The Utah Jazz Are the NBA Title Contenders Nobody Wants to Talk About

The Utah Jazz are coming off a 2020-21 season in which they finished with the best record in the Western Conference. But despite a strong start to the 2021-22 campaign, the Jazz aren’t getting much respect as NBA championship contenders.

Stephen Curry’s early MVP candidacy leads a resurgent Golden State Warriors squad. Meanwhile, Devin Booker and an ageless Chris Paul continue to power a Phoenix Suns squad on a 17-game win streak and fresh off a win over the Dubs. Those two teams appear to have clearly defined their respective statuses as title favorites.

Only, the Jazz are one of the most well-rounded teams in basketball. It’s time to start recognizing Utah as a team that could lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.

The Jazz boast the best offense in the NBA

It might come as a surprise to some NBA fans to learn that, statistically, the Golden State Warriors are not the best offensive team in the NBA. That honor belongs to the Jazz.

Through 21 games, Utah ranks first in offensive rating. It has done so with a diverse inside-out attack and multiple shot-creators.

Five different Jazz players are averaging double-figures, led by Donovan Mitchell (23.2), who is relishing his relationship with part-owner Dwyane Wade. They easily lead the NBA in 2-point field-goal percentage at a whopping 58.4%. Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic can create off the dribble and knock down pull-up jumpers. The same is true of Jordan Clarkson, who is shooting below 30% from beyond the arc but a more respectable 51.3% from inside the line.

That individual shot-creation is lifting the Jazz thus far. According to NBA.com, Utah ranks second in percentage of field goals made unassisted.

Speaking of 3-point shooting, there’s room for improvement there. Utah hucks the second-most threes per game. It leads the NBA in percent of field goals attempted in terms from beyond the arc. But it ranks just 10th in 3-point percentage after ranking fourth in that category last season. Still, with Mike Conley shooting the ball well from deep (43.5%) and forwards such as Boganocvic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale knocking down triples, defenses cannot rest on their laurels.

The Jazz terrorize opponents in pick-and-roll. Rudy Gobert’s presence as a rim-roller forces teams to commit to ball-handlers or risk conceding lobs and easy twos at the rim. That opens things up for guys like Mitchell and Conley to attack the basket and hunt jumpers and layups or opportunities for their teammates. Gobert isn’t the only one freeing up offensive looks. The Jazz rank second in screen assists, per NBA.com.

Indeed, the Jazz rank third in the NBA in free throws per game. When they aren’t firing from deep, they get free points at the charity stripe.

This offensive variety makes Utah dangerous, especially given how stout head coach Quin Snyder’s team is on the other end of the floor.

The Jazz swarm teams defensively

Mitchell described the Jazz as having a defense-first mindset. That’s the backbone of this Utah team.

The Jazz rank fourth in defensive rating. They hardly force any turnovers (29th in that category) and don’t create many deflections. But Utah keeps opponents out of the paint and forces them to resort to contested jumpers.

Gobert, currently the richest center in NBA history, is the key figure here. The three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year can switch on ball-screens and cut off straight-line drives while still having the athleticism to get back to his man. He is also one of the best weak-side defenders in the league and makes defensive rotations easier because of the ground he covers on that end of the floor.

The Jazz don’t allow opponents to get second chances, either. They rank fifth in defensive rebounding, getting after it on the boards and immediately getting into their offense at the other end.

Much as is the case with the 3-point shooting, there’s upside on the defensive end if Utah — especially the backcourt of Conley and Mitchell — can create more deflections and turnovers.

Cautious optimism

Utah Jazz guards Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell look on during a win over the Portland Trail Blazers
Mike Conley (L) looks on with Donovan Mitchell during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 29, 2021 | Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

On the one hand, the Jazz rank second in net rating and expected win-loss record. But it should also be said they’ve had a pretty easy slate thus far.

Utah’s strength of schedule ranks 29th in strength of schedule. The Jazz lost both matchups against another strong NBA championship contender in the Miami Heat. They have notable wins over the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks, but both of those teams have been playing banged-up this season.

Still, the Jazz rank second in margin of victory. They’re mostly taking care of business, even if the schedule has been fairly friendly thus far.

Utah might not be the sexiest team compared to the Warriors or Suns. But it boasts a balanced group with room for improvement. The Jazz deserve their flowers as a favorite to win the 2021-22 NBA championship.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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