What if I told you there was an NBA team over the past five games that was 5-0 while having a rookie do most of the heavy lifting?
What if I told you a point guard that was known for bad shooting was fueling their improvement while having a 62% TS% and 56% EFG%?
What if I told you the best defense in the league over the past seven games wasn’t found in Golden State, San Antonio, or Boston?
What if I told you there was a team completely overhauling itself midseason and could be a problem in the playoffs, but only if it could surge fast enough to get back into the playoff race?
What if I told you the best team in the NBA right now is 24-28?
That team is the Utah Jazz and they defy all superlatives at the moment.
If you go back about eight games this Utah squad was 18-26. They were as many games out of having the number one odds in the lottery as they were of being in the playoff race—not the playoffs, the playoff race. Their best player Donovan Mitchell was racking up big time stats, but the rest of the roster was out of sorts. Derrick Favors was mentioned daily in trade rumors. Ricky Rubio had effectively played himself out of the starting position while he struggled to learn Quin Snyder’s advantage basketball system. Rodney Hood was feast or famine. Rudy Gobert was absent from the floor due to a knee injury. Joe Ingles was passing up wide open shots. Ekpe Udoh was Utah’s best big man on the floor some games. Jonas Jerebko was Utah’s starting four. Joe Johnson looked like Father Time had finally caught up to him.
The Jazz season looked lost just three weeks before the trade deadline. The answer was clear. It was time to throw in the towel, trade their best and expiring assets that were not foundational pieces, and find a way to angle themselves for a high draft pick ... until it wasn’t.
The next game Rudy Gobert returned and this time he looked like the Rudy Gobert of last season. The Utah Jazz’s defense suddenly received a boost from Gobert’s defense of the paint. Utah’s perimeter defense was able to create havoc and create more turnover opportunities knowing that Gobert had its back. Utah over its past 7 games has the 7th highest average points off turnovers. One that will stick in everybody’s mind was Royce O’Neale’s steal in the closing minutes of the San Antonio game that put the game out of reach of San Antonio just as they were making a run.
With Utah’s defense forcing more misses, Ricky Rubio started running more in transition. Utah went from being the slowest offense in the league at the beginning of the year to the ninth fastest. They are averaging 100.37 possessions a game. In October, they averaged 96, dead last. This type of ramp up is insane. This is the type of change that happens in an offseason, but it’s happening midseason. Ricky Rubio loves to push the pace and with his comfort level with his teammates increasing he’s been able to know where his teammates like to go and anticipate those passes.
We used to attribute the Jazz’s desire to play slow to Rudy Gobert. That they needed to slow it down to not cannibalize his defense prowess, but instead the Jazz are one of the best defensive teams in the league right now AND they’re playing faster. This has allowed Utah’s offense to get easier baskets which helps when you don’t have as much elite offensive talent. We’re now finding out that Utah can be an elite defensive team while playing fast with the right defensive personnel on the perimeter.
Speaking of elite offensive talent, the two-time Rookie of the Month Donovan Mitchell over this stretch has been in a league of his own. Here’s his per game numbers over this stretch: 22 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals while shooting 44% from three. For those wondering at home, Michael Jordan didn’t shoot that well from three his rookie year. Donovan Mitchell’s continued rise has put him in a tier that previous to Mitchell was only occupied by His Airness. He just notched his second 40 point game before the All-Star break of his rookie season; something only Michael Jordan had done previously.
The combo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is finally working. The death trio lineup of Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is now a +22.3 in 87 minutes played together over the last 7 games. Before then it was the worst trio in the NBA. The increased pace is helping them, but the improved defense is the catalyst. When those three share the court the Jazz have a defensive rating of 91.8. If you’ve noticed ... the rumors flying around a Derrick Favors trade have quieted down in recent weeks ... the reasoning? That improvement. The Utah Jazz might have tuned this lineup. Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey’s patience with this lineup is paying off.
If the Utah Jazz make the playoffs, Dennis Lindsey could be in consideration for an executive of the year award. Consider this, the Utah Jazz won in San Antonio because of the hot shooting of Ricky Rubio who was considered to be a bad shooter, a huge game from an undrafted rookie named Royce O’Neale having 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, and Raul Neto, a player Dennis Lindsey moved up to get using only cash considerations, scoring 12 points while playing shooting guard. The best part of that equation this season is Royce O’Neale. If Donovan Mitchell hadn’t have been drafted by the Utah Jazz, we’d be falling over ourselves to talk about Royce O’Neale. It seems silly that in preseason we were even having a fair discussion as to whether Utah should keep Joel Bolomboy or Royce O’Neale. Since the return of Gobert, Royce has averaged nearly 9 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal. To put that in perspective, Gordon Hayward averaged 5 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist his entire rookie year. Royce O’Neale is just off those same numbers for the season and he’s getting better.
Quin Snyder’s patience in Ricky Rubio is finally paying off. Quin Snyder is probably one of the best, if not the best, developer in talent in the NBA next to Boston’s Brad Stevens and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Ricky Rubio since Gobert returned is averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and less than 3 turnovers a game. He has a net rating of +19.5 and a defensive rating of 92.2. He’s locking down on the perimeter like a point guard version of Rudy Gobert. His passing confidence is back and its fueling his hot shooting. Over the past 7 games, Ricky Rubio is shooting 50% from three. That’s not a typo. It appears he finally has an arc to his shot. The Utah Jazz coaching staff has been putting in major work with him, and it’s paying off.
This whole turnaround has coincided with Rudy Gobert’s return. If you were to look at Rudy’s stat line, you would be forgiven if you thought it was ho-hum: 12 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 3 blocks a game. But dig into what happens when he’s on the court and the fun begins. The Jazz are playing at a pace of 100 possessions per game when he’s on the court. His usage rate is down this season. The death lineup of himself, Favors, and Rubio now spells death for the opposing team. He’s closing down lanes and opposing teams are testing the Utah Jazz in the paint less often. This has opened up Utah to gambling in passing lanes more often. Royce O’Neale’s steal in the closing minutes in San Antonio doesn’t happen if he doesn’t have confidence that the Stifle Tower has his back.
So with all of these improvements, Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey have their fingerprints all over them. Royce O’Neale was found by Dennis Lindsey as an undrafted free agents. Donovan Mitchell traded for in the draft. Ricky Rubio’s improved jump shot and play? The coaching staff and Rubio’s hard work. The Utah Jazz had the confidence to give Ingles a big contract regardless of the future of Gordon Hayward. Derrick Favors has fought all the trade rumors and is putting in big time minutes now that he’s fully healthy. Those two, if the Jazz make the playoffs, deserve to be in every consideration for Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. They’re doing this after losing their best two offensive players to free agency.
The best team in the NBA right now is found in the Wasatch Front and is 24-28, but give them a couple weeks and they’ll probably be above .500. We have no reason to doubt them right now because they’ve battled through every other adversity. Why not this one?