Last season, the Utah Jazz found themselves in a rather insurmountable predicament. After finishing the year just one game behind the New Orleans Hornets as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Jazz had to deal with the soon-to-be World Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Needless to say, they didn’t fare well. Though they did manage to win one game thanks to a Deron Williams runner in the final seconds of Game Three, the Lakers crushed Utah thanks to brilliant play from Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom.
During the off-season, the only true addition Utah made was getting rookie guard Wesley Matthews as a free agent after the draft. Keeping Carlos Boozer around was key, but there was no actual transaction made.
With that inlies the mystery of the Utah Jazz. They are a team that did little to get better this summer as other contenders went out and improved their clubs via free agency and trades but has somehow risen from eighth in the Western Conference (48-34 last season) to where they sit now (currently 49-26), which is third in the ultra competitive West and just a game behind Dallas for second.
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More on the Utah Jazz and their stunning improvements after the break…
I find it remarkable that the Jazz have been able to go from the bottom of the playoff picture to as close to the top as you can get without making any major moves. The only two teams that has fallen out of the top eight are the Hornets and the Houston Rockets, being relaced by the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns. Other than that, the remaining six playoff teams from last season have either gotten better or stayed the same, with little regression involved.
The Portland Trail Blazers have lost their two starting centers, but their off-season signing of Andre Millerand mid-season deal for veteran rebounder Marcus Camby have given Brandon Roy some support. The Mavericks added veteran forward Shawn Marion in the summer and stole Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler from the Washington Wizards at the deadline. Denver still has Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups leading the team, but also added a nice young piece in Aaron Afflalo that can hit perimeter shots and is one of the best defenders in the league. And the Lakers, well, they’re the Lakers and they have Kobe Bryant, who, by himself, can carry a team to the post-season.
With the West evolving, somehow, Utah has managed to outplay all of the teams mentioned above, even the Lakers since the All-Star Break, even though their two trades this season had them sending away promising rookie Eric Maynor(to the Thunder) and swingman Ronnie Brewer (to the Grizzlies).
If you look at Utah’s statistics on the year, they are almost identical to those of last year’s squad. In 2008-2009, the Jazz ranked 10th in the NBA in pace and defensive efficiency and eighth in offensive efficiency. This season, Utah again ranks 10th in pace and defensive efficiency and has moved up to sixth in offensive efficiency.
So with roughly the same roster and almost identical numbers to last season, what is it that has transformed this team from easy first round out to potential title contender?
It all starts with their point guard Deron Williams, who, with Chris Paul missing most of the season, has established himself as the alpha dog among NBA point guards. Statistically speaking, Williams hasn’t improved much from last season, averaging one point less and a fraction less of an assist a game on the year. However, his ability to shoot the basketball has improved. Again, his true shooting percentage does not indicate that Williams is having more success scoring the ball, as his 57.2% success rate from the field is the third lowest number in his five year career, but it goes beyond the stats.
It’s how he’s scoring the ball. Instead of hitting pull-up jumpers or forcing up shots at the end of the shot clock, the majority of Williams’ looks come thanks to ball movement. The Jazz are the best passing team in basketball, topping the charts with an average of 26.6 assists per game. What’s even more impressive is that Utah averages 39.2 made field goals a game, meaning 67% of their field goals are products of assists. This season, a career high of 47.7% of Deron’s field goals have came thanks to passes from his teammates. Among “elite” point guard, that ranks second behind Jason Kidd, who plays for the second best passing team in the league and finds himself open more often than Deron does. Worth noting: Steve Nash and Chris Paul are last among “elite” point guards with assisted field goal percentages of 11 an 12.2 respectively.
When the Jazz are moving the ball well, which is basically every night at this point, several things stand out. Of course, Williams’ brilliance will always be the thing that catches the eye of most, but the play of Carlos Boozer has also been deserving of praise this season.
After being the subject of never ending trade talks for the past calendar year, Boozer has put everything behind him and has played like an animal this season. Boozer is averaging near career highs in points (19.5), rebounds (11.2), steals (1.1) and minutes (34.6) per game and is averaging a career high in assists with 3.2 dimes per contest. Boozer’s ability and willingness to share the ball has made Utah’s offense much more dynamic and has lead to his emergence as one of the top five passing power forwards in the league. Now, on a simple pick and roll, Williams can find Boozer darting for the hoop and, if the bigs rotate over to stop Carlos, he can make the dip down pass to Mehmet Okur or Andre Kirilenko or whoever it maybe. In the past, Boozer either wanted to score or wanted to go to the line. Now, there’s a middle ground, and that’s payed off for the Jazz tremendously.
Though the Jazz have ridden Boozer and Williams as their primary offensive options, the role players on this team are outstanding too. The one guy I like to point out when discussing the depth the Jazz have is their six-foot-nine, do everything small forward, Andre Kirilenko.
How would you like to have a guy that hustles on every single play, has a variety of offensive weapons, never forces anything, brings every single night, is a fantastic and willing passer and is one of the best defenders in the league? Yeah, you would love it, and Jerry Sloan loves having AK-47. Kirilenko’s true shooting percentage is 59% on the season and he is near a career high in offensive rating, contributing 117 points per 100 possessions.. Coupled with his defensive abilities, possessing the foot speed to stay with some quicker players off the dribble and the long arms to smother shooting guards and bother power forwards like Dirk, and you have one of the most skilled role guys in the game.
And the list of Utah players that fit that Jerry Sloan player build perfectly just keeps on going. Paul Millsap is their back-up power forward that gets 27 minutes a night. I said when the Boozer rumors started last season that Millsap could start for this team and compensate for what Boozer bought, and he hasn’t done anything this season to prove that notion wrong. In fewer minutes than last season thanks to Boozer’s dominance, Millsap is averaging 12 points, six rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots a game on 58% true shooting.
Their center Mehmet Okur is definitely not a banger, but brings a unique set of skills to the court. He hustles for rebounds and, though he isn’t shooting the lights out like last season (45% from three on 202 attempts), his 39% three-point success rate is still respectable for a big man.
At the shooting guard spot, the Jazz have received a lot more production than they could have predicted from their undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews. The six-foot-five guard from Marquette is no Dwyane Wade, but he is shooting 49% from the floor and is putting in nine points, two rebounds and an assist per game in 24 minutes a game. And if you want another guy that does whats asked of him and doesn’t try to do too much, Kyle Korver is the person to look at. Korver has missed a good part of the season with a knee issue, but in 45 games, he has shot an NBA leading 56% from three. That’s flat-out ridiculous.
With all of these offensive weapons in this particular system, where everyone is sharing the ball, the Jazz are jelling together better than any team in the league. Even though they aren’t dancing on the bench or throwing up the “goose egg” symbol every time Deron Williams knocks down a three, this team gets. They understand how to play effective, efficient, and smart basketball and with a guy like Jerry Sloan making sure this well oiled machine doesn’t break down, the Jazz have me believing they can make a strong run at an NBA Championship.