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Are the Utah Jazz better than they were last year?

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Were the Utah Jazz better with Gordon Hayward or are they better with Donovan Mitchell?

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With Friday’s 96-91 Game 6 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 2017-18 Utah Jazz have gotten at least as far as the 2016-17 Jazz, and they did it in one fewer game.

“I mean, it’s unreal,” Joe Ingles told AT&T SportsNet’s Kristen Kenney, when asked about this year’s team. “It’s one of the best group of guys I’ve ever been with. We play for each other. We play for these guys [the fans]. Not much more to say. It’s an unbelievable group.”

Ingles summed up the feelings of a lot of Jazz fans with that walkoff interview. And this “unbelievable group” has more than healed the hearts of thousands who felt spurned following Gordon Hayward’s decision to bolt for Boston last summer.

As Utah now prepares to face the league’s overall No. 1 seed in the second round for the second year in a row, a thought arises: Which Utah Jazz squad is better?

The 2016-17 Jazz, led by Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Rudy Gobert? Or, the 2017-18 iteration, which still had Gobert, but leaned more heavily on Ingles, rookie Donovan Mitchell and new point guard Ricky Rubio?

TALE OF THE TAPE

Sure, last year’s Jazz had a better overall record and Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions), but as you probably already know, that doesn’t always tell the entire story.

This year’s squad had more “expected” wins, a number Basketball Reference gets to with a formula that looks at point differentials over the course of NBA history. It also topped the 2016-17 squad in Simple Rating System (SRS), which combines point differential and strength of schedule into one number.

Simply put, the 2017-18 Jazz put up roughly the same Net Rating against a more difficult schedule than the 2016-17 club.

LEADING SCORERS

Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick. Gordon Hayward was ridiculous last season. He averaged 21.9 points with a true shooting percentage (TS%) of .595. His Offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) of 4.2 ranked 18th.

And while you’d be pretty hard-pressed to come up with an argument that Mitchell has a lower ceiling than Hayward, you also can’t really say his rookie campaign was objectively better than last season’s offensive alpha.

It’s not really pertinent to this debate, but the ages on that chart are worth pointing out. Mitchell wasn’t as efficient as Hayward, but he’s five years his junior. And for a rookie to take on the responsibility of leading scorer, and do so for a playoff team, is rare.

If you’re adding a forward-looking spin to the discussion, one leading scorer who’s 21, under team control for at least four years, and has been compared to Dwyane Wade and Damian Lillard could top a current All-Star who’s about to hit free agency and has his eyes on more national attention.

Also, shout out to Mitchell for generating his own national attention.

POINT GUARDS

This part of the debate comes down to two questions: How important is availability? And when do you prefer your hot streaks?

Rubio played in 77 games this season. George Hill played in 49 for the 2016-17 team.

Rubio averaged 16 points, 6.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds, with a .588 TS% from January 24 (this season’s magic date) till the end of the season. Hill averaged 16 points 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds, with a .585 TS% over the same stretch of the 2016-17 campaign.

And while Hill was essentially tailor-made for Quin Snyder’s system (which calls on point guards to cede a lot of the ballhandling to wings and be able to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers), Rubio had to overhaul his game on the fly.

By the end of this season, Rubio was scoring as much and as efficiently as Hill, while dishing out two more assists and grabbing two more rebounds.

INTERNAL DEVELOPMENT

Plenty of the players on this year’s Jazz were also on last year’s team. And when Hayward left, it became incumbent upon the holdovers to jump up a level.

Joe Ingles’ usage percentage (USG%) went up two percent, and somehow his TS% did too (.604 to .623). His assist percentage (AST%) jumped nearly six points. His OBPM more than doubled. And his scoring average went up more than four points.

Then, there’s Derrick Favors. After battling injuries throughout 2016-17, Favors quietly had a top-50 season in 2017-18. He was 42nd in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), 37th in Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and 27th in Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48).

From January 24 on, Utah allowed just 95.1 points and outscored opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions when Favors shared the floor with Gobert. The same duo had a 10.7 Net Rating last season. After Rubio and the rest of the team figured out how to play with each other in Snyder’s system, the Wasatch Front(court) became more dominant than ever before.

Next, general manager Dennis Lindsey manufactured a little more internal development by trading Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder.

Hood was clearly a better scorer than Crowder, but his 2016-17 BPM of minus-2 was slightly worse than Crowder’s Jazz-only BPM of minus-1.6. The defensive upgrade more than made up for the loss of pull-up jumpers.

Up next: Alec Burks, one of the heroes of Friday’s Game 6. He played nearly twice as many minutes this season and improved upon his BPM, WS/48, PER and TS%. He also had an eight-game stretch early in the season, when almost everyone else seemed lost, in which he averaged 19.3 points and 4.4 rebounds, with a .655 TS%.

And finally, there’s Dante Exum. In just 14 games, he had more Wins Over Replacement Player and nearly as many Win Shares as he did last season. His PER nearly doubled. His WS/48 nearly tripled. And his Box Plus-Minus was better than replacement level (minus-two) for the first time in his career.

ROLE PLAYERS

Hayward’s departure was the biggest shakeup between these two teams, but there was actually fairly significant turnover all over the roster. Basketball Reference defines roster continuity as “the % of a team’s regular season minutes that were filled by players from the previous season’s roster.”

Utah’s continuity was just 51 percent. The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings were the only teams with lower percentages.

That means plenty of the role player minutes were filled by new guys. And honestly, the word “filled” probably undersells Ekpe Udoh, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Royce O’Neale, four more stellar finds by Lindsey.

THE CONSTANT

Over the last four years, there seems to be one constant through everything that’s happened with the Jazz: Rudy Gobert.

Among players with at least 4,000 minutes since the 2014-15 campaign, Gobert is first (by a wide margin) in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM), third in Defensive Win Shares per 48 Minutes (DWS/48), third in block percentage (BLK%) and sixth in rebounding percentage (REB%). He has ruled ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) for each of the last two seasons.

Basically, for four straight years, Utah has been the pinnacle of NBA defense as long as Gobert’s on the floor.

If we’re talking about the differences between the 2016-17 Jazz and the 2017-18 Jazz, you’ll probably have to look somewhere other than Gobert.

THE VERDICT

Yes, last year’s Jazz had three more wins in the regular season. Hayward had a more efficient offensive season than anyone on this year’s team.

But an insane peak (those post-January 24 games) from the 2017-18 squad pulled its SRS and expected wins to higher levels. Several players who were on both teams improved. New role players outperformed old ones.

And perhaps most important, this team has almost-palpable chemistry. You can hear it, or even feel it, in postgame interviews like the one Ingles gave after Game 6. As fun as it is to look at numbers, the deciding factor in this debate might be the intangibles.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.