Contending for a championship is a burden of proof. Any NBA player can say their team will be vying for the title this season, and an implausible number of them will. Reality is more selective; even in a boom year, only a handful of teams have a nontrivial chance of winning it all, leaving somewhere around three-quarters of the league to twist about in their shorted ambitions. The reward for those lucky enough to actually be in the running is a monthslong vetting process, inexact and often inelegant, to determine whether a good team has the survival instincts to outlast an entire conference.
On its most superficial level, that vetting might look like Shaquille O’Neal bludgeoning Donovan Mitchell with his half-formed takes on live television. “I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players, but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level,” Shaq blustered last month at Mitchell as he ignored another sound win by the Jazz, their seventh straight in what would be an 11-game win streak. “I said it on purpose. I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?” Mitchell answered confidently and diplomatically, considering the question—was it even a question?—carried only the weight of the hot air that made it. But Mitchell and the Jazz don’t have to prove anything to Shaq. The games will show whether Utah can win at the highest levels of the league. A final verdict will be pulled from a larger, more complicated body of work.
We’ll all know, in the end, what it meant that the Jazz had the best record in the West and a top-four net rating at this stage in the season. We’ll learn what aspects of their performance were real and which were merely suggestive. Shaq was grasping at that in his own sort of ham-fisted way, but the season is more interesting if we take it as a chance for every team to explain itself. The Jazz are on the verge of something. We could take that as reason to say, in our deepest bass, that they don’t have what it takes, or we could try to understand what, if anything, still separates them from the best teams in their conference.
Think of it as a checklist. Not one for Mitchell or the Jazz to answer to, but for those of us watching them to mull over and mark as they go, in gauging what it might take to topple the Lakers or Clippers. Utah’s hope of breaking through to the West finals for the first time since 2007 begins here:
Hone their collective problem solving
How far the Jazz go in the postseason will depend primarily on their ability to process the challenges in front of them. The weight of that has historically fallen on Mitchell, as it often does with any dazzling lead guard who can think on his feet. Yet even the best in that particular mold have been stumped at times by the puzzle box of playoff defense. It’s one thing to attack and dish and lead a team to a top-10 finish on offense, as Mitchell did last regular season. It’s quite another to crack specialized, evolving coverages in series after series. Utah’s most recent playoff run never really gave Mitchell the chance to try; when he finally hit the wall in Game 7 in the first round against Denver, scoring just 22 points in 43 minutes, it felt as if his relative crash was owed more to scoring himself to exhaustion in the first six games (in which he averaged an incredible 38.7 points) than any strategic shift on the part of the Nuggets.
Utah can’t be so reliant on Mitchell as to stall out in another long series. One way forward is through Mitchell’s sheer ability alone—a natural scorer dutifully working, at times, in his second basketball language as a playmaker. Another is by decentralizing the offense altogether, which is how this current Jazz team has found its next gear. Mitchell’s usage is almost identical to where it was last season, but with Mike Conley back in All-Star form and Bojan Bogdanovic back in the lineup after missing the 2020 playoffs, Utah doesn’t have to lean on its young franchise guard in quite the same way.
“Guys are just better within their roles together,” Conley told The Ringer. “For us, we’re such a tight-knit group—we’re such a close group, an unselfish group—that it was a matter of time before things would click at some point. When they do click, they look awesome.”
Most nights, at least one of Utah’s All-Star-worthy guards is rolling in a way that can orient the offense and draw the kind of attention that gets the ball flying around the floor. This was part of the reason that Utah traded for Conley in the first place. The Jazz already knew how to roll one action into another, and another, and another from intuitive movement and passing alone. But now if an opponent creates enough friction to derail that kind of sequence, Utah has more ways to improvise an alternative. The best version of the playoff Jazz isn’t one that force-feeds Mitchell until he evolves into a different kind of player. It’s something closer to what we saw from Miami in the bubble, where a balanced team can win out with the power of its collective processing.
