So far, so good for the Utah Jazz. The NBA is at the halfway point of its shortened 2020-21 season. And Utah stands alone at the top of the food chain as the best team in the league. Already off to the best start in the history of the franchise, Utah has been kicking butt and taking names along the way.
They’ve already beaten the pants off of the Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve whipped up on the Milwaukee Bucks a couple of times. Oh, yeah, they’ve already handled the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Philadelphia 76ers as well on their way to a league-best 27-9 record.
So what is to make of the play by the Jazz this season? A couple of observations. First, Utah is ranked in the top five on both offense and defense. Secondly, head coach Quin Synder has established a culture in Utah where they hang their hat on the defensive end. Anchored by two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are currently No. 2 in defense.
Utah knows how to play more than one tune. They pack plenty of firepower with shooting guard Donovan Mitchell who is averaging 24.4 points per game this season. The bench is also contributing in a big way for Utah. Led by Jordan Clarkson’s 18.2 points per game, the Jazz bench is third in the league in scoring.
It is hard to find a weak spot on this Jazz roster. Mitchell is able to score the ball with the best in the league while Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Mike Conley is considered the best player to never make an All-Star team and Clarkson has emerged as a favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.
On top of their recognizable stars, the Jazz is loaded with sharpshooters like Joe Ingles, Royce O’neale and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The three-pointer has become one of the most prominent weapons in the NBA over the past decade and currently the Jazz lead the league in three’s made per game with 16.9, which would be an NBA record if they can sustain it for the rest of the regular season.
“The teams and the players see us as a challenge and it brings the best out of them every single night. They come out and they play great, they play hard and it’s almost like a playoff game every night,” said Gobert.
Starting as hot as the Jazz have, it paints a target on their back. Other teams want to knock them down and Utah knows it.
“At the end of the day, everybody’s coming for us,” Mitchell said.
The Jazz play a selfless style of basketball, the ball moves and swings while players cut and rotate until the open man gets a good look at the basket. The unselfishness makes Utah a nightmare to defend. Critics could point to the lack of a superstar as the team’s weakness that will forsake them in the playoffs.
There may not be a traditional superstar on the team. You know the guy everyone knows will get the ball in crunch time during the big moments. No Lebron James. No Damian Lillard. No Steph Curry. No Kawhi Leonard. There’s no Kevin Durant that would be considered to be the face of the franchise, although Mitchell is edging closer to that designation.
Synder is just as likely to draw up a play for Ingles at the buzzer as he is to draw one up for Mitchell. The Jazz are as good as the sum of their parts, their strength lies in how deep down the bench they can go.
Utah may not have superstar power, but they do have All-Star might. Mitchell and Gobert have been named NBA All-Stars along with Synder who will be the head coach for Team Lebron on All-Star Sunday night.
Synder has also been named the Western Conference Coach of the Month in consecutive months, January and February. Three pillars of the Jazz’s success are getting the recognition they deserve but they know the job isn’t finished yet.
“We’re thankful and honored,” Mitchell said. “But the end goal is still the end goal for us as a team.”
As the Jazz look beyond the midway break and into the second half of their schedule, it’s hard to imagine them not feeling disrespected. The Jazz has 11 nationally televised games. That’s pretty good. But it’s kind of pedestrian when you consider that nine other NBA franchises will have more national TV time despite the Jazz having the best record in the league, along with two All-Stars and a top-notch head coach.
If Utah does feel slighted in their lack of national attention, they can take comfort in knowing that they have the easiest second-half schedule based on opponent win percentage. No opponent can be taken for granted in the NBA and as the season heads into the break. The Jazz knows what they are playing for.
“We’re trying to win the whole thing, and that’s been the mindset of this team and this group. You see it with our play, you see it with our grit and determination,” Mitchell said.
The featured image is of the Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley Jr. playing defense against the Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George on Feb. 19, 2021. Despite getting 35 points from Donovan Mitchell, the Clippers defeated the Jazz, 116-112. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline