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The Utah Jazz are not the ‘14 Hawks, ‘13 Spurs, or ‘03 Pistons, they’re JAZZ

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The 2020-2021 Utah Jazz are riffing on classic teams’ melodies from the past.

Miami Heat v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Utah Jazz tear through the league and pile on wins, experts are trying to find a facsimile from the NBA’s past. When pundits want to give them credit for their wins but undercut their potential they compare them to the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks. When experts want to let people know they’re a great team but they don’t have a superstar they compare them to the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs. When experts want to give them an underdog look and a defensive toughness, they compare them to the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons. But none of those explain the Utah Jazz. They’re better. They’re different. They’re unique. They’re a chameleon on offense and defense.

Comparing them to the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks

The most underhanded compliment of compliments when people are looking for a comparison to this season’s Utah Jazz. The Atlanta Hawks were a team that was greater than the sum of their parts. They won 60+ games and relied on a modern offense when a lot of the league was still stuck in the past era. Heck, Quin Snyder comes from the Mike Budenholzer coaching tree. IF THE GLOVE FITS, RIGHT?

That new commitment to the modern offense and being the second true mover to the Golden State Warriors allowed Atlanta to take advantage of teams who hadn’t caught up. The Hawks were able to rack up wins playing the newest style because they had a team of veterans—Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver—who were committed to their roles. In that way the Hawks are similar to Utah which has a strong team of veterans—Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles.

But where they differ is this group of Utah veterans has not been able to rack up wins against a struggling conference. The Hawks only had 5 teams in their conference with a +.500 record. The Utah Jazz have 9 in their conference with a +.500 record.

The Hawks didn’t have one player who could take over late in a game. Who was the ball going to? Horford? Teague? Korver? Millsap? They lacked a go to scorer. They desperately needed a guy who could get buckets. The Jazz are not a bunch of unsung barely All-Star level players. While the Hawks only had one player who was averaging more than 16.5 ppg (Teague), the Jazz have three perimeter players doing that and one of them comes off the bench. On any given night, Utah has Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Jordan Clarkson who can get buckets in a number of ways and make plays.

The Hawks played solid defense but they didn’t shut opponents down. Instead they relied on getting turnovers. They were gamblers. But when you gamble, the house with always win. Sooner or later, your luck runs out. Utah doesn’t gamble. They shut teams down. Utah creates the fewest amount of turnovers of any team in the league. They don’t try to avoid a fight in the paint. Instead they promote it. They want everyone to test them on every play. They allow the lowest eFG% of any team in the league. They either will shut you down or watch opposing teams make their own mistakes first.

Now Utah’s offensive system is very much in the vein of those Atlanta Hawks, but it is superpowered by star players like Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gobert.

The Utah Jazz are not the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks.

Comparing them to the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs

Plodding center? Check. Off the bench scoring guard? Check. Crafty point guard? Check. Up and coming youthful superstar? Check. Role players found out of nowhere? Check. Coach who is quotable? Check and check. This seems like a slam dunk of a comparison for this season’s Utah Jazz especially if you want to build up their championship hopes. Except it’s not.

Let’s start out with the obvious one: the 2013-2014 Spurs did not rely on Kawhi Leonard to get wins. The makeup of the rosters of the Jazz and Spurs may feel similar with the mix of young guys and veterans, but the Spurs dependence on Kawhi Leonard comes nowhere close to the Jazz’s dependence on Donovan Mitchell. Donovan Mitchell—his playmaking, scoring, and gravity—is a big part of why their offense is such a buzzsaw. It’s as important as Rudy Gobert’s screen and rolls. Kawhi Leonard in 2013-2014 was like a mix of Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale on offense. He was doing some playmaking at time both others he was firmly camped in the corner playing the Danny Green space the floor role.

The Spurs—same as the Atlanta Hawks—only had one scorer above 16.5 ppg: Tony Parker. The Jazz enjoy Mike Conley’s playmaking, scoring, and defensive ability, but he is not the main pillar in their success. He’s definitely a big part of Utah’s success but not like Tony Parker was for the Spurs. The Jazz have three guards who can step up at any time. The Spurs had Ginobili but by 2013-2014 Manu Ginobili was in his 11th season and was 36. Parker was 31. Utah’s three-headed hydra has Conley at 33, Clarkson at 28, and Mitchell at 24.

