4.
But the offseason moves alone wouldn’t have made the Jazz this formidable. Utah needed Hayward to take the next step. Among the most notable improvements that he has made: Hayward has grown considerably stronger, giving him the ability to be more aggressive and absorb more contact as he barrels toward the basket following curls and dribble handoffs. Aside from connecting on a blistering 69 percent of his shots at the rim this year — one of six wings to shoot that well on 200 shots or more — Hayward also managed to log a career-best 45 and-1 situations where he scored despite getting fouled. By contrast, he was blocked just 43 times all season. To put that into context, it’s pretty rare for wing players to finish with more and-1s than shots blocked in a given season; this year LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard were the only other wings to accomplish the feat5.
The other Jazz player who took the leap is also the reason the team’s die-hard fans can’t sleep at night: How injured is Gobert? It’s not clear how long he’ll be out with his knee hyperextension and bone bruise. The Jazz managed to squeak by without him on Saturday, but as Tuesday’s Game Two highlighted, the defense sans Gobert may be too porous to win this series6, let alone compete with Golden State, who will almost certainly be waiting for them in the conference semifinals.
But should Utah get a healthy version of its best player back — and yes, Gobert’s incredible jump in offensive efficiency, paired with his stellar defense, makes him the club’s most-valuable player — the Jazz can make some noise. They owned the third-best defense in the association this year, behind San Antonio and Golden State, and excel at defensive rebounding and limiting team’s opportunities in transition. Playing the percentages, the defense surrenders the NBA’s lowest share of corner 3-point attempts, and the only true soft spot they possess on that end is by design: They rank near the top of the league in terms of how frequently they goad opponents into taking inefficient midrange jumpers.
Yet their entire defensive scheme, which often calls for wings to switch assignments and aggressively crowd their opponents along the 3-point line, works to perfection because of Gobert’s incredible mobility and impact around the rim. Watch this regular-season sequence against Portland, for instance. Damian Lillard seemingly pulls the trigger on his shot a beat quicker than he normally would to avoid Gobert. Then Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu grabs an offensive rebound, but opts against going for the putback because of Gobert’s presence.
When teams are actually bold enough to bring the ball inside against him7, it frequently turns out to be a mistake.
As tense as this moment is for Jazz fans, the offseason may prove to be even more stressful. Hayward, 27, and Hill, 30, become unrestricted free agents at season’s end, leaving the small-market club — which has the league’s smallest payroll — with tough financial choices9 as it seeks to build on its first 50-win season since the 2009-10 season with Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan.
But those decisions can wait a bit. After all, winning — and doing it now, in this postseason, with this core group — is the strongest case a team like Utah can make to its pending free agents anyway.
Check out our NBA playoff predictions.