That Sweet Wasatch Sound
February 7, 2017 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
Let's see. College football's bowl season finally wound down. The Super Bowl brings us to the end of football season. Spring Training is a couple of weeks out. I know that some are buried in the action on the ice. But, for the rest of you, welcome to the NBA season. Hmm. Let's see if I can catch you up with the highlights. Cleveland, Golden State, and San Antonio are really good. Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Portland have been really disappointing. Philadelphia has apparently quit tanking, so that's a plus.
Individually, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and, now, Isaiah Thomas (the younger one) are playing out of their minds. Joel Embiid may be in line for the Rookie of the Year after finally getting a clean bill of health. Those are some of the storylines that kind of jump out at you every season. But there's another one that really starts to unfold once the Fall sports take their hiatus.
Every year, one young team appears to gel enough to make a run at a little more than just a number eight in the conference playoff pecking order. Milwaukee surged from the worst team in the East during the 2013-2014 campaign to a .500 record and the sixth seed a season later. Charlotte rebounded from a disappointing 2014-2015 year (33-49) to grab a share of the Southeast Division title (48-34) last season. This time around, that youthful squad appears to reside in Salt Lake City.
Amid change in the Northwest Division, the Utah Jazz have stayed quite steady. With the only added starting piece being veteran George Hill, the rest of the core stayed intact from last year. The interior presence of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert provides a formidable duo. Star forward Gordon Hayward has grooved his way to providing leadership. And the bench is providing consistent scorers in veteran Joe Johnson and Hayward's former Butler teammate, Shelvin Mack.
After Monday night's action, the Jazz stand at 33-19 and on top of the division. If they can hold off Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City, that would mark their first division title since 2007-2008. Their .635 winning percentage has the franchise on track for its best season since 2009-2010. We're talking about the days when Deron Williams was jockeying for the best point guard in the league. These were the days when Carlos Boozer, Anderi Kirilenko, and Paul Milsap combined to create a formidable frontcourt. These were the days when Kyle Korver only had one former team (he's currently on his fifth). And these were the days when veteran coach Jerry Sloan roamed the sidelines (the '09-'10 record was during his final full season).
Needless to say, it's been a bit since Utah has been in this position. Quin Snyder has paid his dues to get his shot leading an NBA team. Through his apprenticeship at Duke, the up-and-down time at Missouri (and, believe me, as a Tiger fan, I'm well aware of all of it), his time coaching the D-League's Austin Toros, and a handful of NBA assistant positions, Snyder gained enough to get the job as coach of the Jazz. Now, he's got this organization in a position to impose its will on the postseason. However, it'll be tough to impose anything on the top of the West.
The way Utah might impose its will could be in the opponent's grill. In a league where offense has become more of an emphasis, the Jazz are winning due to their defense. In fact, as of Monday, Utah allows the least amount of points per game (95.4). That's well ahead of the next best team (San Antonio at 98.9 papg). And despite scoring the second-fewest points in the Association (99.5 per game), this team's point differential is sixth-best (+4.1 ppg). They're not the best when it comes to the boards, either (tied for 20th at 42.8 per game), but they land at sixth when discussing rebounding margin (+2.1). They don't do a ton of stuff great, but they usually do it better than you. That's the sign of a team looking to surprise in the playoffs.
Now, the path to playoff success hasn't been pretty for recent playoff surprises. Both Milwaukee and Charlotte were eliminated in the first round of their respective postseasons. But there have been some success stories since the turn of the century. The last team to go from out of the playoffs to a deep run one year after? That would be the 2006-2007 Jazz. They missed the party in '06, but made it to the Conference Finals in '07. The 2001-2002 New Jersey Nets (NBA Finals run) and 2004-2005 Phoenix Suns (got to the Western Conference Finals) are more stunning examples of franchises that turned from being destitute to being an instant contender. We'll see if this season's Jazz can make that type of run. For right now, though, the trajectory continues up. And with the NBA gaining some spotlight, they'll get noticed a little more often.