The ability by a coach to flip the identity of a team from defense to offense to both looks makes the Gregg Popovich to Quin Snyder comparison tempting. Heck, Snyder even coached for the Austin Toros, the Spurs G-League franchise. But their offenses and defenses run differently.

On offense, no one was asking 37 year old Tim Duncan to set screens at the machine like pace that Rudy Gobert does. Duncan’s knees would have fallen off and the shot clock would have expired before Timmy could get to third one. The Spurs were not asking Duncan to offensive rebound. The Spurs according to Cleaning the Glass were 26th offensive rebounding. Instead they were asking Timmy to conserve his energy and get downhill and back on defense. Utah on the other hand ranks 1st in the league in offensive rebounding while asking Gobert to do the impossible: stick around for the offensive rebound AND get back on defense and guard the paint. Despite asking Gobert to be in two places at once Utah ranks 2nd in defensive rating while San Antonio ranked 4th.

Even in my own memory I remember that San Antonio team switching from that defensive identity to chucking anything behind the three point line... but that’s not really the case. Only 23.7% of their shots came behind the three point line. That ranked them 15th in the league. Where did the majority of their shots come from? Mid-range. Good old Timmy. 40.6% of all their shots came from mid-range. Compare that to Utah and these two teams look nothing like each other. Utah takes 45% of all their shots behind the three point arc. Utah takes a high percentage of their shots (32.8%) from just above the break than San Antonio took of all their threes period (23.7%). Utah avoids the midrange like a plague. They rank 27th in the league of the proportion of shots they take in that region at 24.3%.

There is one place of concession: the defensive end. The results of Utah’s defensive system get the same results as San Antonio’s. San Antonio didn’t rely on gambling for turnovers. They couldn’t due to their age. So they used their basketball IQ and experience to play solid defense while not going for high impact steals. San Antonio like Utah did not create a lot of turnovers. Like Utah they did not foul often. They played teams straight up and did not put opposing teams on the line. Like Utah they were a great rebounding team. They were the 2nd best defensive rebounding team. This year’s Utah Jazz is the 4th best in the league.

While the Jazz’s defensive system seems to be a copy of the Spurs defense and the offense of “Very Solid Plays” feels similar, the Utah Jazz are have other elements they’re mixing into the stew. They’re more dynamic. More overpowering. More youthful.

They’re not the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs.

Comparing them to the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons

I will admit this feels like my go to when trying to grasp for a comparison for this year’s Utah Jazz. Jordan Clarkson fits the Chauncey Billups scoring guard who bounced from team to team before finding his fit. Rudy Gobert has an equal in Ben Wallace. Wallace was committed to defense like Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln. He’s not playing defense, he is defense. Donovan Mitchell is that Rip Hamilton role of scoring guard. You have Royce O’Neale in that Tayshaun Prince role of three and D stopper. But then you realize Utah is even deeper. Utah has two Billups in Clarkson AND Mike Conley. Utah has a Ben Wallace and a Ben Wallace-light in Gobert and Derrick Favors. Utah has that Rasheed Wallace inside out game in Bojan Bogdanovic. Then there’s still Georges Niang.

That 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons team feels similar in their energy. Despite destroying teams after they acquired Rasheed Wallace, no one was giving the Pistons any credit. Every series win was an upset even though they were usually the favorite. They were being judged based on their performances and reputations from seasons’ past, not on the current one. That FEELS like Utah. Unfortunately that’s where a lot of the comparisons end.

Detroit only had two players scoring 16.5 ppg or more. Utah has three with the potential for four in Bojan Bogdanovic. Though one can argue Detroit had the potential for four with Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince.

Detroit’s offense was NEVER going to overrun anyone. Their offense ranked 13th according to Cleaning the Glass at 101.9 points per 100 possessions. They also weren’t jacking it up from three. Only 14.9% of all their shots came from three. Their offense while only ranked 13th never faltered based on the opponent. Whether it was a top 10 defense or bottom 10 defense, it was going to put up the same numbers. It was consistent. A bellwether. In the playoffs it stayed consistent.

