Ask NBA fans for dark horse championship contenders, and you'll likely hear the same handful of teams mentioned: San Antonio, Toronto, Houston. Oh, and maybe the Los Angeles Clippers, if they ever get healthy and can avoid facing the Golden State Warriors, who seem to derive a unique and sadistic joy from embarrassing them.
One team that's almost never brought up? The Utah Jazz. And that's a mistake. Utah is the sneaky-good upstart of the Western Conference, a team of fairly young and underrated players surrounded by older, yet also underrated veterans.
Gordon Hayward is the team's star player and will appear in his very first All-Star game later this month. Rudy Gobert, the most dominant defensive center in the league, ought to be joining him. George Hill rounds out the team's "big three," and has somehow managed to remain one of the most underappreciated two-way players in the NBA for a half-decade.
While that trio might not excite fans the way big threes in Cleveland, Golden State, and Los Angeles do, they're still incredibly formidable—and backed by one of the deepest and most versatile supporting casts in the league. Moreover, the Jazz execute on both ends as well as any team north of San Antonio.
Let's take a closer look at what makes Utah effective, and where the Jazz sit among the NBA's elite:
Defensive Yin and Yang
NBA defenses have two main goals: contain the ball on the perimeter to prevent dribble penetration, and challenge shots at the rim. These are inextricably linked. A good rim protector makes it easier for perimeter players to pressure the ball, since opponents are deterred from attacking the basket and getting their shot blocked; likewise, good on-ball defenders around the perimeter help keep the ball away from the basket, prevent two-on-one situations, and make a rim protector's job much easier.
In Gobert and Hill, the Jazz have some of the league's best inside and outside defense. According to NBA.com, Gobert has defended 784 field goal attempts, more than any other player in the NBA. A whopping 397 of those attempts have come within six feet of the basket, also the highest number in the league, and he's holding opponents to the third-lowest field goal percentage on those attempts at just 40.9 percent. Gobert's 2.5 blocks per game is also a league best.
Simply put, the Stifle Tower is both a rim protector and a rim intimidator. In the clip below, watch how Timofey Mozgov—not exactly a small man!—gets his shot blocked by Gobert on one possession, then rushes an easy layup out of fear of getting blocked by the 7-foot Frenchmen on the next:
Hill has a slender frame, wide shoulders, long reach, and incredible instincts and focus. Those attributes make him uniquely qualified to slither around screens, chase shifty dribblers, and contest pull-up jump shooters. In the clips below, watch how Hill jumps the angle on the screen at the perfect moment to prevent any sort of separation from the ball handler:
While Hill is among the league's best at fighting through screens, all of Utah's perimeter defenders are great at staying engaged for every second of every possession. The average defensive possession for Utah lasts 15.1 seconds, the second longest in the league behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Even slow-footed players like Joe Ingles and Boris Diaw, two of the craftiest defenders in the NBA, are very good at playing angles.
Saint Anselm College associate professor Steve Shea, who writes at basketballanalyticshandbook.com, created an interesting metric called Perimeter Defensive Rating (PDR) in an attempt to measure how well defenders contain and contest dribble penetration. Ingles ranks 14th out of 184 players who have played enough minutes to qualify for the rating, and might be the most surprising shut down defender in the league. Like Hill, he excels at all of the things Utah emphasizes on the defensive end: active hands, contesting without fouling, no mental lapses, and just keeping the ball in front of them. Just watch how active the Jazz keep their hands in the passing lanes and how well they anticipate the passing angles:
Delicious French Rolls
While Gobert has been one of the NBA's most impactful defenders for several seasons, his offensive improvement has made him an elite center. This season, he's averaging career-highs both in points and field goal percentage by a fairly wide margin. Not surprisingly, 316 of his 346 field goal attempts have come at the rim, the fourth-highest mark in the league. He's also completing those attempts at a similar rate to elite finishers like DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard.
Most of these attempts come off rolls to the rim out of the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy stats on NBA.com, Gobert ranks in the 97th percentile in scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll, and is one of just 46 players to average at least two rolls to the rim per game—only Jordan shoots as many shots on rolls to the rim and converts at a higher point per possession rate. But those stats don't tell the whole story.
Synergy only counts a possession as a roll if Gobert finishes the play with a field goal attempt, drawn foul, or turnover. Moreover, the way in which Synergy determines what a "roll" is can be misleading. The real value of Gobert's rolls come from how he draws extra defensive attention.
Opposing defenses can't allow Gobert to be left open on the roll—and since the pick-and-roll begins with a ball screen, his defender is often out of position to prevent him from rolling without weak side help. These helpers are often guarding players in the corners, and partially as a result, the Jazz rank ninth in the NBA in three-point field goal attempts in both the left and the right corners.
