Like many teams in this pandemic-challenged NBA season, the Utah Jazz began the 2020-21 campaign on a relatively uninspiring note. The Jazz were never in an unstable position, even after posting a 4-4 record, but after massive contractual investments in both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, relative stability isn’t quite enough for Utah. With that said, the last five games have flashed some of the considerable upside Quin Snyder’s team possesses.
The Jazz have won five in a row, outscoring opponents by a blistering 16.6 points per 100 possession during the streak. Most winning streaks are accompanied by off-the-charts numbers, but Utah is scoring at a rate of more than 1.16 points per possession in the last five. Furthermore, the Jazz began their run with an impressive road win over the Milwaukee Bucks and knocked off the Denver Nuggets on the road on Sunday.
As the dust settles from that explosion, Utah holds a +5.1 net rating, good for a top-five mark in the NBA, and the Jazz boast top-10 marks in both offensive and defensive rating. Offensively, the Jazz are making gains on the glass, pulling down almost 30 percent of their own misses, and they have been fantastic with Mike Conley and/or Jordan Clarkson on the court to provide support to the team’s stars.
On the other end, Utah’s defense has been unquestionably elite, especially in non-garbage time situations. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Jazz are allowing 1.06 points per possession when removing garbage time, and that overall mark is bolstered by league-leading marks in effective field goal percentage allowed (49.8 percent) and free throw rate allowed (14.0 percent). Gobert’s presence almost singlehandedly ensures that the Jazz are potent defensively, with Utah allowing 100.8 points per 100 possessions, but it is also a team-wide effort and Snyder has the club firing on all cylinders.
Scarily, Utah is 9-4 overall, even after a slow start from Mitchell. Granted, he is breaking out with 25.3 points per game and 42.6 percent from three-point range in the last eight games, but Utah has been quite good even without outlier production from their leaders. It must be noted that the Jazz have avoided injury or protocol-related absences for the most part, though Joe Ingles is currently sidelined. Utah does have a leg up over some of their direct competition with the cohesion that results from bringing the band back for another run, but the Jazz are flatly playing at an elite level in the recent past.
Where do the Jazz stack up against the rest of the NBA in mid-January? Let’s take a glance at this week’s DIME power rankings.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (11-4, Last week — 1st)
The Lakers blew a 19-point advantage at home against the Warriors. For most teams, that might be enough to drop from the top spot but, if we’re being honest, Los Angeles is still the top team since they have the best record and the best net rating (+10.0) in the NBA. If second half implosions become a regular occurrence, perhaps we’ll re-evaluate, but that doesn’t seem likely.
2. L.A. Clippers (10-4, Last week — 4th)
The Clippers have won four in a row. The Clippers have won their last two games by 71 total points. L.A. is scorching on offense and, at least when the team’s best players on the floor, the defense won’t be a concern. They are in good shape.
3. Utah Jazz (9-4, Last week — 7th)
Utah isn’t as good as the Clippers and Lakers but, with how they’ve been playing, this feels just right.
4. Brooklyn Nets (9-6, Last week — 11th)
The James Harden era is underway and it began on a positive note. Brooklyn is in the midst of a four-game winning streak, even if it began before Harden arrived, and the Nets knocked off the Bucks on national TV on Monday evening. Kyrie Irving isn’t back yet, but everyone is talking about the Nets, and with good reason.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (9-5, Last week — 2nd)
Mike Budenholzer’s team has better peripherals than the Nets, including the No. 1 mark in offensive rating (117.7) and the No. 2 net rating, trailing only the Lakers. The Bucks did just lose a nail-biter to the Nets, though, so Brooklyn wins something of a tiebreaker this week. Fear not, Milwaukee fans, your team is good.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (9-5, Last week — 5th)
Given how short-handed the 76ers have been for a relatively long period, being 9-5 is a success. They also have a (very) interesting matchup on the horizon against a conference opponent on Wednesday and that opponent is the Boston Celtics.
7. Boston Celtics (8-4, Last week — 3rd)
Speaking of the Celtics, Boston is punished in the rankings for a rather stunning 30-point loss to the Knicks over the weekend. It feels like that was an outlier, both because of this season and the fact that it was a midday tip-off, but whew, that was ugly.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (7-6, Last week — 24th)
As noted above, the Jazz have won five in a row and that is the longest active winning streak in the NBA. Memphis is matching Utah, though, and the Grizzlies should be credited for weathering an injury storm early in the season. They likely aren’t a top-eight team in practical terms, but it’s been an encouraging run for Memphis.
9. Phoenix Suns (7-5, Last week — 8th)
The Suns had an entire homestand wiped out by postponements before returning to action in Memphis on MLK Day. That was a close loss to the Grizzlies but, in truth, there isn’t much to take away on the court from the last week-plus for Chris Paul, Devin Booker and company.
10. Portland Trail Blazers (8-6, Last week — 6th)
Wins and losses always matter, but the big news for Portland this week is the injury to CJ McCollum. McCollum was playing the best basketball of his career before suffering a hairline fracture in his foot against the Hawks on Saturday night and, in the first game without, Portland was walloped by San Antonio at home. It will be interesting to see how the Blazers hold up without both McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, with all kinds of pressure on Damian Lillard to carry the ship.
11. Golden State Warriors (7-6, Last week — 13th)
Monday night’s win over the Lakers was a lot of fun for the Warriors. It is still tough to decipher just how good Golden State is, especially when evaluating their advanced numbers, but they are capable of explosions behind Stephen Curry. That much is clear.
