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Are the Jazz the NBA’s Sleeping Giant?

Utah has steamrollered through its second-half schedule for a second straight season, but will the progress it made this time around lead to a different end result?

Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Rudy Gobert Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the first 40 minutes of their Monday-night matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Utah Jazz showed exactly why they might be a sleeping giant in the Western Conference, rolling up a 14-point lead behind a ball-sharing, floor-spacing, 3-point-bombing attack while clamping down on everyone not named Jrue Holiday. The final eight minutes, though, were a prolonged “Hot Rod” fall: Utah had more than twice as many turnovers (seven) as made shots (three), couldn’t string together stops when it counted, and watched the Pelicans come back from 14 down to snatch a 115-112 victory.

The larger sample should carry more weight than the smaller one—especially because the former is very much of a piece with how the Jazz have played for the better part of two months. Even so, it’s hard to shake the images of Holiday putting the clamps on Donovan Mitchell, Julius Randle bulldozing Rudy Gobert, and the sub-.500 Pelicans having their way with playoff-bound Utah. With the two teams set for a rematch in New Orleans on Wednesday, it’s hard not to wonder: Which version of the Jazz will we see? Which one will finish out the season? And just how dangerous will they be come the playoffs?

Nobody was happier to see the calendar flip to 2019 than the Jazz. Coach Quin Snyder’s team had struggled to stay afloat against the NBA’s toughest schedule through the season’s first two and a half months, battling defensive slippage, offensive stagnation, and an early-season slump from Rookie of the Year runner-up Mitchell. A season that began with great expectations had gotten off to a decidedly middling start, leaving the Jazz 18-19 and in 11th place in the crowded Western Conference on New Year’s Eve. But man, what a difference two months made.

Since January 1, only the Bucks, Warriors, and Raptors (a.k.a. the best teams in the league) have rolled up a higher winning percentage than the Jazz, who have won 18 of their past 26 games. For the second straight year, a second-half surge has Utah back in the thick of the Western playoff race, chasing down Houston, Oklahoma City, and Portland for home-court advantage in the first round.

Everything still starts with defense. Utah sits second in the league in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession, according to Cleaning the Glass, with the 7-foot-1 Gobert manning the middle; the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year bolstered his candidacy for a repeat last Thursday by stuffing dark-horse MVP candidate Nikola Jokic into a locker in Utah’s 111-104 win over Denver. Even when the Jazz were stumbling in the early going, they were still getting stops, ranking third in defensive efficiency during their 18-19 start. The key to their midseason turnaround has come on the other end, where an offense that once seemed stuck in the mud has started to get on track.

One thing that’s helped spark that improvement? More frequently firing away from long distance. November’s trade for Kyle Korver has helped, with the veteran marksman shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range on a career-high 9.1 attempts per 36 minutes of floor time. Even with Korver bombing away, though, the Jazz still aren’t a great shooting team overall, ranking just 18th in overall long-range accuracy during their recent 18-8 run. But simply ratcheting up the volume of attempts can have a positive effect on a team’s offense, both in terms of the expected value of shot attempts and the ways it can distort the shape of an opposing defense.

Partly because of injuries (especially at point guard), and partly because of the need for an offensive jolt, Snyder has tilted Utah’s rotation toward shooters over the past two months, with Korver, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and Jae Crowder all seeing an uptick in playing time. (O’Neale, in particular, has been a revelation, drilling 42.9 percent of his triples in 2019 while guarding multiple positions and providing complementary playmaking.) As a result, the Jazz have done a better job stretching the floor; they’ve ranked sixth in 3-point attempts per game since January 1, taking about four more per game than they were in 2018. They’re also sixth in the league in 3-point makes per game in 2019, hitting nearly two more per game than before New Year’s Day.

It doesn’t sound like a massive shift, but it’s been helpful. After averaging 106.8 points per 100 possessions in 2018, good for just 21st in the league, Utah’s up to 112 points-per-100 in 2019, 12th in the NBA in that span. Give an elite defense an above-average offense to work with—more makes mean more possessions the other way with your defenders set—and good things tend to happen.

More frequently bombing away also forces defenses to stretch farther out to contest, opening more space to cut and pass underneath and widening paths to the basket. That’s important for a team as focused on attacking the rim as the Jazz—nobody averages more drives per game—and especially for a player as dynamic off the bounce as Mitchell.

The 22-year-old guard is Utah’s primary source of shot creation in the half court; whether it’s out of the pick-and-roll, off handoffs, or in isolation, Mitchell uses his ability to get downhill to collapse the defense and create high-value looks for himself at the rim or for his teammates. To start the season, defenses threw bodies at Mitchell to try to alter his route to the rim or dissuade him from driving altogether. He still pressed the action, averaging 14.2 drives per game through the end of December, tied for 10th-most in the league, but to middling results. In Utah’s first 37 games, Mitchell generated 8.4 points per game on drives (14th among NBA players), 1.8 free throw attempts per game on those plays (tied for 20th), and 0.9 assists per game off them (tied for 49th).

