Nobody would have blamed the Utah Jazz for treating this season as a write-off. After losing Gordon Hayward in the off-season, the team seemed destined for a rebuilding year. Now, winners of 11 straight games, the Jazz have battled through adversity and put themselves back into the playoff race.
The sheer amount of adversity the Jazz have overcame this season is staggering. Already working to bounce back from the departure of Hayward, the team has also had to deal with Rudy Gobert missing 26 out of 58 games at the All-Star break.
Even during the winning streak, the team has pulled off it’s last three victories without the services of Ricky Rubio. They have won high-scoring trackmeets, and in ugly slugfests. They have shown a resilience that is atypical for a young roster.
As Zach Lowe recently noted, the Jazz have the easiest remaining schedule out of the Thunder, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Clippers – All of whom are locked into a tight race for the final playoff spots. With the tiebreaker over the Clippers, Pelicans, and the Blazers already in hand, they are in prime position to make the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell has been, and continues to be, the catalyst for the Jazz this season. While his efficiency is down over the streak, he is still pacing the team with 21.3 points per game during the ten games he took part in. With Hayward gone and Hood traded, the Jazz simply wouldn’t have the scoring needed to remain competitive if it wasn’t for Mitchell shouldering the load.
But while Mitchell brings the firepower, the driving factor between this latest crescendo for the Jazz has been the rediscovery of their signature defense. Over the past 11 games Utah has had an eye-popping 97.7 defensive efficiency.
As with every conversation about Utah’s defense, the key is the play of Rudy Gobert. Gobert is back and healthy, providing the team with a steadying force on the interior. During the streak, Utah has a defensive efficiency of 96.1 and a +16.9 net rating with Gobert on the floor.
He often is overlooked when we discuss the upper echelon of talent in the league. But when he is healthy, few players have the ability to change a game quite like Rudy Gobert.
In addition to being one of the league’s elite defensive players, he is an efficient finisher in the pick and roll. Plus, he has converted nearly 70 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket throughout his career.
While the game has become more perimeter-orientated, the gravity of a good pick and roll threat still has significant value. Even Houston, with the league’s second most efficient offense, has Clint Capela setting screens and drawing attention from his rim running. Defenses are forced to tag the role man, which creates opportunities for outside shots.
Like the Rockets did after McGrady, the Jazz are conducting a rebuild on the fly. The Hayward era didn’t turn out as planned, but they have remained competitive and have maintained the foundations for success. They didn’t bottom out. Instead they retained Ingles, found players that match their identity, and hit on the steal of the draft in Mitchell.
Just as the roster has been resilient in dealing with injuries, the front office has shown their resilience. They are not playing in one of the league’s premier markets, but they understand the importance of maintaining a culture of winning. Even in dealing Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder, the team recognized Hood didn’t fit their plan. They recognized that with Mitchell, Hood would never get the minutes necessary to justify paying him what he’ll be paid this summer. So they found a cost-effective replacement in Crowder, that will likely do much better in a defined role with less pressure.
The Jazz have franchise cornerstones in Mitchell and Gobert, and are primed for another playoff appearance. They have shown the importance of scouting, as well as developing a strong identity as a franchise. While there are many young teams and great stories in the league, Utah has one of the best feel-good stories of the season. One that will likely culminate with another playoff appearance.