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Are We Sure … That Utah Isn’t the West’s Second-Best Team?

The Jazz sat out of the free-agent arms race, but the team they had last season may be good enough to emerge as the biggest challenge to Golden State

A collage of Utah Jazz players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

It’s a tradition unlike any other: forgetting over the summer that the Utah Jazz exist. After Switzerland-ing through another free-agency arms race, Utah has faded from the public eye. Vegas recently pegged the Jazz with the sixth-best title odds among teams in the West and a projected season win total of 48.5—so, almost exactly where they ended up last season.

The logic is simple enough: If multiple teams in the conference get better, other teams have to get worse, or at least stay stagnant. When the most notable addition you make to your roster comes in the form of a rookie Grade-A irritant with the face of a senator, you’re bound to lose a little hype.

The problem with that? The Utah team that finished the 2017-18 regular season may already be good enough to become Golden State’s biggest challenge in the West. The Jazz won 29 of their final 35 games after the trade deadline and posted a whopping plus-12 net rating during that span, a number that would have led the league by 3.5 points over the whole season. Utah also posted a 96.5 defensive rating during that time; you have to go all the way back to the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics in 2011-12 to find teams that bested that mark over a full season. Utah being so dominant defensively—even with a rookie (Donovan Mitchell) and a trade-deadline acquisition (Jae Crowder) coalescing on the fly—lends credence to Jazz exec Dennis Lindsey re-signing Derrick Favors and Dante Exum and running it back.

Of course, it’s one thing to suffocate Memphis during a random game in March, and a whole different thing to do that to Golden State in the postseason, as the Jazz found out when the Warriors swept them in the 2016-17 playoffs. But, small sample size ahoy, Utah was the only team to beat Golden State three times last regular season and is now a drastically different offensive team with Mitchell’s scoring. For all the fuss made about Houston’s roster being specifically engineered to take down the Warriors, Utah should match up better than the Rockets after the latter swapped two low-maintenance, willing defenders in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute for the polar opposite of that in Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis, who has played for four teams in as many seasons.

Utah’s potential ace in the hole against Golden State is Exum, finally healthy and fresh off cutting his teeth against James Harden during the Western Conference semifinals. Exum’s postseason sent sorely needed good news to the dwindling inhabitants of Dante’s Peak. Although Utah’s defense was elite with Exum playing in only 14 regular-season games, no player on the roster offers his level of defensive versatility. At 6-foot-6 with long arms and quick lateral ability, Exum can switch and reasonably hold his own against every member of Golden State’s crunch-time lineup while offering some bonus playmaking that Utah’s other bench players can’t.

The underrated defenders from Australia don’t stop there, as Joe Ingles has proved he can make life a little harder on Kevin Durant. In their past 10 head-to-head matchups, dating back to 2016, Ingles has held Durant to 20.8 points per game (roughly five points below his average as a Warrior) on lower shooting percentages across the board. Ingles won’t do this to Durant, but his complete nuking of “Playoff P” Paul George in Utah’s first-round defeat of the Thunder last season was a sight to behold.

But what happens when Golden State grows tired of playing with its food and goes small? Utah’s downsized lineup of Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder, Ricky Rubio, and Rudy Gobert can more than hang. That unit posted a plus-27.4 net rating during the regular season with an offensive rating (114.8) and defensive rating (87.4) that would rank first in the league in both categories. For what it’s worth, Golden State’s famed Hamptons Five lineup had a worse net rating (plus-8.4 regular season, plus-24.8 postseason) than Utah’s “small” lineup did last regular season.

The fact Utah still won 48 games and led the league in defensive rating despite Gobert missing nearly a third of the season is a testament to snarlin’ Quin Snyder, who showed his own improvement last postseason by ruthlessly taking advantage of Carmelo Anthony in every imaginable way. With a healthy Gobert, Utah has a defensive ceiling higher than any we’ve seen in almost a decade.

But before you stage an intervention and send me to “Dad’s Anonymous” for extolling the virtues of defense and how it wins championships (it does!), keep in mind that Utah isn’t some horribly unbalanced Frankenstein’s monster of a team completely incapable of scoring. Mitchell’s 63.7 percent shooting at the rim ranked better than some of the best finishers in NBA history during their rookie campaigns: Tony Parker (58.9 percent), Dwyane Wade (58.2), Kyrie Irving (61.4), and even LeBron James (60.4). No one in the league can extend to avoid a shot blocker more effortlessly than Mitchell, and that ability, along with an improving floater, is going to be impossible for any rotating big man to stop.

The Jazz will still opt to grind in the half court instead of playing in transition (25th in pace last season), but Mitchell could easily have the kind of “gravity” that leaves his shooters with enough time to do their taxes in the corner. Lindsey and Snyder have made it clear with recent moves that those shooters have to defend, though. Utah opted to double-down on defense and cast aside one-dimensional shooters like Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, and Jonas Jerebko to clear the way for livelier 3-and-D players like Royce O’Neale. Grayson Allen might not be Danny Ainge with a 40-inch vertical, and Alec Burks’s breakout postseason performance (25-7-5 per 36 minutes) may have been nothing more than a mirage, but Utah’s bench will no longer be an obvious life preserver for opponents who are struggling to score. At the very least, it will function as an athletic group of try-hards ready to annoy you into submission.

That’s the goal of this Jazz team: How not-fun can we make this for you? Fly into the city, everything is closed. Come to the arena, the fans are right on top of you. Game starts, there’s a defender climbing inside your jersey and a C.O.U.S. (Center of Unusual Size) waiting at the rim for you. Shootouts in Houston can be fun. The rock fights in Utah never are.

Ultimately, no matter how well the Jazz defend, the only team in the West that’ll beat Golden State will be a listless, bored, unmotivated version of Golden State. Houston won’t get to play that team—not after what happened last postseason. But the Jazz just might.