Utah Jazz: 10 Reasons They're Legitimate Contenders for the NBA Title

Justin KeyCorrespondent IDecember 8, 2010

Utah Jazz: 10 Reasons They're Legitimate Contenders for the NBA Title

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    Always the bridesmaid and never the bride—the persistent phrase that follows the Utah Jazz. But that could be changing in the 2010-11 season. As the NBA is on the cusp of 25 games in the columns, the Jazz has shown why they’re real contenders for the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy.

     The Jazz is perhaps the most overlooked teams in the entire league. Geographically speaking, it’s obvious to see why. Historically speaking, it’s a head-scratcher.

     The Jazz have made the playoffs 19 times in the last 22 years since Jerry Sloan has taken the helm as head coach, and this has been largely debated by NBA fans and analysts alike.

     The two schools of though surrounding the Jazz have been “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and the other is “Sloan will take his place next to John Stockton and Karl Malone: hall-of-famers with no rings.

     The Utah Jazz could be changing the second statement this year. 

Jerry Sloan and the Flex Offense

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    Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan’s system is as unique as Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense. The Flex Offense is built on players with high basketball IQ’s, constant movement, and hardnosed work. It’s the epitome of Jerry Sloan.

     What makes this year different for Utah is the players to execute the system. Where Jazz teams of the past failed, the personnel has changed. Many NBA analysts were concerned with the losses of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, and Wesley Mathews, but general manager Kevin O’Connor did his thing this summer, and then some. 

     The additions of defensive specialist Raja Bell, multi-skilled Francisco Elson, the low post play of Al Jefferson, and solid backup PG Earl Watson have all been a key cog in Sloan & Company’s success so far.

     A very scary thought for Jazz opponents: Jerry Sloan hasn’t incorporated half of the plays he intends to. As this team becomes more familiar with each other, the Jazz system will expand and become more difficult to stop.

Improvement On the Road

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    Last seasons the Jazz won only 21 games on the road. Truth: you can’t win in the playoffs if you can’t win on the road. The Jazz’ play away from Energy Solutions Arena was the black eye of their season in 2009-10.

     The Jazz has already posted 7 wins in 9 tries away from ESA. While it remains to be seen if they can keep that pace, 6 out of those 9 games came were against teams that made the playoffs last season.

     If the Jazz continues a similar pace, they could be flirting with 58-60 wins this season.

     Most Notable Road Wins: Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, and Portland Trailblazers.

Energy Solutions Arena

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    On the final regular season game of the 2009-10 NBA season, the Jazz was in control of their own fate. A win would guarantee them the 3rd overall seed. A loss would drop them to 5th. They lost.

     (Sidenote: Carlos Boozer sat, nursing a rip injury on the most important game of the year and the Jazz faced the Lakers in the second round because of it).

     The Jazz are currently on pace to win around 60 games this year. Even if they don’t, it would take a heavy hit for them to not have some home court advantage in the playoffs.

     Over the last four seasons, no team in the NBA has a better home record than the Utah Jazz. If the Jazz can wrap up a 1-4 seed, which is possible, this team will be very dangerous.

     When the Jazz is in ESA, they’re arguably the best team in basketball. 

Chemistry

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    As the season has progressed, the Utah Jazz has only gotten better. After starting the season 0-2 with consecutive blowouts, it appeared this would be a rebuilding season for the Notes. Well, they’ve proven it’s not.

     In fact, after 5 games the Jazz had only 2 wins. Since then, the Jazz have gone 14-3 and are only second to the Spurs who have lost only 3 games all year and the Mavs, who have won 13 of their last 15 games.

     Al Jefferson is beginning to understand the system. One aspect of his game that needed improvement, especially since he was considered to be Boozer’s replacement, was his passing. Despite his defensive ineptitude and being constantly injured, Boozer’s IQ is as high as any big man in the game and is an excellent passer, if not the best.

     Jefferson is finally making fantastic decisions with the ball and is passing very well. Also, the combination of him and Williams is developing quicker than expected. They aren’t running nearly the amount of pick-n-rolls as years past, but that should change as the season continues.

     The Jazz is also developing chemistry in unexpected areas. The usual backup point guard, Ronnie Price, lost his duties to Earl Watson. Instead of riding the pine, Sloan is utilizing the double-PG lineup. Watson and Price are terrific together and along with streak-shooter CJ Miles, they are producing for the bench. 

Resiliency

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    Utah is already heavily tested and they’ve learned something about themselves. When the chips are down, the Jazz rises to the occasion. They never give up.

     This team’s character has been revealed. Considering that it’s so early in the season and that they have 5 new players on the roster, the translation from paper to hardwood can be overwhelming. But the Jazz has embraced it.

     The Jazz has rallied from down 11 points or more in the second half in 7 games this season. Of those 7 games, 5 of them were rallies from 18 or more.

     Those wins include: Clippers (18-point deficit), Heat (22-point deficit), Magic (18-point deficit), Atlanta (11-point deficit), Bobcats (19-point deficit), Trailblazers (11-point deficit), and Lakers (19-point deficit.

     Combined, Utah was down a total of 118 points and won by a combined 32 points. That’s a 150-point turnaround.

     While the thoughts surrounding Utah’s dismal starts can be seen like a real problem, and it is, the Jazz has learned something about themselves: the score doesn’t mean anything if there’s still time on the clock.

Meeting the Challenge

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    Through the first 15 games, the Utah Jazz were outrebounded in 12 of them. Considering that the Jazz was one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA last season, only winning the battle of the boards 3 times in 15 tries seem staggering.

     Through 6 consecutive games the Jazz was outrebounded by a margin of 283-226.

