The Utah Jazz are 6-1 and are once again looking confident as the top seed in the Western Conference. Donovan Mitchell is looking like the elite scorer that he is, while Rudy Gobert continues to be a defensive disruptor, gobbling up rebounds and contesting shots in the paint.
All signs are pointing to the same story as last season, regarding playoff seeding, but will things turn out differently?
Everyone knows how they entered the playoffs as the top seed and proceeded to get tossed aside by the Los Angeles Clippers after the Clippers turned their defensive lynchpin into their greatest weakness, among other things. They won the first two games of the series then lost four-straight games. Yes, Mitchell wasn’t at full-strength, but the Clippers also lost Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 4 and Leonard remains out for the foreseeable future.
Despite how things ended last season, the Jazz continue to stay the course in 2021-2022. They take and make a lot of 3-pointers and dominate the paint behind the efforts of Gobert. The space created by both the outside shots and the three-time Defensive Player of the Year have also created the driving lanes for the likes of Mitchell, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The numbers back this up as Utah is second in the NBA in 3-point attempts at 42.4. However, they only convert on 32.0 percent of these attempts, a mark that leaves a lot to be desired. The more intriguing area the Jazz have put an emphasis on is with their free throws. Despite the league cracking down on how fouls are called, Utah currently leads the league in both free throw attempts (24.3 attempts) and makes (20.1), thanks in large part to the drives generated by their perimeter players.
Gobert has also become more assertive and his 8.4 free throw attempts not only point to this, but they also lead the team. That he makes 71.2 of these attempts has been a major plus for the Jazz offense, especially when opposing teams resort to fouling him.
Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Clarkson and Conley all have converted at least 87.5 percent of their free throw attempts and that has also greatly contributed to Utah having the best mark in the league.
Despite the solid offensive numbers, the Jazz stand out as the team with the least assists in the league. More than a quarter of their assists come from Mitchell, who currently averages 4.9 a game, and apart from him, Conley, and Joe Ingles, no other Jazz player averages more than 1.7 assists per game. They thrive more on individual offensive prowess and some assists opportunities may have been negated when scorers are fouled, yet while it has worked so far, you wonder if it will be sustainable as defenses begin to tailor themselves to Utah’s tendencies.
Apart from the lack of assists, the Jazz allow their opponents a considerable number of offensive rebounds and while it has so far not really materialized into major problems, it will be tougher once they face strong offensive rebounding teams like the Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies, and the Atlanta Hawks.
Most of these were on display in Utah’s 119-113 victory over the Sacramento Kings. They easily outshot the Kings in both 3-pointers and free throws, and thanks to a 59-44 advantage on the boards (15-9 on the offensive end) the Jazz were able to outlast Sacramento in the fourth quarter.
Much of the victory can also be attributed to Mitchell and Conley, who combined for 66 points and eight assists, easily accounting for nearly 70 percent of Utah’s total offense. As obvious as it was as to where the offense would be hinged on, the Kings clearly had no answers for Conley and Mitchell, with the latter getting his season-high 36 points in every way, shape, or form.
They were also able to handle themselves nicely against the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks, the Denver Nuggets, and the surging Chicago Bulls. Sustaining this strong run, however, will take on a bigger test as in five of their next 10 games, they will face the Raptors, the Grizzlies, the Miami Heat (twice), and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Seven games may be too little to give a rest-of-the-season outlook as a lot can happen between now and April. The Utah Jazz can cruise through the regular season with their tried and tested formula but it would be wise for them to use the 82 games to find a way to keep Rudy Gobert on the court and develop ways to reignite the offense when the conventional ones don’t work.
After all, history has a knack for repeating itself, more so when one doesn’t learn from it.