By JUSTIN SOBELMAN
The NBA Playoffs are fast approaching, and if your team isn’t a part of the festivities, that may seem bittersweet. As a Knicks fan, I’ve grown used to not having a dog in the fight. However, the playoffs offer a great opportunity for people like myself to be fan mercenaries and pick a new team to jump on the bandwagon for. It might feel a little dirty, but what fun is watching sports if you don’t have a rooting interest? With that in mind, let me introduce to you a great candidate for this exercise: the Utah Jazz.
“The Jazz? Really?”, you might scoff, but hear me out. The Jazz might be the hottest team in the entire league. Prominent NBA writers like ESPN’s Zach Lowe have covered the team’s exploits since a 10 game winning streak ten weeks ago which catapulted them back into the playoff picture.
After beginning 16-24, they’ve gone 31-9 to storm to a likely top-four finish in the West. In that stretch, they’ve had the 12th best offensive rating (108.4 points per 100 possessions) in the league, an eight-spot jump from the first 40 games. More impressively, they’ve boasted a defensive rating of 99.1, best in the entire league in that time frame, and the second-ranked 76ers are closer to the fifth-place team in that metric than they are to the Jazz.
A lot of that jump has to do with likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, healthy after missing chunks of games in the early going. He’s basically a 7’1” pterodactyl, his extendo-arms enveloping so much space that it deters opposing players from even daring to enter the paint where he orbits. Utah has many solid defenders, but it’s Gobert who warps the court and allows perimeter guys to play with aggression, knowing that Gobert is back there to put out any fires.
If defense isn’t your thing, that’s OK. Enter Donovan Mitchell, an uber-talented rookie guard averaging a team-high 20.5 points per game. Mitchell has been simply spectacular this season, becoming the top offensive option for a team with home-court advantage in the playoffs, which is virtually unheard of for a rookie. We’re watching a future superstar grow in real time, and the only reason that he might not capture the Rookie of the Year award is the equally remarkable play of Ben Simmons in Philly. Mitchell is a thrill to watch, a threat to put someone on the ground with a crossover, drain a deep three, convert an acrobatic layup, or dunk on someone on any given play. If you want to know why he’s so fun, just watch this:
If you’re a hoops nerd who loves the little things, and don’t care so much about the flashy guys, well Utah has what you’re looking for too. Ricky Rubio showed sparks of greatness during his tenure in Minnesota, but head coach Quin Snyder (a leading candidate for Coach of the Year, by the way), and his staff have unlocked the best version of Rubio that NBA fans have seen. A notoriously poor shooter in years past, Snyder had given Rubio the green light to fire away, and he’s been on fire from everywhere during Utah’s half-season run, shooting a blistering 42.5% from three, and a tidy 45.4% from midrange. Plus, he’s still one of the association’s most creative playmakers:
Speaking of creative players, Joe Ingles has had an incredible season for the Jazz. The 6”8’ Aussie might be my favorite role player in the NBA, and he’ll soon be yours too if you give him a watch. Ingles is the ultimate glue guy. Need someone to run a pick and roll? Ingles has developed a beautiful two-man dance with Gobert, and can score at the rim or dish to open teammates with ease. Need someone to space the floor? Ingles has been on fire all year, ranking third in the league in three-point percentage at 44.1%. Need to slow down an opposing perimeter guy? Ingles can clamp down on the less glamorous end of the court, and he’s an expert at staying in front of his man, even though he gives up speed and athleticism to many NBA players. Overall, Ingles is a joy to watch, and his success this season is an incredible story. He can even throw down a dunk every once in a while:
Those are the main guys, but the supporting cast offers intrigue as well. Dante Exum, a top-5 draft pick in 2014, is back after missing much of the season with a shoulder injury, and he’s wasted no time in becoming a valuable piece off the bench. The 6’6” Aussie has been attacking the rim relentlessly since his return, and can even offer rim protection on defense.
Royce O’Neale is another rotation cog for Snyder, and he’s been a solid player for Utah after spending the last few years playing overseas. Jae Crowder is playoff tested from his Boston days, as is Jonas Jerebko, and big man Derrick Favors is a nightly double-double threat. The Jazz go ten-deep with useful players, an attribute sure to help them as they enter the postseason.
Part of the team experience comes off the court, and the Jazz don’t disappoint there either. It’s obvious that the players are really close from following them on social media. They hang out together on the road, poke fun at each other on Twitter and Instagram, and interact with their fans regularly. Plus, you can always count on Gobert to talk trash to rival players on Twitter if you’re looking for laughs. It’s a lovable group, and their passing and teamwork on the court clearly translates off it.
So, while the NBA media focuses on the Rockets and Warriors, give some love to the upstart team in Salt Lake City. The Jazz have the talent and coaching to make a playoff run, and could even pull off an upset of Houston or Golden State if things break right. No matter where they end their season, consider hopping on the Jazz bandwagon. You might be surprised at how quickly you grow attached to this squad.