12. Indiana Pacers (8-5, Last week — 12th)
Indiana picked up a pair of very good road wins over Golden State and Portland this week. Then, they got throttled by a 33-point margin against the Clippers. That feels like a break-even week, but with the absences mounting with Caris LeVert and the news of Myles Turner having a small fracture in his hand, there is some concern in Indiana.
13. San Antonio Spurs (8-6, Last week — 20th)
The Spurs are better than expected. Sometimes, it’s just good to say things simply. San Antonio is outscoring its opponents for the season, and they’ve largely done with LaMarcus Aldridge struggling. They have depth. They are well-coached. They have pretty good talent. It’s a solid recipe, even if one without immense overall upside.
14. Denver Nuggets (6-7, Last week — 9th)
There isn’t anything jarring about losing to the Nets and Jazz this week, but Denver just has to start winning games at some point. It’s early, but the Nuggets are under .500 and still rocking the 25th-best defense in the NBA. On the flip side, Denver does have a +2.9 net rating and Nikola Jokic has been lights-out.
15. Toronto Raptors (5-8, Last week — 23rd)
Toronto finally woke up this week, winning all three games. It wasn’t a full-blown gauntlet from a schedule standpoint, but the Raptors scored 1.14 points per possession and looked the part of a good team again. They’ll put that to the test against Miami on Wednesday.
16. Atlanta Hawks (6-7, Last week — 17th)
Atlanta is just trying to hang around at this point. Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kris Dunn are out, with Cam Reddish missing the last two games as well. There wasn’t a lot to be impressed by with the Hawks this week, but they got a win they needed on Monday over the shorthanded Wolves.
17. Dallas Mavericks (6-7, Last week — 10th)
Kristaps Porzingis is back and the Mavericks are… worse? Okay, that probably isn’t true, but Dallas is on a three-game losing streak. Perhaps the craziest part of their season is the fact that the Mavericks are in the bottom-10 offensively. This isn’t the exact same group that led the league in offense last season, but most of the pieces are the same and the results have been puzzling.
18. Miami Heat (5-7, Last week — 16th)
The Heat were close to falling even further this week, but they held on and beat the Pistons in a rematch on Monday. Still, Miami has been shaky to this point, and there is probably a discussion to be had about how good they really are right now. There is some benefit of the doubt after last season, but it won’t last forever.
19. New Orleans Pelicans (5-7, Last week — 21st)
New Orleans badly needed to stop the bleeding after five straight losses, and they did it on the road in Sacramento on Monday. The team’s defense has predictably improved under Stan Van Gundy but, through 12 games, New Orleans is a below-average offensive squad. That isn’t going to work as a formula with their roster.
20. Chicago Bulls (6-8, Last week — 28th)
Chicago just beat Dallas by double-digits and followed it up by beating Houston. The Bulls are also up to 22nd in net rating after an unequivocally dreadful start. It wouldn’t be wise to completely ignore the start of the season but, since then, Chicago’s been fine.
21. Cleveland Cavaliers (6-7, Last week — 22nd)
If you told me that the Cavs would have the worst offensive rating in the NBA by a wide margin after 13 games, there is no way I’d predict a 6-7 record. None. Zero. But, hey, it happened.
22. New York Knicks (7-8, Last week — 27th)
New York annihilated Boston and that is the biggest reason for their five-spot jump this week. The Knicks continue to be very Knicks-y, but in an improved way under Tom Thibodeau. They aren’t a pushover, if nothing else.
23. Charlotte Hornets (6-8, Last week — 14th)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Hornets losing the last three games when considering opponent. Charlotte lost to Toronto (twice) on the road, and Dallas at home. On to next week.
24. Houston Rockets (4-8, Last week — 19th)
The Rockets are 2-6 in the last eight and, in the middle, their franchise changed considerably with the Harden trade. It is far too early to judge the new iteration, but the team’s season-long results aren’t very good.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-6, Last week — 15th)
Reality returned for the Thunder this week in the form of a 1-2 record and some ugly peripheral numbers. Broadly speaking, OKC being 6-6 is still a big win in terms of results, but they are 28th in net rating. That might be more indicative.
26. Washington Wizards (3-8, Last week — 26th)
It’s impossible to rank Washington. The Wizards have the third-worst record in the league, but they are 17th (!) in net rating. From there, they haven’t played a game in more than a week. As such, they’re holding steady for now.
27. Orlando Magic (6-8, Last week — 18th)
Roster availability issues have caught up to the Magic. Orlando has the longest losing streak in the league at six and, over that time frame, the Magic have been outscored by a whopping 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Nikola Vucevic can’t do everything, and the supporting cast is banged-up and/or struggling.
28. Sacramento Kings (5-9, Last week — 25th)
I truly believe the Kings are better than this, but the defense has been flatly atrocious. Sacramento’s defensive rating is 120.5 through 14 games and, while that is unsustainable for basically any team, it certainly explains the 5-9 record and the 0-3 week.
29. Detroit Pistons (3-10, Last week — 29th)
It wasn’t the worst week for the Pistons. Detroit went on the road and beat Miami, then followed it up by keeping it close against the Heat again on Monday. Alas, this is still the first ten-loss team in the league and they are a bottom-tier team on both ends.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-9, Last week — 30th)
Due to a postponement, the Wolved played only two games this week. Minnesota lost both by double-digits and the unfortunate absence of Karl-Anthony Towns means the roster is even shakier than it was a week ago. The Wolves have the worst peripherals in the league and, as of Tuesday, they are also tied for the league low with three wins.