It’s time to get excited about the Utah Jazz, folks. Perhaps you haven’t paid as much attention to your hometown NBA team the past couple of years, what with a pandemic and a protest or two to worry about. Start now.
The Jazz finished the 2020-21 regular season with a 52-20 record, alone at the top of the league for the first time in franchise history. They easily dispatched their first-round opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, 4-1, and are favored to win their second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers. That best-of-7 series starts this Tuesday in Salt Lake.
Win this round—not a given against the Clippers, led by perennial All-Star Kawhi Leonard—and the Jazz will return to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2007. Win there and Salt Lake City might host NBA Finals games for the first time since Michael Jordan sank his iconic jumper to defeat the Jazz in 1998.
These statements are not just blind optimism. The Jazz are currently the favorite to come out of the West and play in the NBA Finals (slated to begin July 8) according to oddsmakers. In fact, if you believe the prognosticators, only the Brooklyn Nets are more likely to win the Whole Freaking Enchilada. Gulp.
Utah basketball fans have been lucky—the team almost always makes the playoffs and has never suffered an extended downturn—but the current squad is the most loaded since the team’s late 1990s heyday when an aging John Stockton and Karl Malone carried the team to two unsuccessful but thrilling Finals against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
The current roster is led by much younger stars—guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert lead the team, supported by veteran point guard Mike Conley and a bevy of sharpshooting wings.
Mitchell is a gift from the basketball gods, a dynamic star who the Jazz chose with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft. The 6-foot-1 guard is not only a deadly accurate 3-point shooter but also a relentless driver, capable of bursting to the rim and banking in shots from unexpected angles. Squint your eyes slightly, and the best version of Donovan—who has elevated his game for the playoffs every year he’s been in the league—reminds one of all-time great Dwyane Wade, who coincidentally recently become a minority owner of the Jazz.
And Mitchell isn’t even the Jazz’ most valuable player if you believe the numbers. That would be dominating center Gobert, aka the Stifle Tower, now in his eighth year from France. Gobert is about to be named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for the third year. The strutting Frenchmen’s length and athleticism dissuades other teams from even trying to score at the rim, taking away their most efficient weapons. On offense, Gobert sets hard picks and then cuts to the rim for dunks and layups.
All is not perfect in Jazzland: The team’s third key player, Mike Conley, is injured. He will likely miss at least the first game or two of the Clippers series with a mild hamstring strain. However, when healthy (knock on wood), Conley has been outstanding this year. He scores efficiently from 3 and via crafty floaters in the lane, while also initiating the team’s offense. Conley, who the Jazz acquired via trade two years ago, more than deserved his first-ever All-Star berth this past season.
The team is not just good, but deep: There’s Bojan Bogdanovic, aka Bogey, a sharpshooting Croatian forward. Royce O’Neale, the team’s best wing defender, drains open 3-point shots. A fan favorite is Australian wing Joe Ingles, a crafty shooter and chatty instigator who is one of the team’s best passers. And that’s not all! Gunner wing Jordan Clarkson was so good at scoring as a backup this past year he was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. Rounding out the rotation are Gobert’s backup, long-time Jazzman Derrick Favors, and wing Georges Niang, who is delightfully nicknamed “Minivan” for his workmanlike contributions to the team and his, uh, boxy physique.
When everything goes right—which it did most of this past year—the Jazz won games easily, thanks to a stifling defense led by Gobert and a high-scoring offense defined by both slashing drives from Mitchell, Conley and Clarkson and sharp passes that whip around the perimeter to wide-open shooters.
Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. The Jazz are the only team in the NBA this season with a top-5 offense (#3) and defense (#4) according to advanced efficiency stats. History tells us that teams that are that good on both ends of the floor compete for titles.
Fired up yet? You should be. However, the path to the Finals will not be easy.
Get past the Clippers—who feature not just former Finals MVP Leonard but also regular All Star Paul George—and the Jazz will face either the Phoenix Suns, who had the second-best record in the league, or the Denver Nuggets, led by this year’s presumptive league MVP, crafty center Nikola Jokic. Any of four teams may come out of the East to face the West’s best in the Finals, but the most likely opponent is the Brooklyn Nets, led by the terrifying trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
So, probably not time quite yet to diagram the parade route in Salt Lake City. But, don’t sleep on this team either. The NBA’s best during the regular season resided here in Utah, and it’s not insane to dream of our state’s first-ever title team.
Matt Pacenza teaches English at Judge Memorial Catholic High School. He is a long-time writer, editor and teacher.