Hill and Ingles perfectly compliment Gobert on pick-and-roll plays. Both guards rank in the top seven in the league in three-point field goal percentage on pull up attempts among players to attempt at least 25 such shots this year. That forces opponents to step up on screens, making it that much harder to contain Gobert once he rolls. Hill is especially good, scoring 1.01 points per pick-and-roll possession according to Synergy, the sixth-highest mark in the league.
In the clip below, watch how Hill drags Tony Allen deep into the corner with an inside-out dribble before running him right into the side pick-and-roll with Gobert. With three shooters spacing the floor around the perimeter, the defense is forced to sag off ever so slightly—and Hill is able to fire the pass to Rodney Hood for the three. By dragging the defender a few steps toward the corner, Hill is able to space the floor just enough for the help to have to cover too much ground to contest the shot:
Hill also is excellent at forcing his defender to fight through multiple screens, and has great timing on Gobert re-screens when defenders try to sneak under the initial pick. Watch how Hill traps Mike Conley:
The Kenny G Lineup, or Death by Smooth Jazz
A slew of injuries have forced the Jazz to mix and match players in a variety of lineups. Since the beginning of the year, however, they have found a lineup of Ingles and their big three that is perfectly versatile on both ends.
Before January 1, Utah's four-man pairing of Hill, Ingles, Hayward, and Gobert played just 17 minutes together; since then, they've played 136 minutes. In those 136 minutes, the Jazz have a 116.5 ORTG and a 95.3 DRTG, per NBAwowy.com. That is a monster rating, and the foursome has become the Jazz's go-to combination in clutch situation.
Why does it work? Because it can do a little bit of everything. Hill, Hayward, and Ingles are the three best three-point shooters on the team, and each player shoots better than 39 percent from behind the arc. All three are also elite passers, savvy off-ball cutters, and unlikely to turn the ball over. Add in Gobert's gravity on rolls, and the unit makes defenses pick their poison.
Per nbawowy, 9.1 percent of the foursome's field goal attempts are dunks, a rate that would be the highest in the NBA. They have a free throw attempt rate of 29 percent, a rate that also would lead the league. 37.6 percent of their attempts are three-pointers, a rate that would be 5th highest, and are making 38.5 percent of those attempts, which would rank third.
In short, they are getting a lot of the best types of looks a team can get. On defense, it's more of the same. The unit blocks 6.3 shots per 100 possessions and holds opponents to a 49.5 true shooting percentage, both of which would be best in the league. They allow just 3.5 percent of opponent field goal attempts to come from the corner—compare that to the Charlotte Hornets, who allow the lowest percentage of shots for the corner at 14.2 percent. That's absurd!
The Jazz can get creative with the fifth guy in the rotation, usually the power forward. Derick Favors provides extra size and rebounding. Boris Diaw adds extra playmaking. Joe Johnson adds extra shooting, as does Trey Lyles (in theory). Hood can slide into the lineup against teams that go small down the stretch, bumping Hayward or Ingles to the four spot.
It took Utah a while to find its best lineup, but few opponents have been able to crack it so far. In the playoffs, this could become the team's backbone. And if it performs half as well as it did in January, the Jazz will be as tough and versatile as any of Golden State's challengers in the Western Conference.
Help Still Wanted
Looking forward, the Jazz may find themselves facing a dilemma: having too many young players who need minutes to develop. Dante Exum seemed to be a big part of the franchise's future, but an ACL cost him the 2016 season, and now his minutes have been dramatically reduced. He makes the type of mistakes that young point guards tend to make, missing assignments on defense and dribbling into trouble when the easy play is right in front of him.
As much as Hood has been a key part of the team and one of the five or six best players on the roster, he's still shooting just 36.6 percent from behind the arc, almost identical to his first two seasons in the NBA. That's not bad, but it's just below elite shooting guard level. Moreover, Hood has endured a run of injuries this season, and that could hamper his development.
Lyles is struggling with his shot, hitting just 33.1 percent from behind the arc on 3.5 attempts per game. Shooting is supposed to be his best skill, so that low mark makes him difficult to play as a stretch four. Like Exum, he's also prone to long periods of mistake-filled basketball. He can make basic reads as a passer, but doesn't see the court well enough to be a true playmaking stretch four.
Utah's future ceiling depends fairly heavily on how Exum, Hood, and Lyles progress. Right now, only Hood has shown he can be a reliable player on a contending team. Veterans like Diaw, Johnson, and Shelvin Mack provide more experience, and coach Quin Snyder has leaned on his vets quite a bit when games get tight. Balancing win-now with winning later may be challenging.
Utah's current group has yet to win a playoff series. But nobody wants to face them in the playoffs—even the Warriors would probably prefer to face the Clippers or Rockets in a second-round series. Given the Jazz's relative youth, the team could be rising for years to come, nipping at the heels of star-studded Golden State. For now, they've earned the right to be considered a legitimate dark horse.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.