The Utah Jazz are on one heckuva ride. They’re winners of 11 straight games. Their rookie phenom was the talk of All-Star weekend and won the Dunk Contest. They appear to have rehabbed Ricky Rubio’s shooting. They found an undrafted rookie who has produced like a 1st round draft pick. They landed Jae Crowder while shedding salary. Now they are knocking on the door to the playoff race and don’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. Those who are on the outside looking in at the Utah Jazz’s recent success will hastily attribute it all to Utah’s star rookie, Donovan Mitchell, but there are much bigger and important developments at play with this win streak.
Prior to Utah’s turnaround toward the end of January, Utah went through their refiner’s fire of December. They faced the league’s most difficult schedule while battling injuries. Most importantly, they were without Rudy Gobert. Somehow during that stretch, most of us had lost sight of how important Rudy had been. Gobert’s impact on the court is similar to the impact of the Eye of Sauron. Even if you can’t see the Eye of Sauron, Sauron is always watching. Without Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz’s interior defense turned into a layup line. Prior to December they had one of the top 10 defenses in the league.
Here’s some key defensive rankings for Utah in December without Rudy Gobert:
- Defensive Rating - 23rd
- Blocks - 28th
- Opponent Shooting % - 22nd
- Opponent 3 Point % - 23rd
- Opponent Rebounds - 21st
- Opponent’s Points in the Paint - 19th
Compare that to Utah’s win streak
- Defensive Rating - 1st
- Blocks - 8th
- Opponent Shooting % - 3rd
- Opponent 3 Point % - 2nd
- Opponent Rebounds - 1st
- Opponent’s Points in the Paint - 15th
The only outlier is opponent’s points in the paint, but it’s a result of their opponent’s struggling from the 3 point line and forcing up difficult shots against the reinvigorated Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Speaking of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, their pairing is experiencing a renaissance. Through January, their pairing was one of the worst duos in the league. If you added Ricky Rubio to the group, it was an utter nightmare when it came to +/-. Now when Gobert and Favors take the court together they post a +/- of +24.0. Who would have dreamed up this scenario?
What’s even more amazing about this 11 game win streak is while Rudy Gobert is dominating the paint like the All-NBA center of last year, Derrick Favors is fueling the Jazz from behind the scenes. While Donovan Mitchell is the tip of the spear, Derrick Favors is the momentum pushing it. Derrick Favors is part of four out of Utah’s five most productive duos in Net Rating. Utah’s turnaround is as much about Rudy Gobert returning to the lineup from injury as it’s about Derrick Favors looking like pre-injury Favors. During this 11 game win streak Derrick Favors is averaging 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks. What’s so amazing about that stat line is he’s doing that in only 28 minutes. His PER 36 stats put him closer to 16 points and 11 rebounds. Favors is having a career year even if his per game stats don’t show it. His shooting percentages are up, his per minute production is up, and he’s adapting his game to play effectively with Gobert. He has adapted. The contract year motivation can’t hurt either.
Utah is now able to pair an evolved Derrick Favors 2.0 with their Stifle Tower and reap the benefits. It’s no surprise that Utah has played better defensive since Rudy Gobert returned. It’s just surprising that they have played as the league’s best defense against the league’s best teams. The Jazz haven’t just built up a paper tiger against a cupcake schedule. Their league best defensive rating over the past 11 games has come against the Warriors, Spurs, Raptors, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and Pistons.
One stat that I conveniently left out during the defensive rankings was steals. Utah even during December ranked among the best teams in creating turnovers. Yet Utah was one of the slowest teams in the league in terms of pace. With the return of Rudy Gobert, Utah has turned up the speed and now ranks near the middle of the pack. For the common NBA fan, that may not be such a dramatic increase, but for the Utah Jazz that’s the equivalent of ludicrous speed. When the Jazz get a turnover off a block or a steal, they RUN. Utah unleashes its youthful backcourt and lets them go.
Utah’s defense has allowed Rubio’s passing to get the space it so richly deserved. Utah’s defense allows for show stopping highlights from Donovan Mitchell. Utah’s defense allows for Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles to get their easy threes in transition. Utah’s defense makes it easier for an offensively challenged team like Utah to compete in the offensive arms race of the NBA. Is it any wonder that as Utah’s defense had turned it up a notch their offense has suddenly catapulted to one of the top 10 offenses in the league during their win streak?
Utah’s Wasatch Front of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors is back, but it’s different now. It’s not like the first advent back in 2014 that was built on slowly grinding a team into submission. It’s now retooled for the modern NBA, and it’s thriving.