Can the 2017-18 Utah Jazz be the NBA title-winning 2003-04 Detroit Pistons?
Alright, just hear me out. There’s a long way to go in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. And the Jazz aren’t even favorites to get out of this round against the Houston Rockets.
But it’s only natural, once you whittle 30 teams down to eight, to start wondering which of those eight teams have a realistic path to a title.
For the Jazz, the path is certainly harder to locate than it is for the Golden State Warriors, Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers, but as Kevin Garnett once famously said, “Anything is possibllllllle!”
So (cracks knuckles), here we go.
Let’s start with a macro view of these two teams.
Pay more attention to the ranks than the numbers there. The game was played differently back then. Slower, more grind it out. But the profiles of these two teams are strikingly similar.
Both are top five in Simple Rating System (SRS simply adds point differential to strength of schedule) and expected wins. Both relied heavily on a top-two defense to more than make up for a bottom-half offense. Both were among the five or six slowest teams in the league.
What’s more, people often point to the ‘04 Pistons as the example of a team that won a title without a star. That should probably be seen as a slight to the likes of Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups, but that’s beside the point. The story is the story.
And while Jazz fans are well aware of how good Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are, some outside the fanbase may still be hesitant to classify either as a star. So, we have another similarity there.
Perhaps somewhat related to that is the balanced attack. A team with no “stars” generally has to score with a more egalitarian approach. Utah has six guys averaging double-figures. That Pistons squad had seven guys at 9.5 points or more per game.
And the similarities don’t end there. In fact, they might even get more eery when you start to look at individual players.
POSITION BY POSITION
Let’s go through the traditional positional designations, 1 through 5.
Most would probably never think to compare Ricky Rubio to Chauncey Billups (understandably so), but at least these versions of those two have some common ground.
Billups was Detroit’s second-leading scorer that season. Rubio was third on Utah, but missed out on second by less than half a point per game. And neither was a “dominate the ball to get assists” type of 1. They were both under six.
Then, there’s the shooting guards, Donovan Mitchell and Richard Hamilton.
Both led their respective teams in scoring. Both dabbled in some rebounding and playmaking as well.
Next, we get to small forward, where the comparison admittedly breaks down a bit.
However, there are still some similarities between lefties Joe Ingles and Tayshaun Prince: size (Ingles’ 6’8” to Prince’s 6’9”) and defensive versatility probably chief among them.
Of course, Ingles shoots and creates for others in a way Prince was never asked to with the Pistons.
Next, there’s the power forwards: Derrick Favors and Rasheed Wallace.
Again, these two were different stylistically, especially on offense, where Wallace was far more perimeter-oriented, but defense is the primary calling card for both of these guys. That, and the ability to co-exist with a defense-first big who dominates the paint on both ends.
And that brings us to the 5s, where the comparison might make the most sense.
Rudy Gobert and Ben Wallace, both arguably the most impactful defenders in the league at the times in question. Both the most important players on their respective teams.
SO, ARE THE ‘18 JAZZ THE ‘04 PISTONS?
Wallace led his team to a title in a way few other big men ever have: With defense, defense, more defense, some rebounding, and defense.
That’s the key for the Jazz: Relying on Gobert, who’s been the bedrock of the team for the last four seasons. That, and getting enough offense by putting team over “star” status.
Sure, Utah’s a long shot. OK, a very long shot. But there’s a path. And it’s been trod before.
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.