The Jazz were my second-worst whiff in the 2017-18 previews. I never saw Donovan Mitchell coming, expected the team’s lack of offense to be unable to compensate for their great defense, and said that any missed time by Rudy Gobert would mean a sub-30-win season.
Well, Mitchell was a genuine star as a rookie, the team was 16th in offense and 2nd in defense, and Gobert missed time (and the team was 19-28 when he came back) but went 29-6 in their last 35 games, a 68-14 82-game pace.
No, they’re not going 68-14 this year. But it speaks to how an elite defensive team that scores any points at all is an instant powerhouse and at least on the outside fringes of the discussion for a sleeper title contender.
But then again, we say that a lot about the Jazz, don’t we? Seems like they’re always the team that, under coach Quin Snyder and with their roster, is going to challenge the Warriors.
So the bigger question is how much of that white-hot momentum from last year are they going to carry into this year?
2017-18 record: 48-34
2018-19 over/under: 48.5
One More Win. Just One More Win.
The Jazz were a last-game-of-the-season loss to Portland away from winning the Northwest Division and playing their way into the 3 seed last year.
Instead, they got to the 5 seed, beat the Thunder in 6 in the first round, and bowed out in a no-shame defeat against the Rockets.
They have the key pieces from last year back. If Gobert stays healthy, they’re a 55-win (or possibly a 60-win if Mitchell continues to develop and gets more disciplined with his shot selection) team.
That’s a good start.
We Still Don’t Know Things About Gobert
Gobert is, far and away and it’s not close, the best rim protector in the league. He led the league in Defensive Win Shares in 2016-17, has led the league in block percentage twice, and has a great nose for the rebound, posting a 28.0 REB% for his career.
What’s more, he’s lethal in the restricted area on offense (a Wilt Chamberlain-like accuracy within three feet, topping the 70 percent mark in each of the last two seasons), fantastic at drawing fouls (a .726 FT rate) and good enough for his size at making the charity tosses (68.2 percent from the line last season, a career-high.)
But he can’t guard mobile centers out on the perimeter to save his life. As soon as spread offenses with shooting big men force him out of the paint, it’s a dunk party and everyone’s invited in the lane, assuming they’re not just raining threes down.
And even against an elite inside man like Clint Capela, Gobert can essentially be held in place, a basketball equivalent of the classic ancient warfare tactic of the hammer and anvil.
Keep the big man from being a factor on the low block and you wipe Utah out with a cavalry charge of perimeter players. This is how Houston ran Utah off the floor and how the Warriors can do the same thing.
So About Mitchell…
So everyone’s new favorite shooting guard posted 43.7 percent shooting and a below-league-average 34.0 from three.
He also posted Big 4 advanced stats of a 16.7 PER, .095 WS/48, 1.1 BPM (including being a minus defender), and a 2.1 VORP.
Which means he was good, occasionally very good, and rarely great (I’ve compared him to Jerry Stackhouse before, a volume shooter in the classic 30 points on 30 shots Dark Ages mold.)
But this is his second year. Good players get better in Year 2, and I can’t wait to see his ceiling…and really, his ceiling is Reggie Miller.
Ricky Rubio…Doesn’t Suck Anymore?
Rubio still can’t shoot for beans, but a .476 eFG% and 35.2 percent three-point mark is almost serviceable.
The weird thing is that his passing stats are way down, a function of the difference between Minnesota’s selfish-assist-friendly black hole offense and Utah’s actual ability to use all five players to create opportunities at the basket.
Rubio’s assist rate for his career in Minnesota? 39.2.
In Utah? 28.4.
It turns out that maybe using a player of many and varied talents in a way where he gets to show off his many and varied talents might make him into something like what he was when he was drafted.
He’s even managed a .537 True Shooting, based in no small part on a crafty ability to get to the line and an automatic free-throw stroke.
Do Derrick A Favors
Derrick Favors putting up a career-best 56.3 percent shooting clip, becoming a 2.5 VORP player, and finally evolving into Homeless Man’s Karl Malone in a situational role at power forward, combined with his bulldog defense, means Utah finally has the guy they hoped to get when they drafted him in 2010.
His 18.8 PER, career-low 9.9 turnover percentage, and best-of-his-career .179 WS/48 speaks to a player that, if he can stay healthy, would be a major addition to any team in the league.
If he stays healthy.
Look, the point of all this is that the Jazz are no fluke. That 29-6 run down the stretch last year reflects the very best this team can be.
They’re not going 68-14. But they’re not going 48-34 again either.
You’re looking at the early favorite for the 3 seed here. And if Houston gets shot to hell by Chris Paul‘s health and Carmelo Anthony‘s being garbage, Utah might get the 2 seed and a crack at the Western Conference Finals.
Absolutely Confirmed. Over.