But playing alongside more shooters has given Mitchell more room to work, and he’s been taking advantage. He’s averaging 20.8 drives per game in 2019, tops in the NBA, and generating 12.5 points per game on those attacks, second behind only MVP candidate James Harden. He’s getting to the line more frequently, dropping dimes on drives nearly twice as often (1.5 assists per game in this stretch, tied for 12th in the league), and turning the ball over on a minuscule 5.2 percent of those forays into the paint, down from 7.9 percent earlier in the season.

Tipped for a rocket ride to stardom after his breakout 2018 postseason, Mitchell’s bouts of inefficiency and inconsistency seemed to have diminished his standing a bit; any rending of garments over All-Star snubs in Salt Lake City came in response to Gobert’s exclusion, not Mitchell’s. (And, for what it’s worth, he didn’t make our list of the league’s top 25 players after 25ish or 60ish games.) Those struggles appear to be firmly in the rearview mirror, though. Even after Monday’s yikes-fest against Holiday—19 points on 8-for-24 shooting, with six turnovers mitigating his nine assists—Mitchell has been fantastic in the new year, averaging 27.3 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game, putting him ninth in the league in scoring in that span. He’s flashed a more confident long-range stroke, too, knocking down 37.3 percent of his 3-point tries since January 1 after shooting just 29.3 percent up to that point.

Ball handlers Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto have all missed time to injury, which has kicked Mitchell’s usage up a notch; the sophomore has finished 32.8 percent of Utah’s possessions in 2019 with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover, a rate that trails only Harden’s and Joel Embiid’s. He’s responding to a superstar’s workload with a superstar’s work. Mitchell still hasn’t been incredibly efficient during this run, posting effective field goal and true shooting percentages below league averages, but he’s been undeniably effective. Utah’s scoring 112.3 points-per-100 in Mitchell’s minutes in 2019, a top-six-caliber full-season mark, compared with just 105 points-per-100 when he’s off the floor.

Some of that is a result of who Mitchell’s sharing the floor with in those minutes. As our Jonathan Tjarks detailed in January, Utah’s rash of point guard injuries forced Snyder to slide more ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities to Ingles, the 6-foot-8 Australian grinder equally adept at facilitating in the pick-and-roll and spotting up for deadeye lefty jumpers on the weak side away from the action. The resulting rotational adjustment—no iffy-shooting point guards, plus splitting up the two-big frontcourt of Gobert and Derrick Favors to insert more versatile and athletic wings like Crowder and O’Neal—has bolstered both Mitchell’s attacking and Utah’s already snarling defense.

The Jazz have played 244 minutes of no-point-guard ball this season; all but 21 of them have come over the past two months, and those lineups have been effective, outscoring opponents by 6.2 points-per-100. Gobert-Crowder-O’Neale-Ingles-Mitchell, in particular, has been great, blowing opponents’ doors off by 36 points in 64 total minutes. That group gives Snyder a look where the smallest defender, Mitchell, still has a 6-foot-10 wingspan to go with the strength and athleticism to handle wing scorers.

Those no-PG lineups can switch defensive assignments on the perimeter while playing four-out on offense, with Gobert (or, as was the case in Utah’s big win over Milwaukee last Saturday, Favors) screening, rolling for lobs, and hunting putbacks on the offensive glass. All four perimeter players can line up a 3, put the ball on the deck to attack a closeout, and make a play for a teammate with an advantage against a jumbled defense. And, crucially, they put the ball in Mitchell’s hands more often, rather than shunting him off the ball.

When Rubio’s healthy and available, Synder has a rotation-management problem to solve. When Mitchell handles the job like he did against the Bucks, the solution doesn’t seem all that complicated:

But when he flounders like he did against New Orleans on Monday, missing six of his final eight shots, coughing the ball up four times to give away a fourth-quarter lead, and coming up with this look with the game on the line …

... then maybe things aren’t quite so simple.

Last week’s wins over Denver and Milwaukee were huge, not just because they helped prove the Jazz could hang with the NBA’s elite, but because they seemed to represent the end of the hardest parts of Utah’s season. No team has a softer road home than the Jazz, who will face under-.500 opponents in 14 of their final 19 games; per FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model, Utah’s the projected favorite in 18 of those last 19. But then, they were favored Monday, too, and they still got worked down the stretch by a team with a losing record and nothing else to lose. (The Grizzlies, Utah’s next opponent after the Pelicans rematch, fits that mold too.) That’s the thing about winnable games: You’ve still got to, y’know, win them.

But everything’s set up for Mitchell, Gobert, Snyder, and Co. to steamroller their way through the second week of April and enter the playoffs with home-court advantage, a defense that can put the clamps on anybody, a scorer that can look nigh-on unstoppable, and all the momentum in the world. (If you believe in that kind of thing, anyway.) They’ve taken a roundabout path to it, but the Jazz now have the chance to be the team we thought they’d be. All that’s left is to show that their true form lies closer to the team we saw in those first 40 minutes than the one that showed up for the final eight.