What a ride it has been over the course of the second half of the season for the Utah Jazz and their fans. On January 22nd, the Jazz lost to the Atlanta Hawks by 14 points, and the team saw themselves sitting at 19-28 with 35 games remaining in the season. What happened next is almost unheard of. The Jazz managed to finish the season by going 29-6 over those final 35 games of the season, and they finished the season as the fifth seed in the highly competitive Western Conference. Now, in mid-April, they currently lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-1 in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. If I were to tell Jazz fans back in January they would be leading 3-1 in the opening series of the playoffs, they would’ve thought I was out of my mind. Now, with the Jazz looking primed to move onto the second round of the playoffs to likely match up with the Houston Rockets, it raises the question of: “Is this year’s Jazz team better than the team with Gordon Hayward last season?”
By no means does this say that Gordon Hayward didn’t help the Jazz. He was the heart and soul of that Utah team last year that got knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors. However, this year’s Jazz team has a different feel about them. If it even seemed possible, the Utah Jazz improved on their 105.3 defensive rating from last season, which ranked third in the league. This season, that number dipped to 103.9, putting them second in the NBA. The additions of not only Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in the offseason, but Jae Crowder at the trade deadline are the big reasons the Jazz were somehow able to improve their defensive rating this season. In addition, the Jazz had the seventh hardest schedule this season in the NBA, they had the thirteenth hardest schedule in the league last season. That makes their end of the season run that much more impressive while they knocked off teams like the Warriors, Spurs, and Raptors down the stretch of the regular season.
Another added bonus for the Jazz this season has been their pace of play, and the started (slight) movement towards the NBA’s current structure of basketball. The Jazz ranked 30th in the league last season in pace of play, averaging just 91.6 possessions per 48 minutes of play. This season, they are up to 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes. That number still ranks 25th in the NBA, but those added four possessions per 48 minutes can have a huge impact on the result of the game. Probably the biggest reason for the faster play this season is due to Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell. Rubio’s main strength on offense is getting out in the open floor and finding guys going to the hoop on the fastbreak, something Donovan Mitchell excels at. In addition to Mitchell and Rubio, Rudy Gobert has gotten much better at rim-running this season and getting position down low off of the fastbreak which has led to some easy looks for him at the rim this season.
Another sign that the Jazz have been playing faster and matching the offensive play of teams across the league is their added three-point attempts and makes this season. The Jazz shot 297 more threes this season compared to last season. And with more attempts comes more makes, as the Jazz made 96 more shots from beyond the arc this season, something they will continue to improve on.
When you match up the added pace of play for the Utah Jazz, in addition to the improved defense of the team this year, I don’t think there is any question that this year’s Jazz team is better than the 2016/17 squad. And the scary part is that this team is still very young with Donovan Mitchell being 21 years old, Rudy Gobert being 25 years old, and Ricky Rubio entering the prime of his career at 27 years old. If this core group of players can stick together and keep building chemistry with Quin Snyder, it won’t be long before this team will be an NBA Finals contender.
Photo Credits: NBA.com