Kalemkerian: Utah is NBA’s most complete team
John Kalemkerian | Friday, February 26, 2021
Did you expect this article to be about one of the Los Angeles powerhouses? Maybe the Brooklyn Nets and their three-headed offensive monster? If so, I can’t blame you. Instead, I’ll be talking about the dark horse contender out of the Western Conference this season: the Utah Jazz.
Currently, the Jazz sit in first place in the West with a gaudy 25-6 record. What’s even more impressive is that four of those six losses came in the first eight games of the season, meaning they’ve won 21 of their last 23 games. To understand how remarkable their start to the season is, we have to go back almost a year to March 11 when Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for coronavirus. Gobert and his teammate, star guard Donovan Mitchell, reportedly took a while to reconcile after Mitchell subsequently tested positive. An apparent rift between the two team leaders appeared to be the beginning of the end for this Jazz team, which had already been underperforming. Mitchell’s frustration with Gobert led many to speculate that Gobert would be gone in the offseason following the NBA’s bubble playoffs, where the Jazz were eliminated in a thrilling seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets. Utah’s front office had a different idea though, handing Gobert a five-year, $205 million contract, the largest ever for a center.
This contract, along with Mitchell’s similar extension, helped lock in their star duo, and the Jazz decided to stay put in free agency last summer. Sitting on the sidelines while other contending teams made big splashes with trades and free-agent signings was just what the Jazz needed. It has also allowed them to be the rare team that has improved drastically despite running it back with largely the same roster. The team earned high praise from Warriors coach Steve Kerr a month ago, when he said, “They’re where we were three, four years ago.” Even other players have been recognizing the success the Jazz are having, including Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who commented on their “fun” style of play following a 129-115 defeat.
So why are the Jazz legitimate title contenders? The Jazz of late have been a regular-season team, wilting come playoff time. This year, the pieces have finally come together. Mitchell, who is in the process of proving Shaq wrong, has blossomed from an explosive but inexperienced scorer into a leader and an All-Star. Reserve guard Jordan Clarkson, the Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner, is having a career year as the team’s second-leading scorer. Starting point guard Mike Conley is bouncing back from a disappointing first year in Utah, showing signs of the player the Jazz were hoping to get when they traded for him. The key to their success, though, is Gobert. Since defense is incredibly underrated in today’s NBA, Gobert, an All-Star alongside Mitchell this year, has received unfounded criticism for most of his career. This year, though, everything has finally come together for him. Anchoring the third-best scoring defensive (and the best by most advanced statistics), Gobert is collecting a ridiculous 2.8 blocks per game, which is a career-best.
Even with their regular-season success so far, the difficult question must be asked in Utah: Is this team really a title contender? The answer is almost certainly yes. With Mitchell leading the charge on the offensive side of the ball and Gobert holding down the fort on defense, the Jazz are as dangerous as any team in the league despite their lack of traditional superstars. The race for the title is as open as ever, and it’s clear the Jazz have put all the pieces together to surprise some teams and fans alike come playoff time.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.