There are two ways to feel about the Utah Jazz, and they fundamentally conflict.
One is confident. Even though they received an unkind draw, the Jazz are a threat to make genuine noise in the playoffs. They enter with 50 wins, the third-highest point differential in the league, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. They possess the NBA’s best defense, an increasingly smooth offense, and all the benefits that come with good health, prolonged continuity, and role acceptance. Strip away a treacherous path that includes a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets and a potential second-round series with the Golden State Warriors, their statistical profile is that of a title contender.
That belief rests on 22-year-old Donovan Mitchell, who’s made a meaningful leap in his second season, particularly as a pick-and-roll scorer. Only six players in the NBA averaged more than his 26.7 points per game since the NBA All-Star break. It’s interesting to compare Mitchell’s sophomore numbers with Dwyane Wade’s, if only to imagine a universe where Utah’s best offensive player is able to handle the type of postseason load his breathtaking dynamism suggests. As a game-breaking scorer who can MacGyver his way through broken possessions, Mitchell is the reason Utah is the third-most efficient offensive team in the clutch, defined as games within five points with five or fewer minutes to go. His 46-point response to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 43-point cannonball is the reason Utah beat the Bucks in early March.
It also relies on Rudy Gobert, who’s deserving of his second straight Defensive Player of the Year trophy. He’s the key ingredient in a formula that allows the fewest threes and most mid-range shots in the league. The Jazz press and switch, knowing Gobert can clean everything up along the backline. But like any generational defender, the French Rejection (sorry, not sorry) is also great because he takes away opportunities before they appear. Watch how much space he blankets on this play:
Denver’s passing lanes are flooded by his 7’9 wingspan. Every step is well-timed and with purpose. He dances and dares, simplifying one of the sport’s most complicated guessing games like very few can, until Jamal Murray convinces himself to loft a floater.
That dynamic duo has led the Jazz to recent all-around dominance. Since the all-star break, Utah has a higher point differential than every team in the league. Cynics will say the Jazz also obliterated everything in their path last year before getting overwhelmed by the Rockets in the second round. An optimist can’t disagree, but they can point to Utah’s post-all-star-break offense ranking third this year compared to 17th in 2017-18. This year’s edition take more threes and shots at the rim than last season’s, and Quin Snyder’s decision to give Joe Ingles the keys to his second-unit’s offense has worked out well.
But further inspection brings us to the second feeling about the Jazz: drowning in doubt.
Remember that succinct adage coined by Draymond Green, who said he wants the Warriors to acquire “16-game” players instead of “82-game” players? Utah’s is the quintessential “82-game” team.
After a tough schedule prevented them from blooming earlier in the year, they bludgeoned lesser opponents. Since the break, they beat the Bucks, stomped out the Brooklyn Nets, and lost to Oklahoma City. Beyond those three games (not counting the season finale, because nobody played), the Jazz haven’t competed against another playoff team since a Feb. 28th win against over Denver.
That, of course, isn’t their fault. All the Jazz did was annihilate every team that was on their schedule. For those who believe that pounding the opposition really matters, 9.48 percent of Utah’s minutes this season were spent enjoying a lead of at least 20 points, which was a higher mark than Milwaukee, Houston, Denver, and Toronto. Last year, Utah was up by at least 20 in 6.43 percent of their minutes.
But piling up those gaudy numbers against inferior opposition masks the team’s rigidity. Based on key personnel and their fundamental style (one that still refuses to push off missed shots), the Jazz aren’t nimble enough on either end to adapt on the fly like any modern championship contender. In that way, they’re the NBA’s greatest expression of the divide between regular season basketball and playoff basketball. And that sets them up to be a fatalistic tragedy.
It’s not a new development, but Gobert is the personification of this dilemma. When the competition heats up, rim protection becomes less valuable against teams that are fine pull-up-jumpering their opponent to death. They’re also unafraid of going small with shooters at every position, knowing Gobert can’t punish them in a one-on-one matchup on the other end. (Gobert scored eight points on 11 post-up possessions in last year’s playoffs. That’s not good.). It’s hard to see how a team can go deep in the playoffs in 2019 when their highest-paid player can’t shoot or create his own shot. Utah’s offense is limited in the postseason with Gobert on the floor. It just is.
The issue gets exasperated by minutes he spends beside Ricky Rubio, whose outside shot has regressed to dreary levels. The Jazz can’t put the ball in the basket with Rubio, Gobert, and Derrick Favors on the court, and as successful as lineups with Crowder replacing Favors have been in the regular season, they’re in trouble if/when Crowder’s shooting gets shoved further into the spotlight.
Matchups matter for every team, and the Rockets are a bad one for almost everyone. But at the end of the day, this team is still in need of a mini-makeover if it wants to do more than dominate the regular season. (A trade for Mike Conley — as was rumored before the deadline — would’ve been a step in the right direction.) Rubio and Favors are free agents this summer, providing Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey a golden opportunity to modernize his roster with pieces that make more sense in the playoffs alongside Mitchell and Gobert.
All is not lost even if Utah gets swept from the first round. Their worst-case scenario is, more likely than not, merely a speed bump. But until changes are made, and harsh truths are accepted, the Jazz will enter each postseason notably inferior to what they are for the first 82 games.