I like good sports documentaries. I like exploring the psychology of how individuals and teams work.
In a change of events so predictable it barely registered as a change of events, the Utah Jazz have found their way.
Utah’s “are they good, yes they’re good” routine is an annual tradition. Every year they start slow then find a way to get fast. Everything looked awkward and disjointed in the first six weeks of the season, even if the underlying numbers patted Jazz fans on the shoulder and told them things weren’t so bleak.
Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell were leading the league in floaters, which wasn’t a good thing, and spoke to the team’s pervading issue – a lack of athletic force. They felt like a broken version of the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, all finesse but no rhythm or magic.
Now things are clicking. They don’t have magic yet, but they have rhythm. For almost two months now, the Jazz have quietly had the league’s number one offence – the gap to second is significant. Everything makes sense again with Joe Ingles in the starting line-up. Ingles is not Utah’s best or most important player, but he is their defining player on offence, with his shooting, passing, trickery and awareness of time and space making the Jazz hum.
Suddenly, there is space and punishment. Ingles and Mitchell run the show, everyone is in constant motion, and the floor is pristine with dead-eye shooters drawing gravity and creating space for Rudy Gobert to roll into. Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic are good enough in isolation to bail out possessions late, but desperation is rare. Open shots are found earlier.
Seeing the Jazz in person creates a greater appreciation for Gobert’s impact on defence. You can feel the fear. He infects every possession while he’s on the court. Scorers and passers get sick, tepidly taking half-ventures into the paint then backing out feebly and taking an off-balance fade-away, beaten by an idea. When a driver challenges Gobert it’s frightening, like a four-year-old child trying to steal something and run away from their aggressive and eagerly violent eight-year-old sibling.
Gobert is widely recognised as a top-20 player in the league. Some day, when we can quantify value more precisely, you suspect he may be closer to the edges of the top ten.
But what Gobert can’t do – be a six-foot-eight athletic wing scorer and playmaker who can get get a good shot for himself or his teammate whenever he wants – is the knock on the Jazz.
There is an idea that you can’t win without that archetype, unless you have a historic outlier scoring talent like Stephen Curry or Dirk Nowitzki. Utah don’t have that either. Their best facsimile is Mitchell, who does an OK impression of a number one option, but lacks ethereal qualities. He never seems to run or accelerate, always operating at old Dwyane Wade speed, easing into his spots, rarely exploding.
He’s a good shooter but not a great one. He gets to the line but doesn’t live there. He’s a much better passer now but still not a chess master.
On offence, Mitchell plays like DeMar DeRozan with a jump shot, which is a great player. But against primary options like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic in the West, Mitchell will not stack up.
Perhaps, though, he won’t need to. Maybe the sum of Utah’s parts can compensate – a team rich in top-tier competence.
Conley is the swing piece, and what he gives the Jazz will determine their ceiling. If he re-emerges as Mike Conley, then the Jazz become a different proposition – a force with four different high-IQ scoring playmakers in the starting line-up and the best defender in the game.
When the game tightens and intensity ratchets up in April, May and June – bodies moving more frenetically, limbs appearing more destructively – the space that Utah’s offence thrives in will condense. They will need collective genius to unlock it again.
Having a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard gives you a margin for error in the playoffs. Utah won’t have that. That doesn’t mean they can’t win – but they will have to be perfect.