Utah’s offense is at its noticeable best in third quarters, after Quin Snyder (recently decorated as the Western Conference Coach of the Month) has a chance to tinker with the systems in place. It’s promising to see the Jazz change their footing as they go, working over defenses with noticeably different philosophies—even within the same week. One night, opponents might crash down on Utah’s pick-and-rolls to keep Rudy Gobert from getting a free lunch at the rim. The next, the defense might prioritize the Jazz shooters instead, opting to live with whatever Mitchell and Gobert cook up. The best practices against Utah are worth monitoring this season; if opposing teams don’t settle on a blueprint by playoff time, it will be a credit to what Mitchell, Conley, and Snyder have done to keep this team agile.
Exploit the variance game
The unifying principle of Jazz basketball this season is to monopolize the 3-point line. It’s not enough for Utah to merely launch 3s at one of the highest rates in the league; it also strives to prevent opponents from taking any at all. The results have been pretty extreme; the Jazz have already played four games this season in which they out-shot opponents by at least 20 long-range attempts, including a win over the Pelicans that caused Brandon Ingram to find religion. Overall, Utah has taken 228 more 3s than its opponents—almost 100 more than the next-most-audacious team out there.
Snyder has essentially put his thumb on the scale. Dominating the 3-point margin is the surest way to control a game’s explosive potential; the Bucks, for example, run a perfectly modern and largely successful offense, but what recourse did they have when the Jazz drilled nine 3s in the first quarter against them? Those shots came from everywhere, as they have all season. The only Jazz rotation players taking less than half their shots from beyond the arc are Mitchell, Gobert, and Derrick Favors. Mitchell attempts his fair share anyway (8.5 a game, converted at a cool 40 percent, both career highs) in a comprehensive scoring role. Everyone else is a designated shooter—and in Conley’s case, the primary means of springing those shooters into action.
It took Conley the better part of his first season with the Jazz just to find himself in their style. His pick-and-rolls with Gobert initially came out so stilted that it seemed to confuse them both. Yet while they workshopped the timing, Conley never seemed quite comfortable enough to fully unpack the layers of offense that a balanced two-man game makes possible. “That has all been a process for me,” he says. You wouldn’t know it from the way Conley will now loft a pass to Gobert in stride, or—just as crucially—look past him to find an eager shooter on the weak side. Take Jordan Clarkson. In their 329 minutes together last season, Conley assisted Clarkson on a ho-hum 10 3-pointers. In just 275 minutes so far this season, they’ve already connected on 17, including this array out of a basic high pick-and-roll:
“For me in the pick-and-roll reads, Rudy is gonna do what he does,” Conley says. “It’s pretty obvious that he’s rolling to the rim. So it gives me that read, it gives me the floater read, it gives me Bojan, Joe, Jordan, all those guys on the opposite side. The more I’ve gotten to run reps with these guys, the more I got to know where they’re gonna be at. Now we’re just throwing passes to spots on the floor.”
Utah’s defense was already clamping down on perimeter shooters last season, but Conley’s return to form allows the Jazz to turn up quality attempts in bunches and push the 3-point discrepancy even further in their favor. At the moment, no other contender shares their fringe statistical profile; the Bucks and Clippers take quite a few 3s but don’t actively prevent them, while the Lakers and Celtics have managed to curb their opponents’ attempts without taking all that many themselves. Shooting this much and this well could be a powerful equalizer for the Jazz—particularly if they continue, almost paradoxically, to rebound more of their own misses than any other team in the league.
Win the bench minutes
To unseat the L.A. juggernauts, the Jazz might need to win games in the second quarter, when opposing superstars usually steal away to the bench for a moment’s rest. The full extent of a team’s depth might be less relevant in the postseason, but meaningful games will inevitably come down to which side gets better minutes out of a few key reserves. Joe Ingles has powered the Jazz’s secondary action for years, slow-playing drives and connecting dots all over the floor. Moving him from the starting lineup to the bench gave the second unit the playmaking jolt it needed. Utah’s front office banked its offseason on the idea that Clarkson and Favors could help Ingles to swing games, and so far they’ve been proved right. Clarkson has become a clean, incisive scorer with the Jazz—a Sixth Man of the Year front-runner who doesn’t need to take over his team’s operation to put up points. Favors slipped back into a familiar system after spending a gap year in New Orleans, and has given Utah the exact kind of security it needs in a backup to Gobert. The team that clenched its way through Tony Bradley’s stints in the 2020 playoffs is now winning the minutes when Favors steps in for his All-NBA teammate.
