The Utah Jazz’s Weird, Wonderful 12-4 Start

During the COVID-mandated shutdown of the NBA during the spring and early summer of 2020, the Utah Jazz were at the center of a firestorm of rumors and controversy involving NBA Patient Zero Rudy Gobert, his alleged beef with fellow COVID patient Donovan Mitchell, and the potential breakup of a Jazz team that had found itself in “good but not quite good enough” territory over the past couple of years, a team that seemed to suffer from the second-round-ceiling problem that inevitably leads to tough decisions being made when the team can’t become a true contender.

Today, January 24, 2021, the Jazz stand tied with the Los Angeles Clippers and half a game back of the Los Angeles Lakers for first place in the Western Conference, a feat all the more noteworthy insofar as the three teams mentioned are all in turn better than the 12-5 Philadelphia 76ers, whose fourth-best-in-the-league record is first in the East.

What’s more, the Jazz are seventh overall in Offensive Rating, sixth in Defensive Rating, fourth in Net Rating, and lead the league in 3-point makes per game—bearing in mind that as this goes to press, the stats aren’t on Basketball Reference yet for the Golden State game, but looking at the box score, the Jazz exceeded their already sky-high season averages for 3-point makes, attempts, and 3PAR, so I’m just going to work from the stats that were current as of Saturday morning since they already make the points I’m going to make here.

Let’s start with that 3-point shooting since it is absolutely bonkers and the absolute apex of what modern NBA basketball can be when it’s executed correctly.

The Jazz take 46.7 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, second behind only the triple-wacky Toronto Raptors (.489 3PAR.)

Unlike the Raptors, the Jazz are also deadeye efficient from out there, hitting 40.3 percent of their long balls, which is itself second in the league behind the insane (43.3 percent) Clippers, and the Staples Center denizens are just 13th in 3PAR (.413), trading quantity for quality.

Four Jazz players—Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles—are taking at least five 3-pointers a game while making over 40 percent of them. A fifth—Bojan Bogdanovic—is shooting better than league-average, making 37.8 percent of his 6.5 attempts per outing.

And Royce O’Neale is hitting 45.8 percent of his 3.9 attempts per game, which in turn constitute a whopping 78.7 percent of his total attempts as the starting lineup’s fifth option.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Utah’s extremist view of a four-out offense, Rudy Gobert has not so much as attempted a 3-pointer all year; he’s just pouring in 12.2 points per game on 60.7 percent shooting (equivalent in terms of eFG% to shooting 40.5 percent from three) and a whopping .615 FTR.

Incidentally, between Gobert’s horrific shooting at the line—46.7 percent—and the outside shooters’ natural tendency not to get fouled while shooting all those threes, Utah is second up from the bottom in made FT per FGA and 25th in raw FTR.

Which, in turn, leads to the next oddball point about the Jazz both offensively and defensively.

In terms of D’Antoni Index, they’re barely above league-average; being second in 3PAR is great, but 25th in FTR and 20th in 0-3 foot attempt rate tends to cancel it out. Their raw score is .925; adjusted for league average, that’s a plus-.021 DAI. Good, but there are plenty of teams who shoot lots of threes who also do those other two elements of efficient basketball better than the Jazz do them.

Meanwhile, the defense is about as conservative as it’s possible for a defense to be.

The Jazz are dead last in the league at forcing turnovers; their opponents turn the ball over on just 10.5 percent of their possessions.

But what the Jazz do well is forcing their opponents into truly awful shots; their opponents have a microscopic-for-2021 .500 eFG%, second in the league (behind only the Knicks, whose opponents put up a pathetic .496 eFG%), and while the Jazz are just 13th in defensive rebounding percentage, they nonetheless pull down more total defensive rebounds per game than any team in the league.

Which is all the more mind-blowing when you consider that the Jazz play the eighth-slowest pace in the league.

Of course, when you have Gobert on your team, you’re probably commanding a ton of offensive boards, at least by 2021 standards, and indeed the Jazz have the fourth-highest rate of rebounding their own misses at 25.3 percent.

Which, in turn, means their opponents are rebounding just 74.7 percent of the defensive rebounds on offer. The only team with a lower average than that against the whole league is the woeful Charlotte Hornets, who rebound just 74.5 percent of the available defensive caroms, one reason they’re nowhere near being a contender unless they somehow get hot and sneak into the 10 spot for the expanded play-in games this year.

The Jazz have purified, refined, and made weapons-grade the ideals that Stan Van Gundy first showed to be practical in Orlando way back in the late aughts, when Dwight Howard and a cadre of outside shooters ended up going all the way to the 2009 Finals before bowing out to Kobe Bryant‘s juggernaut in Los Angeles.

Nobody in the NBA, not Milwaukee, not Cleveland, not Indiana, nobody—plays such a pure system that so perfectly fits a classic video game-esque character build archetype.

The Jazz do. And they’re 12-4 and look to finally be making the leap that last summer nobody thought they’d be able to make.

Look out, NBA. The next evolution of basketball is happening by the Great Salt Lake.