At this stage of the season, the Utah Jazz have shown that they are certainly contenders to take the western conference title this season, if not win it all.
Like the unathletic kid in the school yard, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were selected last to play in the big game, all while holding the best record in the league.
That’s right, this is the team that came into this season after choking a 3-1 lead to Denver, the team whose star players were insulted by Shaquille O’Neal on NBA TV, the team who so far has taken every knock, bad mouth, discredit or snub and seemingly used it as fuel for a remarkable vengeance tour, and the team who just got laughed at in front of the world.
But are we disrespecting them? Because I can’t gauge whether this is maybe a second coming of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs – a team that didn’t need a real superstar in his prime, but had elite coaching, played elite on both ends and were known for their pass-first, selfless game of basketball.
Or is it the 2018 Raptors, a really good team that finished first in its conference, where team chemistry was through the ceiling but ended up breaking down yet again when faced with superstar talent in the playoffs.
So I have a brief list of the common characteristics of championship teams to help us find out what the hell this team really is.
Having that elite player
From 1977 to 2010, 21 of the 33 teams to win a championship (61.76 per cent) have had a player in the top three in player efficiency rating (PER).
But with the player mobility era truly kicking off in 2011, that number has dropped to four (40 per cent) in the last ten years. The Jazz’s team leader ranks 23rd in the league. That is good, but Rudy Gobert is not great.
However, only six teams in the last ten years have seen a player place top three in MVP voting and go on to win a championship. The ones who did not need a player in the top three were in 2011 with Dirk Nowitzki and the last three years of the finals. This hints at an increasing trend that overall skilful team basketball dictates over having elite individual talent.
So although Gobert or Mitchell have never been and will most likely never be in the conversation for MVP, is that really going to matter when the team as a whole plays so well?
Having that elite city
Boston and Los Angeles have won 34 of the 74 NBA championships. If you throw in San Antonio, Miami and Golden State, you can add 17 more to that tally.
Why does this matter? Because like with everything in life, achieving something for the first time is not only the hardest it will ever be, it is also the most rewarding.
A winning culture is historically a massive factor in predicting which teams can not only compete at the highest level but can go the distance.
Winning culture is the precedent for the monopoly of championships and Utah is not that great.
Offensive and defensive efficiency
You can be juiced-up aliens playing a game with one superstar and an array of lovable cartoon characters. Yet still, the amount of times the ball goes through the hoop compared to the times it goes through your opponent’s is the one constant in basketball when determining a winning team.
This stat provides the amount of times you score or get scored on per 100 possessions.
That being said, Utah are third in defensive efficiency (109.58) and third in offensive efficiency (118.62)
To put that into context, the only teams to place in the top three in both categories since 1984 when the statistic was first measured were the 1986 Boston Celtics, 1991 Portland Trail Blazers, 1996 and 1997 Chicago Bulls and the 2015 and 2017 Golden State Warriors. That is some elite company for the 2020 Utah Jazz if they keep this up.
The only three teams to win a championship and not place in the top five of either category since 1984 were the 1995 Houston Rockets, the 2006 Miami Heat and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks: three iconic championships for iconic and irregular circumstances.
Okay, so where does this leave us?
Similarly to last year, this is a weird season. We are witnessing an entirely new league than today – one where the Spurs can get blown out by the Knicks and nobody blinks, one where two centres are fighting for a MVP, and one where even the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns are leading the league with the best records.
With such a weird season, does it not fit to have a weird winner? This team is definitely not the standard ‘let’s put a bunch of superstars on one roster and cross our fingers’ team that we have seen pop up ever so frequently. They are not just a hot regular season team doomed to be steamrolled like the 2015 Atlanta Hawks, 2017 Boston Celtics or the 2018 Toronto Raptors.
This comparison gets made every year but this team could be the evolved version of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, built around a defensive centre and selfless role players with one exciting guard you feel comfortable giving the ball to in closing moments.
But if they can return to their hot shooting after the All Star break and continue to stack up the win column, especially after losing three of their last four, then they should be at the very least serious contenders.