The Utah Jazz are very quietly having themselves a season.
With a record that stands at 34-20, they currently occupy the fourth spot in the Western Conference – 1.5 games ahead of the L.A. Clippers.
Securing home court advantage would be huge for the Jazz – a team that hasn’t made a postseason appearance since 2011-12. That year a group led by Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
As a result, Utah decided it was time to reboot, and chose to do so around the burgeoning talents of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors.
Fast forward to 2017 and they are among the more experienced players on a very different looking Jazz team. This iteration also features one of the most exciting defensive bigs in the league, Rudy Gobert, as well as the veteran talents of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw.
In three and a half seasons in the NBA Gobert has proved himself one of the steals of the 2013 Draft (after being selected 27th by the Denver Nuggets, before getting traded to Utah), while Hill, Johnson and Diaw have all helped the Jazz go from being an outsider in the West last season, to a competitor this time around.
General Manager Dennis Lindsey deserves a lot of credit, as since being appointed in 2012 he has drafted wisely, adding promising players like Dante Exum (5th in 2014), Rodney Hood (23rd in 2014) and Trey Lyles (12th in 2015) to the roster – as a side note, he also drafted Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad in 2013, as well as Isaiah Whitehead and Taurean Prince last year, all of whom now play elsewhere.
And that’s not all, as one of the most important decisions he made was to appoint Quin Snyder head coach. In his first two and a half seasons in charge, the fifty-year old has accumulated a record of 112-105 and has helped the Jazz take baby steps forward each year.
This will come as no surprise to many, as Snyder learned his craft as an assistant with teams like the Clippers, and the Atlanta Hawks. And thanks to the tutelage of Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer among others, he’s since proved himself a perfect match for the young Jazz, establishing a staunch defensive identity that has them grinding out wins left and right.
In fact, Utah currently has the 3rd best defensive rating in the league (104.4), holding opponents to a league-best 95.7 points per game.
Their offense isn’t bad either, as although they only score an average of 100.5 points per game (28th best), they have an offensive rating of 109.6 (11th best), which, when considered in relation to what they’re doing on defence, makes for pretty good reading.
The offensive shift is the key here, as this was a good defensive team last year. Yet thanks to the development of Hayward (22.4 PPG), Hood (13.7 PPG) and Gobert (13.0 PPG), as well as the scoring and leadership they’re getting from Hill (17.7 PPG) and the solid bench contribution Johnson (8.6 PPG) offers, they’re currently rolling on both ends of the floor.
This balance was more than evident on Wednesday night, as they trounced the New Orleans Pelicans 127-94, shooting 55 percent from the field while making 14 threes, and limiting Anthony Davis to just 12 points.
Despite losing the subsequent game to the Dallas Mavericks, they are currently 4 games back of the 3rd placed Houston Rockets, 7 behind the 2nd placed San Antonio Spurs, and 11 games back of the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors.
Not that this will bother them right now, as the Jazz seem finally to have separated themselves from the also-rans in the West and will be delighted to be looking down on teams like the Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder heading towards the All-Star break.
While two of those teams are considerably more experienced, and one has arguably the best point guard in the league right now in Russell Westbrook, Utah is younger and is undoubtedly set up to compete for longer.
There are a number of big-name, small market teams (like the Phoenix Suns, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Orlando Magic, for instance) who could learn a lot from the Jazz right now. They have, after all, rebuilt patiently around a young core embodying a concept, and are now seeing the fruits of their labour.
And while no one’s exactly tipping them for the title this year, provided they stay free of injuries and maintain their current momentum after the All-Star break, this team will be a tough out when the playoffs roll around – particularly if they are able to secure home court advantage.