The Utah Jazz enter this season as either the NBA’s least-respected title contender or its most feared underdog. Coming off a shocking 48-win season and valiant trip to the second round, this team is ocean-bottom deep, with at least a dozen guys who, on any given night, can step into Quin Snyder’s scheme without disrupting the finer machinations that make it hum.
Almost everyone on this year's roster can impact both sides of the ball without damaging the team's familiar aesthetic. A year ago, the Jazz were built along similar lines, but entered the season a bit older and less sure of what they wanted to be. They were hungover from the loss of Gordon Hayward, with far more questions than answers. Right now it's a squad full of two-way competence, with reserves who’re talented, bouncy, and elastic that thrive off their own experience, confidence, and grit. With your life on the line, how many teams would you rank ahead of the Jazz right now? Three? Maybe four?
Unparalleled depth that's never been younger is a major reason why, but so is their presumed willingness to flesh out an identity that can only take them so far. This era of Jazz basketball is defined by terrific defense; it's currently built to discover how high it can climb on the other end.
Without a dangerous offense, the Jazz are kind of like what The Sopranos would’ve been had David Chase never created Christopher Moltisanti. They’re still a force to be reckoned with, but in more predictable ways. They aren't nearly as loud, and are too dull to be universally recognized as having the capacity for greatness. Until now, Snyder's Jazz have only flexed on one side of the ball. The other end has been a whirling concoction of screens, cuts, and passes that don’t always lead to the most efficient shot. It’s a system that’s designed to protect the team’s clear strength: to strangle pace, underscore their size, and benefit from opportunistic sequences in the open floor.
Since 2015, Utah has been league-average on offense, never higher than 13th or lower than 16th, which is where they finished last season. They take a decent amount of threes, get to the free-throw line, and avoid the mid-range. But Utah now has personnel that can showcase a different aesthetic, one that’s more direct and less reliant on 19 east-to-west dribble handoffs before the ball finally crosses the three-point line. If realized, a quantum leap feels both possible and necessary.
What the Jazz lack in genuine star power may be relieved by Donovan Mitchell’s sophomore growth, the boost they’ll receive from a sparkling supporting cast, and the synergy Utah’s coaching staff can tap into with so many intelligent, trustworthy and interchangeable basketball players at their disposal. The grizzled primes (and twilights) of Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Thabo Sefolosha mingling with relentless uppercuts by Grayson Allen, Dante Exum, and Alec Burks. Utah will enjoy units that enable capable passers, shooters, and ball-handlers at nearly every position—the envy of every smart team. They have rim runners and lob tossers. Enough slashers to institute a faster drive-and-kick style, one that's simultaneously attune to creating advantages in transition.
All of this is wonderful. It also requires a small leap of faith. At the end of the day, Utah is only as potent as its first option, and its first option is a 6’3” combo guard who just turned 22. Mitchell wasn’t the most even-keeled rookie, but, out of nowhere, he still averaged 20.5 points per game, won the Slam Dunk contest, and showed he can be efficient in the game’s most important areas.
He made 40.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season (as compared to 29.3 percent off the bounce) and, according to Synergy Sports, finished in the 96th percentile in spot-up situations. Utah had the NBA’s tenth-best offense with Mitchell on the court and dropped down to 27th when he sat. Not all was golden, though. Mitchell’s spattered shot selection is a classic example of an inexperienced player going out of his way to prove he belongs and routinely found him forcing the issue against defenses that were already bent to stop him.
Last season, Mitchell’s usage rate was about the same as Kemba Walker's. (And Walker never shared the floor with a place-setter like Ricky Rubio.) He won’t be under wraps in year two, but an even tighter function will do him and Utah’s overall offense good. Let Donovan initiate pick-and-rolls, of course, but also know that he's even more vicious on the weakside, flying off screens, immediately attacking defenders as they un-crook themselves from focusing on Utah's initial action.
