By Leo Silbert
When you think of the best teams in the league, you probably think of the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and Rockets. You might think the next tier down is the Clippers, Celtics and Raptors. Other teams like the Russell Westbrook anger tour Thunder, the drama involved on teams like the Knicks and Bulls, and even Joel Embiid showing the world that “the Process” may be finally be working. Lost in the shuffle though is the best defensive team in the NBA. It is easy to forget them as well. Their two best players are a white wing player who went to Butler and some tall French guy with limited offensive range as opposed to more traditional pre-NBA destinations and positional stereotypes. This team of course is none other than the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz aren’t built like most of the other teams in the NBA right now. They have their center and power forward both as guys who clog the paint on both offense and defense, they aren’t a free agency destination due to location and market size so their players are mostly their from being drafted by the Jazz or being traded to the Jazz and they are a defense first, second and third type of team. It is because of how weird they are and how they were built that makes the Jazz as fun as they are, and it also makes them dangerous.
First, let’s talk about their best all around player in Gordon Hayward. He was a first round draft pick by the team in 2010 and when he arrived, he wasn’t being asked to do much. The Jazz still had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as their main scorers. Hayward was also mostly a bench player that season and he ended up only scoring 5.4 points per game in 17 minutes per game. That in itself isn’t an inspiring point line for a rookie whose best skill at the time was his shooting, but later in the season he put on some stellar games on both sides of the ball such as when he held Kobe Bryant to 6-18 shooting with 7 turnovers while Hayward scored 22 with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. In the final game of the season, he ended up breaking 30 points which left a good taste in the mouths of Jazz fans. Over the next two seasons, Hayward improved his game enough that the Jazz became comfortable letting Jefferson and Millsap leave, letting Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter take over the starting spots in the front court, while Hayward had to develop into the alpha dog scorer the team needed. Since then, Hayward has upped his scoring average each season and this season has finally been given the honor of an all-star game selection while he is averaging a career high 21.6 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game.
I mentioned how the Jazz were planning on rebuilding their front court by giving the reigns to Favors and Kanter, but I’m guessing that they didn’t expect their late first round pick in 2013 from France to change their plans enough to trade away Kanter. Kanter was a top 5 draft pick and is skilled at scoring in the paint. There was a major flaws with Kanter on the Jazz though. He isn’t what you would call a good rim protector. In fact, he is one of the worst rim protectors in the NBA. This was partially relieved by the fact that Derrick Favors wasn’t terrible at rim protecting, but he just isn’t good enough to raise the level of his teammates’ post defense. Kanter is a man with a 7’1 wingspan and he was unable to average a block per game while Favor averaged around 1.5 when both were on the team together so the Jazz were near the bottom of the league in blocks when those two shared the floor. But step in Rudy Gobert with his 7’8 wingspan and the Jazz give up some interior offense for an elite interior defense. That has helped transform the Jazz into the very best defensive team in the NBA by 3.8 points per game over the Spurs, which is a ridiculously big margin. Gobert is leading the NBA in blocks per game by 0.21 blocks per game. He is also 2nd in the NBA in shooting percentage and is 5th in rebounds. Gobert is everything you could want in a defensive minded center and he very well may win defensive player of the year this year.
Now, last season the Jazz had both Hayward and Gobert on their roster, so what has made them special this year? The addition of a floor general point guard in George Hill. Hill is having a career year in terms of shooting, scoring a career high in points per game while shooting 47.7% as a point guard. He also combines with Hayward to have a dynamic perimeter duo on defense where he helps lock up opposing point guard while Hayward gets the top wing defensive assignment. Hill also serves as a veteran presence who has experience on some great Spurs and Pacers teams so he is the guy able to hold together the young corps of players up and down the Jazz roster, which is the part of the team that has the Jazz seen as a potential finals threat in 3-4 years.
Now, the Jazz do have the young pieces on their team to be able to eventually become one of the league’s elite teams in just a few short seasons, but if I were one of the top teams in the West this year I would want nothing to do with them. A young team that people see as playing on borrowed time in the playoffs that has a lot of young legs is never something you want to see in a win or go home situation. That is especially true if said team has a suffocating defense. The Jazz this year are kind of like a Rick Pitino team at Louisville, they may not wow you in the regular season but I truly believe that if any team is to sleep on them this year, that team will end the season answering questions on how all of their star players were beaten in a series by a team that didn’t get nearly the media attention that they did.