Just over a month ago, one of the big questions in the Western Conference was “What’s wrong with the Utah Jazz?” At 13-11, they looked far from being the team many expected them to be after making some big offseason additions, with a sputtering offense that simply couldn’t find its rhythm.
However, since early December there are few teams that have been as good as the Jazz, much less better, as they’ve won 10 games in a row and 15 of their last 16 contests — with the lone loss coming by three on the road in Miami. In that stretch, they’ve raised their season-long offensive rating from 106.5 to 111.3, on par with their output last year, following the lead of Donovan Mitchell, with some major assistance from Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and the added boost from the acquisition of Jordan Clarkson, who has yet to lose as a Jazz man.
Mitchell is the centerpiece of the offensive improvement in Utah, as he’s operating as the primary ball-handler in the absence of Mike Conley, who has appeared in just one game during that 16 game stretch as he battles a nagging hamstring injury. It’s not just that Mitchell is scoring more, but he’s been a much improved facilitator, something we haven’t seen him do this well and this consistently in is career. He isn’t posting gaudy assist numbers, but his assist percentage over the last 15 games has been 26.1 percent, compared to just 18.7 percent until this hot streak started. Not only is he finding teammates, but he’s doing so with great efficiency; his turnover percentage has dropped to just 9 percent, showing that he’s making good decisions (and good passes) to avoid turnovers in an expanded role as the team’s offensive initiator — as shown by the opening clips in his highlight reel from Tuesday’s win over the Nets.
📹| @spidadmitchell scored 14 in the 4th quarter
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 15, 2020
As a team, the Jazz are averaging 1.6 more assists per game in the last 15 games than they were prior to Dec. 11 (1.9 more in their last 10), and while part of that is due to hot shooting, they’re also just creating more opportunities with 1.3 more potential assists per game. That may not seem like a ton, but it’s the difference in being near the bottom of the league in assists and closer to league average during the win streak, and it shows the increased rhythm of this offense and the comfort they now seem to have with one another.
While Mitchell is the engine, the play of their two wings has likewise been a major factor in the offense taking such a massive step forward. Joe Ingles, who got off to a slow start shooting the ball, has an absurd 52.4/54/90.5 shooting split over the last 15 games, with his 54 percent clip from deep pacing the field during that span among players with more than 75 attempts. Bogdanovic has actually cooled off a touch during Utah’s streak, hitting 36.5 percent of his threes during the last 15 games, but his ability as a secondary creator has helped alleviate some of the pressure Mitchell faces as the primary scorer.
In their 15-1 stretch, Utah’s offense as a unit is putting up staggering numbers. Their 58.4 effective field goal percentage is, by far, the best in the league. Their 40.6 three point percentage is, likewise, tops in the league, aided by the offense doing a spectacular job of creating the best looks, corner threes, on a league-leading 10.7 percent of their shot attempts — which, you guessed it, leads the NBA in that span, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s not just a barrage from deep, either. They’re making 65.7 percent of their attempts at the rim over the last 16 games, good for sixth in the league, as Mitchell has seen improvement in that area and Rudy Gobert remains a monster around the rim both on putbacks and as a roll man.
Maybe most impressively, as the offense has seen this uptick, the Jazz defense has not slipped. They still have a defensive rating of 107.8, good for seventh in the league, in this 16-game stretch — which is not far off from their 106.8 DRtg for the season. They are the best team in the league in forcing teams to shoot from the least efficient areas on the floor, allowing the second fewest three-point attempts, most midrange attempts in the league, and 11th fewest rim attempts by a percentage basis in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. The result is opponents having an effective field goal percentage of 49.8 against them, third best in the NBA in that span.
When the Jazz acquired Bogdanovic and Conley this summer, they became a trendy darkhorse pick to win the West, and despite their slow start, they appear to be finding the form that so many optimists believed they could. They remain an excellent defensive team, albeit maybe no longer the league’s most elite defense, but have a more dynamic offense. It was the vision many had for this team, but that it’s happening without Conley is surprising and also poses the biggest question going forward.
Plugging Conley back in threatens to alter that rhythm and balance they’ve found, particularly with Mitchell’s role. Conley’s struggles this season have been well-documented, and how they integrate him back into the lineup is going to be fascinating to watch. Right now, you’d be hard pressed to find a team in a better groove than Utah, and trying to maintain that while working the veteran point guard back in will be a major task for Quin Snyder’s group. That said, it’s possible that it will help Conley find his rhythm too and if he can return to his Memphis form, Utah’s run to a tie for second in the West, as it stands currently, may not end there.