The Utah Jazz — who traded away both of their All-Star pillars, as well two more starters from multiple 50-win teams this summer — are 6-3. They’ve played the league’s 12th-hardest schedule. They have wins over the Memphis Grizzlies (twice), Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New Orleans Pelicans, all clubs various folks expected to contend for homecourt advantage in a packed Western Conference this season. They’re ninth in net rating (plus-2.5, according to Cleaning The Glass). They’re the West’s No. 3 seed through two weeks. And I think they’re for real.
I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of maintaining 55-win pace en route to a top-three seed. But if the Jazz so choose, the playoffs and/or play-in tournament are a legitimate outcome. Maybe injuries hit or the allure of a lofty draft pick begins to dominate their visions. Perhaps teams with higher immediate aspirations present a considerable trade package to acquire Utah’s integral players. The depth beyond their top-8 is pretty limited, too. Yet that top-8 of Mike Conley Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, Kelly Olynyk, Collin Sexton, Malik Beasley, and Rudy Gay is quite serviceable.
Cohesion and a slew of good NBA players can be a recipe for regular season prosperity. The Grizzlies rode those factors to 56 victories last season. Utah doesn’t have the high-end talent like Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., so that level of success is likely irreplicable at the moment.
The general framework remains the same, though, and the Jazz’s synergy, despite the majority of the rotation being (relative) strangers a few months ago, is already there. A ton of teams, even ones who played together last season, are struggling to achieve that. Utah has fast-tracked chemistry thus far and is parlaying it into wins.
I guess dealing a pair of stars on long-term contracts returns quite the cast of solid NBA contributors. Pairing them with a Gregg Popovich acolyte at head coach in Will Hardy, who is well regarded around the Association, only heightens the choices of this ensemble. Hardy, by the way, has impressed to open his tenure as a lead man.
Utah’s foremost asset is the number of dudes on the roster who are dribbling and shooting threats. All of Conley, Clarkson, Markkanen, Olynyk, and Sexton meet this criteria. Beasley is more off-ball shooting dynamo than all-around weapon, but he is not inept putting the ball on the deck occasionally. Conley remains a witty ball-screen playmaker, netting pull-ups or floaters and spraying passes out to the Jazz’s bevvy of shooters. He just consistently makes beneficial decisions.
Last season, Vanderbilt experienced his best NBA campaign in Minnesota, which stationed four proficient floor-spacers around him. Utah’s maintained that dynamic, anchoring Conley, Clarkson, Markkanen, and Olynyk alongside him in the starting unit. That four-out approach stretches defenses thin, enables Vanderbilt’s cutting and offensive rebounding, and invites Hardy to craft some creative offensive sets.
The possibilities are vast when four players can shoot and attack closeouts. Hardy is taking advantage. Everyone involved in most of the actions he diagrams can facilitate the possession, and it’s flustering defenses. Confusion fuels this bucket, but the theme of release valves at either juncture is prevalent.
Or, something like this, where Utah flows from option to option, comfortable knowing that anyone can catalyze the offense. Points are not produced on the play, though the process is highly encouraging and Vanderbilt does draw a foul at the tail end.
Utah's offense has so many moving parts. The benefits of their overflow of shooting and ball-handling, which produces some really cool actions pic.twitter.com/cLLrL863Yr
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 3, 2022
Whew, there’s a lot going on. It’s a rare luxury to have so many legitimate shooters who double as capable of burning closeouts off the bounce. The Jazz may not have a bona fide All-Star to pilot a postseason run, yet an ingenuitive offense that spotlights everything their personnel offers helps mitigate that absence.
They’re third in three-point rate (.413), fourth in offensive rebounding (31.5 percent, shout out, Jarred Vanderbilt), and sixth in assist rate (66.8). Beyond Clarkson and Sexton, dribble penetration is a weakness, so the solution is to center a scheme that prioritizes long balls and movement. Although they’re only 14th in offensive rating, the foundation is commendable. That placement speaks more to Utah missing a top-tier initiator and serves as a testament to the collective talent of its rotation and Hardy.
Their 27th-ranked turnover rate is another wart. This team gives the ball away frequently and costs itself opportunities; the unfamiliarity playing together rears its head here. Defensively, they switch regularly to prevent triples, which has led to the sixth-lowest opposing three-point rate. But the insufficient wing depth and size on the interior present looming problems.
They’re 29th in defensive rebounding (67.2 percent) and 27th in opposing rim frequency (38.3 percent). The lack of size inside is apparent on film and these data points are easy to recognize as a result. How they fare Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, who lead the NBA in rim frequency (43 percent) and are headlined by the paint connoisseurs LeBron James and Anthony Davis, will be worth following.
Utah’s offense might fizzle out and the defensive sore spots could be increasingly exploited. Conley being the best all-around handler in the half-court, given his age (35) and injury history as a 6’1 guard over the past few seasons, is slightly worrying. Again, the unproven young talent behind its top provides moments for pause, as there isn’t much flexibility if someone suffers a notable injury. Come trade deadline, the long view could override the short-term prospects within the front office.
Regardless, the Jazz, as currently constructed, are playing a style that’s not only fun to watch, but a style conducive to wins. That’s not changing any time soon either. The Jazz have staying power in the playoff race … as long as they wish to keep it that way.