With a full season under his belt, Mitchell should better understand how his teammates are equipped to make life easier. He’ll pass and move with a firm belief that he’ll get it back in a more advantageous spot. Apologies to Rudy Gobert, but this is by far the team’s closest thing to an All-Star. And, given how thick the Western Conference is at his position (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley, etc.), it’d be a pleasant surprise if he made it this early in his career. But Mitchell already has the gravitational pull of an All-Star, along with an elite scorer's toolbox. He can create space in almost any situation, with one of the fastest releases in the league.
A lot is riding on Mitchell's elevating skill-set, but everything doesn't fall on his shoulders. With an array of different lineup combinations better suited for myriad styles of play, the question of whether Gobert and Derrick Favors can play at the same time is no longer worth asking. Overall, Utah typically outplays its opponent when those two share the court, but the offense stalled last year. (Lineups featuring Favors and Gobert scored extremely well in the playoffs—they deserve credit for pounding defenses on the glass—but most of that is thanks to unsustainable three-point shooting by everyone else.) And as more teams take more threes with each passing year, it only makes sense to adapt.
The obvious step is for Utah to start Crowder—who heads into the season in a different place, mentally and physically, than last year—at the four and unleash Favors as a backup center, his real position. (Among all five-man units that logged at least 190 minutes last season, Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder, and Gobert had the highest point differential, with an offense that was nearly two points better than the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.)
The Jazz have so many other options to sprinkle throughout any given game, too. They can play Rubio, Mitchell, and Exum at the same time, with Ingles at power forward, and hardly lose much on the defensive end. Burks, Allen, Sefolosha, and Royce O’Neale are assembly-line wings with varying degrees of verve. Each should be able to run a useful pick-and-roll from the second side and either keep the ball moving or dot their own exclamation point. (Giving the near-2,000 minutes formerly held by 30-year-old Jonas Jerebko and 36-year-old Joe Johnson to speedier pieces who can better keep up with Mitchell won't hurt anybody.)
There are so few one-dimensional specialists in Snyder’s rotation, which could make defending them all at the same time feel like completing a jigsaw puzzle during an earthquake. Between Rubio, Ingles, and Mitchell, there’s almost too much creativity. Between O’Neale, Crowder, and Sefolosha, there’s just the right amount of stability. Almost everyone can put it on the deck, get to the rim, find an open shooter, and knock down an open shot—the Jazz have been one of the NBA’s best teams at creating and making corner threes over the past three seasons. That pattern should continue this year.
It’s bold to think Utah has the ingredients to stir up a top-five offense, but that target is not out of reach with this specific collection of pieces. From March 1st until the final day of last year's regular season, Utah had the league’s highest point differential—+13.5!—and its ninth-best offense. Not all is gravy, though. One of this team's most worrisome personality traits has been carelessness. Over the last four years, they’ve ranked 26th, 27th, 23rd, and 25th in turnover percentage. Some of that is thanks to Gobert’s hands—though it’s worth noting that on the first play of Utah’s preseason, he ran an inverted pick-and-roll with Rubio that started at the elbow and ended with an and-one dunk at the rim—Ingles’s frequent tendency to do way too much, and chemistry issues resulting from teammates who haven’t had enough time to feel each other out.
But as key players settle into familiar roles, it's reasonable to believe they can turn that weakness around. This team can play faster now, too. Snyder’s approach in Utah has been saturated by a commendable appreciation for the entire 24-second shot clock, but after two straight seasons ranked second-to-last in transition frequency, the Jazz leapt up to 19th last year, per Cleaning The Glass. And once they're out in the open floor, they know how to score.
The steady shift towards modernization shouldn't be awkward. Last year, they were allergic to post-ups despite a dual-big front court that went against the grain. For every five post-ups executed by the San Antonio Spurs, Utah posted up one time, and no team was less effective at using them to actually put the ball in the basket. Instead, the Jazz passed out of post-ups more frequently than anyone else, by a significant margin.
With Snyder's egalitarian principles already caked into their foundation, blending in more uptempo, outside-shot-happy, versatile ideals could give Utah one of the league's most dynamic and diverse attacks. Ever so quietly, they were built to do more than compete on that end. Right now, they should be ready to dominate.