What an evolution. Just a few short months ago, the Jazz essentially ran a six-man rotation in their final playoff game. Now they rely on blended lineups of starters and reserves to carry them—lineups that could plausibly hold water in their next postseason run. This isn’t just a talented bench, but one that makes sense in context; Clarkson, Favors, and Ingles fit in a manner that’s difficult to scheme against. Consider, though, how the impact of those three players might stack up against the key reserves of the other top contenders in the West:
Clippers: Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac, and one of Luke Kennard or Lou Williams
Lakers: Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and (probably) Alex Caruso
Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, and JaMychal Green
That’s not exactly a forgiving bunch, but Utah’s entire margin for error could amount to what it carves out against those sorts of players.
Compensate for the one piece they’re missing
It’s not a great omen that some of the biggest individual scoring performances levied against Utah’s top-five defense this season have come from bigger wings—the same sort of players who drive the Lakers and Clippers, and the kind the Jazz are in no real position to stop. Bless Royce O’Neale for trying. Utah’s go-to stopper regularly gives chase to players 4 and 5 inches taller, swiping at whatever shots he can reach and battling for position at every step. Futility will always be a part of defense, but there’s something especially futile about a 6-foot-4 wing slogging his way around screens just so that he might be at the bottom of LeBron’s view when he raises up for a jumper. The taller Ingles contests a bit higher and will compete with anyone, but starting a half-step slow against the best wings in the league can create problems for the whole defense.
There are unavoidable limitations that come with playing this undersized on the wing and across the perimeter more broadly. Just think: Every time an athletic small-forward type runs the break and creates some momentary matchup confusion, Utah’s defense—with its smaller guards and traditional center—is at the mercy of plays like this:
It’s worth noting, however, that the aforementioned run of high-scoring wing performances—the 31 from Khris Middleton, the back-to-back 30- and 25-point games from Luka Doncic, the separate 28 and 27 from Jerami Grant, and the combined 45 from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard—all came in Jazz wins. So long as the bulk of Utah’s defense does its job and its offense continues to border on overwhelming, the lack of a lankier wing defender seems more like a noticeable flaw than a damning one.
Any hope for that balance goes through Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, even as he shrugs off opponents attempting all sorts of tactics to screen him out of the action and pull him out of the paint. Utah again allows fewer shots around the rim than all but a handful of defenses, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s Gobert, clearly, warding off the bright ideas of would-be drivers with his 9-foot-9 standing reach. Roadblocked Jazz opponents are then shooting the second-worst percentage in the league on midrange shots, many still in Gobert’s shadow:
That trade-off looks a bit different when the player finding a pillowy cushion of midrange space is someone like Kawhi, a pull-up monster who lives in open defiance of the percentages that inform Utah’s entire defense. It’s up to Gobert to preserve the system’s structural integrity against that sort of direct challenge in the coming months, and to stabilize it in ways he failed to during the 2020 playoffs.
“We came up short,” Gobert told reporters after the Jazz were eliminated last fall, “but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship. Might be painful right now, but I guarantee that all of us will come back better—I’m going to come back better—and we’re going to do anything we can that’s in our power to be a better team next year.”
It’s a familiar claim, but so far, Gobert and his teammates have delivered. The work continues. If the Jazz are going to push through the playoff gauntlet toward genuine contention, they can’t have a defense that’s conspicuously vulnerable to taller wings like Kawhi and guards who can shoot off the dribble like Jamal Murray and stretch bigs (although that hardly covers it) like Nikola Jokic. It’s on Gobert to square away one weakness at a time—not to nullify it, but to render it manageable. To turn the problems that doomed past Jazz teams into the kind they can now hold in their hands.