Just five short months ago, the short-handed Utah Jazz team held a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, in the first round of the challenging 2020 NBA Playoffs. The Jazz then lost three straight, including a highly contested Game 7, and were sent home.
It was their second consecutive First Round elimination, their fourth consecutive exit before the Conference Finals, and their 13th straight season without reaching the Conference Finals despite eight playoff berths in that stretch.
In summary, the Jazz have been a pretty good team and some years they’ve even been great, yet in the postseason their talent and willpower fall short and prevent them from reaching elite territory. Failing to reach season goals is something that’s unfortunately come to represent their franchise, whether it was Stockton and Malone losing narrowly to the Bulls, or Williams and Boozer being ousted by the Spurs and Lakers.
Today, the team is led by two fully emerged stars and a strong supporting cast. They’re a perennial playoff team who many in the NBA universe believe are a tier under championship contenders. The past 30 years will show us that even with an All-Star in the frontcourt and backcourt, they won’t reach their full potential.
However, this year’s Jazz team seems a little different and is sitting in a good place in time. They’re currently 9-4, rising to third in the West, with good health and great chemistry, and better balance.
For the many reasons provided below, here’s why 2021 will finally be the year the Utah Jazz reach their season goal, of making the Western Conference Finals.
- Short-Handed Success
Last year’s Denver team became the first in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 deficit in the same postseason, proving they were a historically-resilient team that was tired of being underestimated. What’s faded in recent memory is that the Western Conference Finals participant lost 3 of their first four first-round games against a short-handed Jazz team.
Utah was missing second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic due to a broken wrist, losing out on his 20.2 points-per-game and 41% 3-point stroke. As a result, leading scorer Donovan Mitchell and sixth man Jordan Clarkson upped their usage to make up for the depleted offense. Mitchell went ballistic as the only legitimate scoring threat and came just a 3-pointer short of knocking off the Nuggets.
There’s no telling whether the Jazz could’ve also beaten the Clippers in the Semi-Finals and advanced, but they were surely capable of beating the Nuggets not even at full strength. If these two teams were to face off again, the Jazz would have to like their chances, knowing they’re probably a better unit than a team that just reached the Conference Finals.
- Rejuvenated Morale
The 2020 Jazz season is going to be remembered by star center Rudy Gobert being the first professional athlete in the United States to test positive for COVID-19. His result led to the suspension of league play, as well as several postponements and cancellations across American sports.
Fortunately, only one other teammate, his co-star Donovan Mitchell, contracted the virus along with him, but reports were coming out of Utah that Mitchell was appalled with Gobert’s lack of sensitivity. At a team press conference, Gobert responded to questions about the coronavirus by touching microphones and recording devices, to illustrate his judgment of public safety to reporters and members of the fan base. That action made for national news following his positive Covid-19 test and led to news that Mitchell said his relationship with Gobert was irreparable.
Throughout the summer and into the postseason, Mitchell and Gobert successfully recovered from the virus and their personal conflict. Now that their relationship is stronger, and they’ve both signed long-term extensions amounting to $400 million combined to stay with the team, the star duo has a huge boost in morale that should pave them for better success this time around.
- A Terrific Start
A strong first-half sets the tone for the rest of the regular season and is pivotal for playoff success because of rest and home-court advantages. Right now, the Jazz is rolling and off to their best start (9-4) in the Mitchell-Gobert era.
They’re currently third in the loaded Western Conference with the fourth-best defense in pro basketball. 2-guard Mitchell is showing his same fearlessness from the Orlando bubble and shooting a career-best from 3-point range (37%), starting point Mike Conley has leaped in production since his poor arrival in Utah last year (14 PPG, 4 APG to 17 PPG, 6 APG), forwards Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are red-hot outside the arc (39% and 48% respectively), and center Gobert is averaging a career-high in blocks (2.7). Clarkson is looking the Sixth Man of the Year scoring 17 PPG on highly efficient shooting, Joe Ingles is playing great all-around coming off the bench in a swing role, and Derrick Favors is playing at a high level as the premier backup big.
If you look closely there are improvements to be made, like Mitchell turning the ball over too much, Gobert diving in field goal efficiency, Bogdanovic still rusty recovering from his injury, and the young players having a minuscule impact. However, this talented group with elite defenders has already beaten the second-place Clippers, first-place Bucks, avenged their loss to the Nuggets, and blown out several rising squads, indicating they should keep their spot in the top-3 as they work to clean up their offense.
- Strong Playoff Roster
What’s become much clearer in recent NBA postseason play is that there is a difference between a so-called “regular-season roster” and a “playoff roster”. Regular season rosters have lots of depth and young legs that help teams overcome injuries and tough schedules better than others, while playoff rosters are top-heavy with some veterans that help teams compete at the highest level when competitive play ramps up.
After years of building up young talent and acquiring new pieces, the Jazz finally has a loaded playoff roster. Many of their fallbacks could’ve been attributed to a more regular-season roster build, but now the team is primed to take a step forward. Utah has a go-to, big-time, off-the-dribble scorer in Donovan Mitchell who could score at all levels, an elite secondary scorer in Bojan Bogdanovic whose best trait is his flashy three-point shot, a brutalizing rim protector in Rudy Gobert who’s won a Defensive Player of the Year award, a veteran playmaker in Mike Conley with tons of playoff experience, and several complementary players who have all made impacts in the playoffs.
To succeed in the playoffs is said to come down to a team’s top-8 players who log nearly all of the important minutes, but as the tournament rolls on, it’s evident you need a prolific scorer as well as a complementary one and a super tough defense. The Jazz check all the boxes, and while they might not have the superstar yet to win or even reach the NBA Finals, they certainly have all the elements of a Conference Finals core.
- A Recent Trend
While the Eastern Conference continues to reward great chemistry and postseason play, the Western Conference has taken another track in recent years. The West almost always comes down to an elite championship contender who’s dominated all season long and an unsung hero who’s battled through a testing postseason.
Since 2015, every 1-seed has reached the Western Conference Finals whether it was the dominant Golden State dynasty, Harden and CP3’s Rockets, or LeBron and AD’s Lakers. Their opponents have consisted of many underdogs like the Rockets coming back 3-1 against a heavily favored Clippers team, the Thunder knocking off a 67-win Spurs team, the Trail Blazers defeating the Nuggets in Game 7 on the road, and those same Nuggets sending home the Clippers after falling back 3-1. It’s worth mentioning none of the teams just mentioned went on to upset the 1-seed, however, they all preserved and reached the Conference Finals, and in doing so took a big step for their franchise.
The Jazz are next to prevail on this trend, as it’s likely one of the LA teams this year will fall in the Semi-Final round, either because of chemistry issues again haunting the Clippers or fatigue creeping up on the Lakers. History has sided with many recent 3-seeds in the west which is exactly where Utah sits, and they’re the last team of this bunch that desperately needs to make a leap.
Utah is playing with more focus and hunger, after a rocky situation with coronavirus and an underwhelming loss in the first round. They’re riding a five-game win streak and have a pretty light schedule ahead that includes a six-game homestand.
Start following the hype surrounding Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz, and take note before it’s too late…