Is Anyone Actually Scared of Utah Jazz? Execs Have Doubts About NBA's Best Team

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IFebruary 24, 2021

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) and Rudy Gobert (27) walk on the court in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

For as long as the Utah Jazz have been around, they have been a sneaky-good franchise, but they've never quite been good enough to partake in the time-honored tradition of soaking in the success of a season ending with a championship, or all of the champagne that comes with it. 

Only three teams in NBA history (the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics) have a higher all-time winning percentage than the Jazz (.543).

But those three teams have another thing in common: They each have won at least one NBA title.

Is it Utah's time now?

After a 4-4 start to the season, the Jazz (25-6) have since surged ahead to top-dog status and are now at the front of the pack of NBA title contenders.

While a large contingent of skeptics still wonder about their chances of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, there is a growing sense among league executives that this Jazz team may be built differently than some of the regular-season wonders we've seen in the recent past that collapsed in the playoffs.

"It's impressive how they can really hurt you at both ends of the floor at an elite level," noted a league executive who has spent significant time in the front offices of teams in both the Eastern and Western Conference. "To see where they are, and to see how far they've come with a group that, it wasn't that long ago, seemed on the verge of being broken up. No matter whether you think they're a fluke or not, they're going to be a tough out for anyone—Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, anyone—this season."

The "breaking up" reference acknowledges the friction that existed between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, which stemmed from Gobert's laissez-faire attitude toward contracting COVID-19 just days before he became the first confirmed NBA player to test positive.

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Shortly after that, a handful of NBA players tested positive for the virus, including Mitchell.

League and team sources have reiterated that the anger that Mitchell had toward Gobert surrounding COVID-19 was real, and at one point, no one knew for certain whether Mitchell would want to continue playing with Gobert.

But teams that had an interest in Mitchell and/or Gobert were rebuffed by Jazz executives who felt both players would eventually work out their differences and the franchise would be able to move on with its two cornerstone players. 

Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

One of the keys to them mending their relationship, according to a Jazz source, was Gobert showing what Mitchell believed was "sincere remorse and regret" publicly and privately over how he had initially handled COVID-19. 

"They both have the same mindset, same goal," said the Jazz source. "They want to win a championship, and they know they have to have each other to do it."

Mitchell has raised his level of play to the point where he is a dark-horse league MVP candidate, while Gobert is the front-runner to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time (2017-18, 2018-19) in the last four seasons. 

Not only have they stayed together, but the Jazz have stayed healthy, too. They've used only three different starting lineups this season, by far the fewest of any team in the NBA. 

But even with good health and even better play, those who aren't convinced that this Jazz team is built to win it all point to a handful of indicators. 

"It feels like they've peaked too soon," said a Western Conference executive. "Look at them and the way they're playing. There's just not a lot of room for them to be any better than what we're seeing now."

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Indeed, Utah has carved out a sizable swath of real estate covering the NBA statistical landscape with top-five status in several categories at both ends of the floor.

No stat better symbolizes the Jazz being such a two-way terror than three-point shooting. Not only do they knock down an NBA-best 16.8 three-pointers per game, but they take away the same shot from opponents, who are making a league-low 11.0 triples against them this season. 

Utah's scoring numbers, rebounding stats, offensive and defensive ratings all add up to a dynamic juggernaut on paper. But as well as the team has played, there's still the business of the defending NBA champion Lakers and their dynamic 1-2 punch of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who will not relinquish their title easily. 

In addition to those two, the Lakers bolstered their roster with key offseason additions (Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell), giving them far more depth than they had last season in the bubble. 

An Achilles injury will keep Davis sidelined at least through the All-Star break, which has in part helped the Jazz separate themselves from the Lakers record-wise. But it also means that come playoff time, Davis will likely be closer to midseason form, which will make the Jazz's path to knock off the Lakers that much tougher. 

Because of Utah's stingy defense and a roster filled with a bunch of good players but no clear-cut superstars, people around the league are drawing favorable comparisons between this team and the 2003-04 NBA champion Detroit Pistons.

"But this group is better, a lot better offensively than that Detroit team," said the aforementioned Western Conference executive. "And yet when shots aren't falling, they're still really good defensively to keep teams in check until they get back to making shots."

Having good scoring balance coupled with excellent defense is huge in any team's quest for a championship. But the playoffs often aren't as much about talent as they are toughness, particularly in those heated, down-to-the-wire moments. 

According to the Western Conference executive, that is the big unknown with Utah. 

"I think the Jazz understand once you get into the playoffs, it's a different kind of game," he said. "And [head coach Quin Snyder] has been talking about this the last couple of years: You have to match the other team's physicality. If you don't, you're gonna be in trouble. If they do that, they have a shot."

That's all the Jazz want right now: a shot at doing more than just winning regular-season games, which they do as well as almost any franchise in league history. This season is about taking home the ultimate prize—an NBA title.