The Utah Jazz are in the middle of another first round series, this one much less expected than the last.
After a long and thoughtful rebuild, the Jazz were well on their way to being a contending force in the Western Conference last year. Starting partially in 2011 with the Deron Williams trade, then definitively in 2013 after the departures of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, the Jazz had been trying to rebuild themselves into a competitive, contending basketball team.
This long rebuild resulted in a starting lineup of George Hill, Joe Ingles, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. The key features off the bench were Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson. This group was a combination of draft picks, trades, and free agent signings that resulted in a very competitive roster finally getting the Utah Jazz back into the playoffs. The front office had done most everything right with a patient rebuild and were about to reap the rewards.
And then the 4th of July happened. Gordon Hayward’s departure popped a growing balloon of optimism and it appeared that the Jazz might be headed for another rebuild already. CBS Sports had a recent conversation with Dennis Lindsey about that experience:
“There’s no way around it, we were worried,” Lindsey told CBS Sports. “In those early moments when you lose a significant player, you’re afraid to think about what’s next.”
Shortly thereafter, Lindsey and Jazz coach Quin Synder, who were on the road chasing another unnamed free agent, took a flight from Washington D.C. back to Salt Lake City... In what Lindsey describes as an honest, wide-ranging conversation, they laid out something of a post-Hayward plan. It had seven open-ended points of emphasis. Questions, if you will.
”A lot was unclear, but we felt like if we could address six or certainly all seven of these points, we could still be a really good team,” Lindsey said. “If we could address three or four, that would be a good accomplishment. If it was just one or two, it was going to push us more toward a rebuild.”
“I’m not going to go point by point,” Lindsey said, “but I’ll say this: Those questions we had, we feel like we have successfully answered all seven of them.”
He apparently went on to list a few of these questions: How quickly would Donovan Mitchell turn into the premier player the Jazz thought he could be? Would Derrick Favors, who’d just endured a miserable 2016-17 season riddled by chronic knee problems, return to form? Could Rudy Gobert take another step toward stardom? Would Ricky Rubio, already seven years into his career and pretty well established as a pass-first, bad-shooting point guard, respond to some of the player development ideas Utah had for him?
Each of those questions could be (and probably will be) a full article in their own right. I won’t go into depth here, but I think we can answer those questions pretty well at their surface. Because of that success, the Utah Jazz are fighting the OKC Thunder right now for a chance to get to the second round again.
But a trip to the second round and being a true championship contender are two very different things. As much as I love this roster and team, they haven’t reached the status of championship contenders quite yet. So what does it take to be a championship contending team?
I decided to focus in on Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Net Rating to identify the typical numbers it takes to become a contending team in the NBA. These are the numbers of all teams reaching the Conference Finals since 2010:
Imagine that, the teams reaching the Conference Finals typically have a top 4 Net Rating. This goes to show, however, that there are multiple ways of getting there. I was a little surprised to see that you can get away with having an average offense or defense, as long as the other one is absolutely elite (or you have LeBron James). The best and most consistent way to reach contender status is to have a to 10 offense and a top 10 defense, with the average of this group of teams being 7th in both.
So what does that mean for the Utah Jazz? This year the Jazz had an offensive rating of 106.2, placing them right in the middle at 15th in the league. Their defensive rating of 101.6 put them as the 2nd best defensive team in the league. That defensive number likely would have been the best overall had Rudy Gobert not been injured for as many games as he was. That gives them a net rating of +4.6, which was 5th best this year behind the Houston Rockets (8.5), Golden State Warriors (8.0), Toronto Raptors (7.6), and Philadelphia 76ers (5.4).
The top 3 teams this year is true contender status if you look at the average net rating back on that table being a +6.3. But the 76ers, Jazz, Celtics (3.7), and Spurs (3.1) aren’t too far behind. While the Jazz defense might be able to improve some, that’s certainly not where Utah has the most room for growth.
If the Jazz can get continued offensive development in their group, especially from their foundation in rookie star Donovan Mitchell and DPOY Rudy Gobert, they are only 1 elite offensive player away from reaching true contender status. Hopefully the question isn’t if but when that player is obtained. I trust Dennis Lindsey can find the right addition whether it be through the draft, free agency, or trade and hope that can be done sooner rather than later.
For now, we should continue enjoying every game left this season, whether it’s only 3 more or it’s another 16 wins.