After losing star forward Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in free agency, nobody would have blamed the Utah Jazz for only mustering a sub-40 win season in a competitive Western Conference. Sitting at 19-28 after a dreadful loss to the bottom-feeder Atlanta Hawks, it certainly looked like they were headed that way.
It has been everything but dreadful since that Jan. 22 night.
The Jazz rolled into the All-Star break on a tear and has won 12 of its last 13 on its way to a 31-29 record. It has also posted the third-highest net rating and best defensive rating in that stretch.
In these 13 games, it has defeated some of the best in the NBA, including Toronto, Golden State (albeit without Curry and Durant) and San Antonio (twice).
Now, the Jazz is 10th in the West just 2 games out of a playoff spot. With the DeMarcus Cousins’ injury and the Blake Griffin trade, both the Pelicans and the Clippers will likely fall, leaving one last playoff spot for the Jazz.
But why stop there? The Jazz is only three games behind the fifth-seeded Trail Blazers and four and a half games behind the third-seeded Spurs, and it’s looking more likely that Kawhi Leonard will not see the floor again this season. If this team can bring some of its win-streak magic into its easier, post-All-Star schedule — 12 of its last 22 are home games — and climb to the sixth seed or higher to avoid Golden State and Houston in the first round, it could be a legitimate playoff upset candidate.
Their prized rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, selected with the No. 13 overall pick last June, is poised to be the next Jazz star in the post-Hayward era.
After struggling to hit shots consistently earlier in the season, he has shown a capability to be a dominant primary playmaker for a winning team. His almost elite passing is one of the more underrated aspects of his game, lost in the shadows of his flashy scoring moves that have generated Rookie of the Year buzz.
What has truly reversed Utah’s fortunes, however, goes beyond Mitchell. Red-hot shot making and creation from starting point guard Ricky Rubio and forward Joe Ingles in the last 13 games has given the Jazz a 109.2 offensive rating, good for 10th in the league (up from 104.4 and 18th in the previous 47 games).
Rubio has averaged 16.2 points per game on 61 percent true shooting in this stretch, both anomalies from the pass-first point guard who has struggled from the outside. He has been much more of a threat to score in the lane recently, surprising opposing centers who expect a pass.
Previously, the book on Rubio has been to go under all screens and allow him to shoot, but he has been punishing that in the Jazz’s wins. First, he burns his man for going under on the screen, and then he burns the center for not stepping up.
An interesting adaptation of Jazz head coach Quin Snyder’s offense to Rubio’s fast game has been their emphasis on pushing the ball off an opponent’s miss.
They still walk it up and take their time off of a made shot. But with Rubio, Utah has tried to push the pace and quickly get into some initial screening action to catch the defense unprepared. Here, on two consecutive plays, they push into easy shots for center Rudy Gobert at the rim.
Meanwhile, Ingles has been putting forth his best effort to steal the mantle of “best Aussie in the NBA” from leading Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.
He and Rubio must have taken some kind of potion after that Atlanta loss. During the stretch, Ingles is averaging 15.3 points per game on 69 percent true shooting, the latter figure being third in the league among non-centers playing 15 minutes or more.
Fresh off of signing a four-year, $52 million dollar deal this offseason, Ingles has been an above-average starter for the Jazz and a key component of their revitalized team of late.
At times, teams try to sneak bad defenders on him, but he has shown an improved ability to score at the basket and make these defenses reconsider. Just like Rubio, he has been daring centers to stay in the lane and watch him splash a three off a hard Gobert screen.
Another part of their success has been a defense invigorated by the return of elite rim-protecting center Gobert.
The Stifle Tower returned from injury three games before the 11-game win streak started. During the full 13-game stretch, Utah has owned the league’s best defense with a 97.3 defensive rating, the only team under 100.
Rubio has been harassing pick-and-roll ball handlers with his long arms and active hands. Gobert has been able to protect the rim well and use his length to corral rebounds even after contests.
Favors and Gobert have also developed a nice offensive chemistry, and they work well together on that side of the ball. Similar to what the Spurs like to run with their two big men Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Jazz will run a double screen to clear space for a Favors jumper or for a Gobert roll to the rim.
On defense, the two-man combo has been among the league’s best by the numbers, a zag to the zig of the small-ball era. During the Jazz’s win streak, Utah has had a 95.4 defensive rating and 58.3 rebounding percentage with them on the floor.
Here, watch the expert communication between Mitchell and Ingles. Suns center Alex Len approaches point guard Elfrid Payton to set a screen. While this is happening, guard Devin Booker sets a screen on Len’s man to give Len more space to operate on the roll. Booker will then cut to the top of the key after setting the Spain screen, the key action in what is known as the Spain pick-and-roll.
Seeing this, Ingles tells Mitchell to switch onto Booker. This is advanced level switching defense that needs all three players involved to be on the same page. Even though Mitchell is late closing out on the Booker three, the defensive framework is there for Utah.
Beyond their more well-known players, Summer League standout swingman Royce O’Neale has worked his way into Snyder’s rotation, playing almost 26 minutes per game in the past 13 games and even starting a few games with Rubio’s absence because of injury. He has a filled a 3&D role for them — he’s hitting 38.7 percent from three in the last 13 — and could be a valuable complementary piece going forward in Utah.
Granted, the scorching shooting from Ingles and Rubio likely won’t last, and they will fall back down to Earth eventually. But their evolutions as players, at least this year, are legitimate and will allow them to be leaders of this Utah team going forward. Further, the development of Mitchell’s star and Gobert’s elite defense make this team dangerous even after Hayward’s departure, both for this season and years to come.
Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].