The NBA playoffs begin this Saturday, and the favorites of years past expect to contend for the championship once again. The Golden State Warriors, while stumbling down the stretch thanks to injuries, have the most talent by far when healthy — and star Stephen Curry should return before too long. The Cleveland Cavaliers struggled through an up-and-down season, but LeBron James remains the best player in the world and can still dominate the Eastern Conference. The Houston Rockets amassed an epic regular season with 64 wins and intend to defeat the Warriors in a possible Western Conference Finals clash. Bottom line, the vast majority of analysts will pick one of these three teams to take home the championship. But there is another team that could contend this season: the Utah Jazz.
While the sports media world has not covered the Jazz to the same extent as it has the league powerhouses, Utah is on an incredible tear. On Jan. 22, the team possessed a 19-28 record — far out of playoff contention and headed for a lottery pick. Since then, the Jazz have gone 29-6 (yes, really), overwhelming the opposition with intense defense and quick offense. What changed for Utah? The return of Rudy Gobert from injury. Gobert is one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA — an annual Defensive Player of the Year threat who changes the game. Boasting a ridiculous 7’9” wingspan, Gobert protects the rim like no one else, recording 2.3 blocks per contest. He also adds verticality to Utah’s offense — always a threat for alley-oops.
Of course, one cannot talk about the Utah Jazz without praising Donovan Mitchell. After the departure of Gordon Hayward last offseason, the Jazz were assumed to be in a rebuilding phase. But that all changed with the selection of Mitchell in the 2017 draft. The rookie has more than filled Hayward’s role on the fast track to NBA superstardom. The guard has averaged 20.5 points per game while drawing comparisons to Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and a host of other elite players. He has tight handles and a speedy first step, and can attack the rim with great success or step back with a smooth crossover and jump shot. Don’t be surprised to see him dominating the playoffs over the next decade.
The Jazz hold a lot of undervalued talent in addition to these two starters. Guard Ricky Rubio was heavily criticized for his failure to shoot the ball in Minnesota but has since improved in Utah, where he does not have to control the entire offense. A career 32.5 percent three-point shooter, Rubio hit on 34.9 percent of his shots outside the perimeter this season — his best mark ever. The 27-year-old made 40.2 percent of his threes after the All-Star break, as he continued to gain confidence from the outside. And many NBA fans have never heard of Joe Ingles, a small forward from Australia, but he adds important floor spacing for Mitchell. Ingles is shooting 43.9 percent from three, fifth in the league and ahead of names such as Kyle Korver, Curry and Kevin Durant. Jae Crowder struggled a lot in Cleveland but has improved since the Cavaliers trade, giving the Jazz strong defense at the wing positions.
Utah can more than hang with the top teams in the league, blowing out the Warriors by an incredible 40-point margin on Tuesday night. While Golden State will surely mount a tougher fight with Curry on the floor, they should be afraid of the Jazz. After all, Utah still defeated them by 30 points back in January when Curry was playing. The Warriors and Jazz are trending in opposite ways, with Golden State playing its worst basketball in almost four years and Utah peaking at just the right time. The Jazz will still be underdogs if the two teams meet in the playoffs, but no one should underestimate their chances.
Though many fans may not realize it, the Jazz have proven themselves to be a tier above the rest of the middling Western Conference playoff teams. No one in that group has mounted a hot streak even close to what Utah has accomplished, and the other teams all have significant deficiencies. The Portland Trail Blazers have too many mediocre forwards playing big minutes. The New Orleans Pelicans don’t have enough starter-level wings to pair with Anthony Davis. The San Antonio Spurs are missing Kawhi Leonard, who may not return for the playoffs, and even with Leonard on the court, San Antonio doesn’t possess enough above-average talent to make a deep push. Lastly, the Oklahoma City Thunder are inconsistent and low on depth — their bench is atrocious.
The Jazz, however, are terrific in all facets of the game. They can win offensive races and defensive rock fights. A team this well-rounded and adaptable can match up with anyone. Utah has the ability to advance a lot further in the playoffs than anyone thinks.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.