     Since the first 15 games of the season and some tough talks from Jerry Sloan, the Jazz has adjusted to their rebounding weakness. Over the last seven games, the Jazz has outrebounded opponents 283-238 with a per-game-margin of 6.42 more than their opponents.

     The Jazz won the rebounding match in 6 of those 7 games (6-1 record).

     Rebounding is one of the key parts in winning NBA titles. The Jazz has adjusted to this issue and met it head on. Being aware of the teams’ problems is one thing, adjusting is another. The Utah Jazz has adjusted. 

Veteran Leadership

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    Everybody knows that in order to win in the NBA a team must have a good combination of youth and experience.

     During the 2009-10 campaign, the Jazz was one of the youngest teams in the league. Their starters and their bench were swamped mostly with youth. The Jazz sported an average age of less than 25 years and a total of 4 rookies throughout the course of the season. The team’s average NBA experience was 3.26 years.

     Addressing the youth of the Jazz was one of General Manager Kevin O’Connor’s major focal points this summer. Now, the average age of the Utah Jazz is over 27 years old and 5 ½ years of experience. This will be critical down the stretch of the NBA season and when spring arrives.

     Crafty veterans Raja Bell, Francisco Elson, and Earl Watson all signed with the Jazz this summer. Being an offseason of glitz and glamour, it’s no surprise that these signings went unnoticed.

     Raja Bell and Francisco Elson both offer lengthy playoff resumes and Elson has a ring to boot. Add Earl Watson in the mix, who is about to crack the 700-game mark, and the Jazz have the winning combination of youth and seasoning.

     But the Jazz isn’t old. The Jazz currently has 7 players who are 26 years old or younger.

Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap & Mehmet Okur

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    The Jazz has one of the best front lines in all of basketball—and they’re still missing one of their most important pieces. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson combine to form an interior nightmare and their chemistry is just beginning.

     One of the most overlooked parts of Al Jefferson is his ability to knock down the 17-footer. He has some of the most impressive footwork of any NBA big, but not many people know that he has range.  He’s knocking down jumpshots this season with ease.

     Also, many worried about Al Jefferson’s addition by comparing him to Carlos Boozer. Well, he’s no Carlos Boozer…but Jazz fans couldn’t be happier about that. Boozer was an awful defender and conceded frequent three-point plays.

     Al Jefferson also offers a legitimate shot-blocker and he’s averaging over 1.5 BPG, which is a full block more than Boozer’s career average.

     Paul Millsap is playing All Star-caliber basketball. There’s no other way around it. He’s top 20 in efficiency for the entire league and top 5 in Western Conference power forwards, averaging around 18 PPG and 8 RPG. Those numbers are impressive considering he’s playing next to Big Al who requires the ball.

     When Mehmet Okur returns, this Jazz team will be much more dangerous than they already are. Money, as Jazz fans call him, can spread the floor and eat the glass. He’s one of the best shooting bigs in all of basketball and knows the Sloan system.

     With Okur and Jefferson on the court together, the Jazz will be able to spread the floor for Big Al to go to work.

     The three of them, along with 7-footers Francisco Elson and Kyrylo Fesenko, can compete with any front line in the league.

     Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s combined statistics: 34.5 PPG, 17.2 RPG, and 2.45 BPG.

Defense

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    Defense wins championships.

     Well, the Utah Jazz has been one of the best, if not the best, defensive team in the NBA since the season began, something they haven’t been generally known for. Opponents are shooting a league worst 42.9% (tied with the Miami Heat) from the field and 30.2% from three-point land when matched up against the newly defensive-minded Jazz.

     Numbers don’t tell the whole story either. The Jazz has one of the best perimeter defenses in the NBA. Deron Williams’ strength, speed, and size allow him to guard all point guards in the league and without issue.

     Andrei Kirilenko and Raja Bell form the best SG/SF defensive tandem the league has, the only comparable being Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest. AK-47 and Bell are pesky, tricky, and the best at what they do. They’re not going to be in the passing lanes and stealing the ball for easy layups. They’re individual defenders whose jobs are to make the offensive player work for their buckets.

     Quick thought: what team is better equipped to guard Ray Allen and Paul Pierce at the same time? Not even the Lakers can say they are, as was proven by Kobe Bryant guarding Rajon Rondo in the NBA Finals to preserve his energy on the offensive side.

     What team can more easily guard LeBron James and Dwayne Wade simultaneously?

     Yes, the Jazz would have to get to the NBA Finals in order to see the Celtics, as it appears the Heat won’t be there any-June soon. But AK and Bell are the two best defenders to throw at Kobe Bryant. Nobody has had as much success against Bryant as Bell.

Deron Williams

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    Deron Williams isn’t only making a case for the best point guard in the league; he’s making a case for Most Valuable Player. He’s already earned the first Western Conference Player of the Month this year, and don’t expect him to stop.

    Statistics never tell the whole story but here are some that pop out: Deron Williams is 12th in scoring, 4th in assists, 8th in double-doubles, 7th in efficiency, 8th in fantasy rating, and 4th in points/rebounds/assists.

    Sometimes numbers never lie.One of Deron’s major contributions this year has been in the locker room. The departure of Carlos Boozer, which most Jazz fans were ecstatic about, defined William’s role as leader and he’s embraced it. He’s become a real extension of Sloan on the court, even embracing the constructive critic/enforcer role. Early in the year, Williams threw a speedy warning pass to rookie Gordon Hayward to let him know he was in the wrong spot.

    Deron Williams has also hit 2 game-winning shots this year.

    If the Jazz was to get half of the media coverage that Chris Paul and company receive, most NBA fans would be singing a different tune about who’s the better PG in the NBA.

    Look out NBA: Deron Williams can lead the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals.

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