The reason why it feels easy to compare Utah to Detroit is that defensive mentality. While defense is played differently—Utah and Detroit are in completely different offensive eras—the mentality is the same. Don’t foul. Lead them to Rudy Gobert. Force them off the three point line.

When Utah played Denver, Denver took 12% less shots from three. When Utah played Portland they took 34% fewer shots from three. Miami took 7% fewer shots. Utah forces teams to play a new way when they play them. Utah does what Detroit did back in those days. You’re not only going to play us, but you’re going to play your weakness, too. Two opponents. Utah gets a third opponent to add into the mix: elevation.

That’s where Utah is nothing like Detroit. Utah’s up tempo play forces teams to battle against the altitude. This combination of stout defense, disciplined offense, and nightmarish altitude and pace—especially when put in the context of a pandemic that is caused by a respiratory virus—seems like a hell not fit for a city that has landmark Christian temple only blocks nearby. It’s why teams look to run out of gas by the 4th quarter.

Just look at this by quarter with both ‘03 Detroit Pistons and this year’s Utah Jazz:

Detroit vs Utah by Quarter

Quarter DET ORTG DET DRTG DET +/- UTA ORTG UTA DRTG UTA +/-
Quarter DET ORTG DET DRTG DET +/- UTA ORTG UTA DRTG UTA +/-
1st 99.7 98.9 +0.8 113.9 104 +9.9
2nd 104.9 90.7 +14.2 115.6 103.9 +11.7
3rd 98.6 92.7 +5.9 126.5 108.1 +18.4
4th 98.2 93.4 +4.8 110 112.1 -2.1
Detroit’s defense locked in as the game moved along. Utah’s defense fluctuates but their offense puts teams into the ground after halftime. NBA.com/Stats

Utah and Detroit feel out the opposing team similarly. It’s almost as if they let the other team struggle, tire themselves out, and then they mount a counterattack when the other team is running out of steam. The numbers above don’t meet the eye test for Utah when they close out games, but I assume that’s because of the number of blowouts Utah has. The ORTG and DRTG are going to get haywire the minute Utah subs out their starters for the third stringers.

While Utah has the underdog mentality and the underrated star potential of the 2003-2004 Pistons, the offensive firepower that Utah has has no equal with Detroit. Likewise Detroit’s ungodly defensive prowess in their era finds no equal in Utah.

The Utah Jazz are unique. One of one.

Who is Utah like then?

Nobody. They’re unlike any team in the modern era. A chimera of the “greatest sum of their parts is greater than the whole” teams of the past.

They are an elite three point shooting team like the Atlanta Hawks but they shoot more threes per game than any team in NBA history.

They run an offensive that looks like the Spurs, but they don’t give up on offensive rebounds, they instead are the 3rd best offensive rebounding team in the league.

They are unheralded like the Detroit Pistons—a bunch of nobodies that are used to being the 4th and 5th people mentioned when talking about their respective positions.

They are a group of superstar no stars. Despite having the best record in the league and dominating in almost every game played, they didn’t have one starter on the All-Star team which instead had players from the teams ranked in the standings 7th (Steph Curry-Golden State), 8th (Nikola Jokic-Denver Nuggets), and 10th (Luka Doncic-Dallas Mavericks). The second best team had two players (Anthony Davis & LeBron James-Los Angeles Lakers).

The Jazz are a chameleon. They can win games like the prime Golden State Warriors by letting it fly from three. They can win by grinding the game down to a halt and dragging opposing offenses through the mud like the Spurs of old or Ben Wallace’s Pistons. They can win like Stockton and Malone and turn the game into a two vs two matchup except they can do that with Donovan and Rudy, Clarkson and Rudy, Conley and Rudy, Ingles and Favors, Ingles and Gobert, or Donovan and Bojan.

The Utah Jazz are the next great template that will be dissected, studied, and copied by the rest of the league for years to come.

But right now?

They’re a Jazz riff on classic melodies that’s become something wholly unique in a club on a Friday night. You’ll only hear it played like this once in your life. It’s the type of performance that you’ll try to explain to friends years down the line but it won’t resonate the same. It’s not meant to be compared or analyzed. There’s no time for that. There’s no time to think about telling others. Be present in the one in a million show right in front of your eyes.

Enjoy this Utah Jazz team for what they are:

JAZZ.