Utah has burst onto the scene and holds the eighth spot out West. Defensive chops and new talent have both played a major role.
The Utah Jazz have burst onto the scene in a huge way. The team was fueled by inspired play from Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors during Rudy Gobert’s knee injury-related absence, and a furious return from Gobert himself over the past month.
Despite the brutal loss of Dante Exum to a season-ending ACL tear in the preseason, thus putting a damper on the rebuilding process, the Jazz have managed to earn a 26-26 record. The Jazz’s current record is good enough for the eighth spot out West, with Portland at the seventh spot with a 27-27 record.
As mentioned above, there are several reasons for this surge, most significantly the continued growth of both Gordon Hayward, fresh off a new contract, and Derrick Favors. Rudy Gobert has continued to impress as well, and the emergence of Rodney Hood has helped round out a team that looks poised to compete for not only the present but also the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the 12th overall pick from last year’s draft, Trey Lyles out of Kentucky, has vastly exceeded expectations, as his role increased due to Gobert’s injury. Lyles, in addition to Rodney Hood (Duke) and Raul Neto (Brazil), was named to the Rising Stars Challenge section of the NBA All-Star Weekend, and picks like these continue to make the front office look like one of the better teams in the NBA.
Let’s start with the superlatives. Hollinger’s PER ranks Favors 18th in the entire NBA at 22.34, and within the top 10 spots for big men. Gobert also ranks among the top 50, at 48, two spots above Kevin Love. Gobert also possesses the forth best true shooting percentage in the NBA, not bad for a near-afterthought taken as the 27th overall pick two years ago.
Both Gordon Hayward and Favors rank among the top 50 in EWA (expected wins added), at 30 and 44 respectively, and Hayward also ranks 22nd in points per game in the NBA with 19.9. These stats show considerable growth, but also indicate that the product of the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Utah is 11th in offensive efficiency, averaging 103.3 points per game, and 14th in defensive efficiency, averaging 102.5 points per game. The Jazz are 12th in true shooting percentage as a team, 14th in effective field goal percentage and eighth in rebound rate. While they rank dead last in pace, these statistics indicate a team that is pretty good at pretty much everything and plays the game the way they like.
Gobert is fully established as a premier shot-blocker and defensive presence in the NBA, mattering to his team in ways Hassan Whiteside does not to the Miami Heat — the Heat are better at defense with Whiteside off the court. Favors has developed into an offensive force capable of being a top-end power forward night in, night out, and Hayward has proven that he is capable of carrying the load on offense on any given night, averaging the most minutes, points, free throws and assists on the team, and starting the most games by far. Hayward even hit an incredulous stepback game winner over the Dallas Mavericks just before the break, and breakout player Hood is averaging the most three’s on the team on 36.1% shooting from downtown.
Charles Barkley referred to this team as “one of the most talented young teams in the league top to bottom,” and he’s not wrong. After all, this is the fourth-youngest team in the NBA, and the only team so young firmly in the playoff hunt. While the team stats seem to show a middling team, the opponent stats versus the Jazz show how the team couples mind-numbingly slow pace with intense defensive pressure and just enough juice on offense to make the machine hum.
In fact, opponents make and take the least field goals against the Jazz of any team in the league. Opponents take the third-fewest three’s (and make the ninth fewest), take and make the second-fewest two-pointers, get the fewest rebounds, record the fewest assists, and score the second-fewest points. It is hard to beat a team when they take away everything that you’re good at.
This team deserves to be in the playoffs, and it is truly a shame that we won’t get to see Exum back in action until next fall. For now, the Jazz’s focus should be on continued growth and sustenance of their level of play in order to retain the playoff seed they so tenaciously hold onto. As the final hours of the trade deadline wane, it will be interesting to see if the Jazz make any moves, as they are linked to many point guards around the league including Jeff Teague, with Trey Burke seemingly on his way out of town after being included in every Jazz-related trade rumor since being drafted. For now, though, the goal should continuing to grow as a team without touching any of the young studs.
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