It’s almost been a year since the Utah Jazz’s incredible first-round playoff victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. That series will go down as an all-timer for me. Donovan Mitchell’s incredible play as a rookie (including a 38-point performance in a closeout game 6), Ricky Rubio’s triple-double with an electric crowd behind him chanting his name, Ingles talking smack to Paul George, etc- all reasons why that playoff series was one of the most memorable group of games that the Jazz have played since their WCF run in the D-Will days.
This past summer, the Jazz decided to run it back with an almost identical roster to what they had last season. Things started out very slowly on the season, much due to a brutal early schedule and frankly, just bad play. The Jazz found themselves fighting to remain a .500 basketball team being suffocated from high expectations and aspirations. Dennis Lindsey decided to switch things up a bit when he traded Alec Burks for sharp-shooter Kyle Korver (Machine Gun Korver as I prefer to call him), and things started to get much better. Although the swing has not been quite as dramatic, this season is very similar to last for the Utah Jazz. That being said, are they any better than they were last season? Do they pose any more of a threat towards the Warriors or Rockets, teams that were clearly above their tier last year in the playoffs?
Looking at the two seasons side by side as a team, it’s hard to say if the Jazz are any better, or any worse, than they were last year. They remain an elite defensive team having the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, compared to first-best like they did last season (105.2 this season, 102.9 last). Rudy Gobert is, once again, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and is anchoring one of the best defensive squads in the NBA. Offensively the Jazz are ranked 17th in the NBA in offensive rating, compared to 16th last season (109 vs 107.2). So again, pretty much the same as last year rating wise. With a current net rating of 3.8, the Jazz sit as the 7th best in the league as compared to last year when they had a 4.3 and were the fifth-best. They are shooting nearly identical FG percent as last year at 46 percent. Despite the acquisition of Kyle Korver, the Jazz’s team three-point shooting has dropped from nearly 37 percent last year to 35 percent this season (12th ranked vs 21st ranked in NBA). Outside of the relatively small drop in three-point shooting percentage, this Jazz team is performing almost exactly the same as last year, at least according to the numbers. They are on pace for a few more wins than last year, as 538 currently projects them at 50 wins. The Jazz numbers this season might finish off a bit higher due to a pretty cupcake schedule in 11 games remaining, but you get the point.
Outside of numbers though, is there anything else that points to the Jazz being a team that improved over the last year? Looking on a player level, it might be a good sign. Rudy Gobert said in preseason interviews that this season would be his best, and well, the man did not lie. Gobert’s having a career year, especially offensively where he is currently averaging 15/13 and coming off a fresh Western Conference Player of the Week award. The All-Star snub still has him playing motivated basketball, and he is absolutely destroying teams on a nightly basis. This, to me, is an excellent sign that the Jazz might be able to reach a new level in this year’s playoffs. Gobert was essentially played off the floor in last year’s second-round match-up with the Houston Rockets, so him getting to a new level offensively could be a game-changer. Donovan Mitchell has also improved certain areas of his game this season, including upping his points per game to 23.5 and it might just keep on going up as this season ends. Mitchell still has shown his weaknesses in efficiency, and it will be interesting to see how he builds on last year’s incredible playoff performances. Although it hasn’t necessarily shown up in per-game averages, Derrick Favors has also gotten better this season. He only trails Rudy Gobert on the team for most win shares, which is a good sign of the impact he has had on games this season. He is shooting the best percentage of his career at nearly 58 percent, and has the highest rebounding numbers since the 2015-16 season. Simply put, Favors has been a beast for the Jazz in the role that the has been asked to play this season. Outside of Gobert, Mitchell and Favors, most Jazz players have performed at a similar level as last year, or regressed.
Even though he has accepted a larger role in other ways on the court, Joe Ingles’ three-point shooting has dropped from 44 percent last season to 37 percent this season. Ricky Rubio has not picked up the spark that he found later in the season last year, and experienced drops in virtually all statistics. The rest of the players on the Jazz have remained pretty close to the level of play they were at last season, with the exception of a few statistics. Also throwing in there the loss of Dante Exum, the Jazz role players have remained similar to production levels they had last season.
The Jazz will have more playoff experience under their belt as they approach this year’s post season, which could be huge, especially for a player like Donovan Mitchell. Kyle Korver also adds some pretty significant playoff experience, including his games played in the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So what does this mean for the Jazz as they approach the playoffs? What can we expect? Are they better-suited for the playoffs this season? Can the Jazz play consistently enough to defeat a good team in the playoffs? Do they have enough weapons to even put up a fight against a top team in the second round? I think it’s safe to say that many expect the answer to these questions to be yes. But the Jazz definitely have weaknesses. And weaknesses usually get exposed in the playoffs when you play good teams in a seven-game series. But you never know. The Jazz have looked really good in stretches, but also have looked pretty poor in others (see Bucks/Nuggets wins and Pelicans/Grizzlies losses).
I do think, that if the 2018-19 Jazz were to play the 2017-18 Jazz, this year’s version would come out on top in a 7-game series. Donovan Mitchell, although he struggled early this season, has gotten much better than his numbers suggest. He’s consistently taking games over, and he’s learning as each game passes. Add in Gobert’s improvements, Korver, and Favors as well, and I think that’s enough to solidify this year’s squad as the superior team.
There’s nothing better than NBA Playoff basketball. The Jazz will be in the third-straight postseason, and will be looking for the third-straight trip to at least the second round. It’s no small feat to advance in the playoffs in the Western Conference, but the goal is obviously much more than that. We will know the answers to our many questions here in a few weeks, when the Jazz enter the playoffs and try to make a run at getting some post-season wins.