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Are the Utah Jazz Actually the Best Team in the NBA?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2021

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) directs his team as he runs upcourt in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

After a 112-94 victory over the Miami Heat on Saturday, the Utah Jazz are 22-5. They have won 18 of their past 19 games, lead the NBA in winning percentage and net rating and are in the top five in both offense and defense.

Still, a national spotlight remains elusive. When Utah comes up on podcasts or in articles that cover the league at large, it generally doesn't get much more than some variation of "I'm not convinced."

As the Jazz work through some of the Eastern Conference's bigger names, it's probably time to put that sentiment to bed.

At the moment, Utah is the best team in the NBA.

After notching their 16th and 17th double-digit victories over the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, the Jazz started (and at least from three, finished) flat against Miami on Saturday.

And after watching them struggle to get to four points in the first six minutes, one's natural reaction might have been, "Well, this run had to end some time."

Then, Utah threw the clamps down. The rest of the first half was a reminder that the Quin Snyder-era Jazz established themselves as perennial playoff participants with defense.

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Anchored by Rudy Gobert, who may as well be the default option for Defensive Player of the Year during his prime, Utah made every Heat possession a slog.

With Joe Ingles (6'8"), Bojan Bogdanovic (6'7"), Royce O'Neale (6'10" wingspan) and Donovan Mitchell (6'10" wingspan), the Jazz could switch all over the floor. On the rare occasions Miami beat that switch, the Heat were greeted in the paint by Gobert, or (not much better) Derrick Favors.

By the end of the night, even with Utah's foot seemingly easing off the gas a bit in the fourth, the Heat had 94 points on 40.7 percent shooting.

What makes this victory particularly impressive is how Utah secured it.

Coming into the night, Utah led the NBA (by a significant margin) in threes made per 100 possessions. It was (and still is) on pace to set the all-time record for threes per game. And it was shooting a blistering 40.1 percent from deep.

On Saturday, though, the Jazz went cold, finishing the game 12-of-46 (26.1 percent) from three. That, of course, happens to jump-shooting teams from time to time. But plenty of Utah's predecessors couldn't adjust on the fly like this squad can.

The Jazz can still win with defense. They can dominate inside (they shot 69.2 percent from two-point range against Miami). And they can blitz opponents out of a contest from the outside. Just ask another recent victim of this balanced attack, two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo:

"They're moving the ball. They are finding, they're playing for one another. Everybody knows their role. Whatever they do, they're doing hard. They screen. They roll hard. You know what I'm saying?

"The person at the top of the key gets the ball, he goes for a handoff hard. The guy that sets the back pick to start the play, he does it hard. The guy that throws to the corner, they know their role. They've been together. It just looks fun. Like, when I watch them play, it looks fun. It looks easy. It looks simple.”

It's hard to argue with Giannis. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics and the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers are the only teams in NBA history that had more double-digit victories through their first 27 games.

And lest you think the Jazz are just picking on below-average competition, they're sixth in the league in strength of schedule and fourth in net rating against top-10 teams.

As the wins continue to pile up, it's getting more difficult to poke holes in this team's argument for best-in-the-NBA status.

The easiest, most common fallback is to point out a lack of superstar power. The Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles Clippers have Kawhi Leonard. In a seven-game series, can Utah find a way to slow players of that caliber at least four times?

Or, is this a classic "more than the sum of its parts" team?

Over the years, the comparison to the 2004 Detroit Pistons has been there. Gobert is a bigger and much-more-dangerous-on-offense version of Ben Wallace. Mike Conley is the steady veteran point guard, much like Chauncey Billups was. O'Neale is the perimeter defensive stopper, a la Tayshaun Prince. And Mitchell is the 2 who leads the way in scoring.

Sure, this deviates far from apples-to-apples when you look at Rasheed Wallace, Bogdanovic and Ingles, but no comparison is perfect. In fact, this one may not even be the best.

On an episode of his podcast, The Old Man & the Three, JJ Redick likened this version of the Jazz to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs. Tune into any Utah game, and you'll see why.

Some of the Jazz's possessions are simple pick-and-rolls with any of the many ball-handlers and Gobert or Favors, but when that doesn't yield easy looks, the ball and all five players move around the floor with purpose. And as defenses are forced to shift from one side of the floor to the other multiple times, closing out becomes increasingly difficult.

Unselfishness creates openings and makes Utah a nightmare to defend, even if it doesn't have a traditional superstar.

Gobert and Mitchell are both in the top 10 in Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker, but their chances of winning the award are at 2.8 and 1.7 percent, respectively. Six Jazz players are in the top 60 of the box plus/minus leaderboard, but Conley is the highest at 20th.

Some might think that roster makeup will doom this team in the postseason. Maybe it will. But the aforementioned Pistons and Spurs squads have shown the unconventional path to the title can be navigated.

Assume, just for the sake of argument, though, that that's no longer possible. Maybe star power has become even more important over the last half-decade. It's still tough to count this team out.

His heroics were cut short when Conley's series-ending buzzer-beater attempt rimmed out, but Mitchell showed a top-of-the-league ceiling in the 2020 first round.

In those seven games against the Denver Nuggets, Mitchell averaged 36.3 points per game with a true shooting percentage just shy of 70. He topped 50 points twice. He dominated games in a way only the league's best can.

Were he to do so over four playoff rounds, maybe the best comparison for this squad is the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki was a star possessed that postseason. And a supporting cast loaded with defense and shooting was enough to push him past the star-laden Big Three Heat.

If Mitchell recaptures his 2020 playoff mojo and the rest of the roster keeps playing this way, it's not difficult to imagine Utah finishing this campaign in the same position it's in: as the best team in the NBA.

               

Stats via Basketball Reference, NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass.