By Mark Milligan Jr
Oct 8, 2018
The West is a gauntlet. That much we know. Golden State is the team to beat and everyone else will be scratching and clawing over each other to rise to the top. Very few teams are sitting this season out and at least two or three teams that deserve to be in the playoffs will be vacationing early.
So how good are the Jazz? Good. Very good, in fact. But so is everyone else. This season will depend on everything from talent to luck, including every variable the opposition has to offer. But that also means that for each foe, the road to victory must pass through Utah as well. In this series, we take a look at how the best teams in the West size up against Utah.
See series previews for L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, & Houston Rockets
Coming soon: Boston Celtics
Say what you will about the Warriors, but they are unarguably the best team in the league. Barring a freak injury, Vegas money is on Golden State bringing home the trophy for the fourth time in only five years. NBA history will look back on this era as the “Warriors Dynasty” and deservingly so. You won’t hear any analysts, writers, or commentators debating who will win the championship. Instead, it’s nothing more than a race for second. …or is it?
This is the part where I argue that Utah can actually give the Warriors a run for their money and you scoff. That’s fine, but hear me out. I’m going to make an argument that goes further than the simple fact that Utah went 3-1 against Golden State last season. (Yes, many will argue that the Warriors weren’t trying very hard, but it’s still worth noting that the Jazz were the one and only team to have a winning record against the champs.)
Golden State’s defense is an intimidating one when awoken (more on that later), but the Warriors’ calling card has always been about putting the ball through the net. Simply put, they are as offensively elite as any team in history. They have perfected the NBA’s new-age shift which focuses on floor-spacing and moneyball. In an attempt to replicate similar success, other teams have started focusing on improved offense (although, good luck trying to beat the Warriors at their own game.) However, becoming offensively elite isn’t the only way to become elite.
By the end of last season, the Jazz were as elite as the Warriors were, but on the opposite end of the floor. How elite, you ask? Take a look for yourself:
2017-18 Post All-Star Defensive Ratings above 100
Anything stand out? If you didn’t notice, Utah was the only team capable of keeping their opponents to under 100 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break (after the Jazz got Rudy back from injury and had traded Hood for Crowder). Not only were they the best in the league, but the 2nd-place 76ers were closer to the 16th-place Thunder than they were to Utah! Some may argue that this level of defense isn’t sustainable for an entire season. That’s fine. Utah has a lot of cushion being at the top.
So who are the Utah Jazz? They are the anti-Warriors; the anti-Rockets. They are a team as elite defensively as any other team is offensively. Stopping the Warriors from running away with points won’t be the problem. In fact, losing to the Warriors in the 2017 playoffs and the Rockets in 2018 had little to do with Utah’s abilities on defense and almost everything to do with not being able to score against imposing/switching defenses. (Not having Rubio for the Rockets series certainly didn’t help.) Golden State and Houston weren’t the best teams in the league last year because they were one-trick ponies. They each had imposing defenses that stalled Utah’s offensive game. Thus, competing with the champions will depend entirely on whether the Jazz can score their own points.
To be good, a team can rely on dominating one side of the floor. However, that only gets a team so far, (as we witnessed last season). Championship caliber means being a two-way team. According to Coach Q and company, their ultimate goal is to win that oh-so elusive championship. So although defense will forever be the foundation, you can expect that Quin’s players are thriving on a steady diet of offensive schemes for each and every possible situation.
Andy Larsen wrote a great piece in the Salt Lake Tribune about how the continuity of Utah’s roster allows Couch Quin to branch out offensively, specifically against the switching defenses that caused Utah so much grief against the likes of Houston, Golden State, and Boston. There’s only so much teaching that can be done within a single season and the Jazz spent that limited time learning how to score against a traditional defense. Unfortunately, they found themselves unprepared when they came across something unfamiliar. However, since the returning Jazz players are already familiar with Quin’s intricate offense, they can spend some extra time preparing for those occasions when an opponent tries to shake things up. And it’s not just local writers that are anticipating an improved offensive. Michael Pina from Vice Sports also predicts an offensive leap to take place and Jonathan Tjarks from The Ringer agrees that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Utah to dethrone Golden State with an improved offense:
Best Case: The Jazz get the no. 1 seed out West, which pushes the Warriors and Rockets into the other side of the bracket. Utah sneaks into the NBA Finals and wins a championship.
The Warriors may still be the best until proven otherwise, but one good thing about being ignored by the national spotlight is that other teams are less likely to see the Jazz coming. When the Jazz catch the Warriors off guard, the national media will call it a fluke, but don’t be as surprised as everyone else when the the Warriors find the Jazz nipping at their heels.
1) Ricky Rubio vs Steph Curry
These guys were forever linked when Rubio was selected ahead of Curry in the 2009 draft (5th and 7th, respectively). Admittedly, Curry is an unprecedented player and is argued by many to be the best shooter in the world. That’s some heavy competition! Frankly, it’s unfair to compare anyone to a player of such otherworldly caliber. Yet Rubio is a great player in his own right. He’s one of the better defending point guards in the league, a pass-first floor general (which old-school Jazz fans can appreciate), and – at 27 years old – has recently discovered the ability to put up points of his own from both mid-range and deep.
That last point might be the biggest factor in this match-up. It goes without saying that Rubio will need to be draped on Curry like a shadow on the defensive end, but forcing Curry to chase Rubio on the other end will be just as important. Rubio will need to show his draft classmate that he is no longer the same shooting liability of old, but a newly-invented and dangerous version of his former self. It will go a long way if Curry is focusing his efforts on the defensive end rather than getting into one of his deadly shooting grooves.
2) Joe Ingles vs Kevin Durant
Joe Ingles “can’t defend a barstool” according to Colin Cowherd. (I wonder if players like J.J. Reddick and Paul “Playoff P” George would agree.) I’ve got nothing against Cowherd, personally, but to anyone who actually pays attention to the NBA, this was an obviously stupid statement that was contradicted by both statistics and colleagues alike. A few tweets from Andy Bailey (Bleacher Report and SLCDunk) are great examples of both.
Joe and Ricky are in the same boat. Not only will Joe be responsible for slowing one of the best offensive players in history, but he will also need to keep Durant focusing his efforts on the defensive end. For the most part, Utah’s size advantage should allow the Jazz to be physically imposing upon a smaller Warriors lineup, but the one player that can re-balance that equation is the 6’11 small forward with a 7’5″ wingspan. If Joe can help control KD’s geography on the court, that will allow the Jazz to make the most of their advantage. Utah’s two best play-makers will both have to be locked in if the Jazz want to contend.
Keys to Victory
Defensive Key – Do What We Do
From New York to Golden State and every stop in between, Utah’s defense works. With Gobert healthy, Utah held Golden State to an average of only 89.67 points across three games. The only time the Warriors ran away with the score was when Rudy was a DNP on Dec 27th. So as long as Gobert is roaming the paint (knock on wood) Utah is more than capable of reminding the Warriors that they are only mortal. Step one is holding the Warriors to a score the Jazz can work with. The next step will be matching their offensive output and will ultimately determine whether the Jazz can actually pull off the upset.
Offensive Key – Can the Jazz Score On a Switching Defense?
We won’t see the answer to this question until game day, but the result is being written today. As mentioned earlier, the continuity of the roster has allowed Coach Snyder to expand his already-intricate offense during training camp and preseason. You can bet that Quin recognized their own Achilles heel when their offense stalled like a 1971 Ford Pinto against the Houston Rockets only a few months ago.
So far for the Jazz, the problem with switching defenses has been that the central key to success requires star power, e.g. players that can score effectively and efficiently in one-on-one situations. Despite Donovan Mitchell’s sensational success as a rookie last year, he was still only a rookie. With his first off-season of training under his belt, I expect the young star to continue leading the charge against opponents that feel like any of their defenders can contain him. I also expect those teams to get frustrated when Donovan proves them wrong. Other capable one-on-one players like Dante Exum and Alec Burks can thrive in those situations as well, as proven by their individual performances against Houston (despite losing the overall series). In addition to those guys’ personal improvement, Coach Q will be sure to have the supporting cast prepared and on the same page when the time comes.
Game 1: Warriors @ Jazz (Oct 19)
It doesn’t matter how well the Jazz perform in their prior seasons, it always seems like they need to re-earn the level of respect they deserve. Despite the league-wide knowledge that Utah is no pushover, it still seems like the national opinion is that the Jazz are at the good-not-great level. Over the last couple of seasons, no team is more guilty of that than the Warriors (#Nightlife sound familiar?). In only the Jazz’ second regular season game of the season, I guarantee the Warriors will come out overly confident. Whether that equates to a win is yet to be determined, but it doesn’t hurt.
Jazz by 3
Game 2: Warriors @ Jazz (Dec 19)
By now, the Jazz will have shown the league who they are: either a top-tier team that Golden State will be looking to beat, or a less-than team that’s not on the same level. Either way, it’ll be difficult keeping pace with the champs twice in a row.
Warriors by 5
Game 3: Jazz @ Warriors (Feb 12)
If the Jazz can pull off a win, it will be a great way to head into the All-star break. However, until proven otherwise, the Warriors are still the best team in the league. To beat them on their own turf is not impossible, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Warriors by 7
*Featured Image courtesy of TheJNotes.com
*All statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise noted