The Utah Jazz are the next team up in our series of NBA Contenders or Pretenders. Utah is currently tied with Dallas for fourth place in the western conference prior to a pivotal Sunday night game for both teams in question.
Are the Utah Jazz Contenders or Pretenders in 2022?
What is a contender?
Let’s start by first defining what it is to be considered a contender. One definition to consider is that a contender should have at least a 50% chance of making the conference finals. This is a fairly strict definition that would eliminate all but a small handful of teams. A broader definition would be a team that has at least a 50% chance of making it past the first round of the playoffs. This broader definition will be held for the team to for this article.
Utah Jazz: Strengths
The Utah Jazz have been a model of consistency over the past several years securing a playoff spot in the Western Conference in five consecutive seasons. This season will be their 6th consecutive playoff appearance barring a catastrophic collapse to finish the season. This run of quality play hit its apex last year when the Jazz managed the best regular-season win total in the NBA. But that season ended in disappointment at the hands of the LA Clippers in a series they lead 2-0.
The Jazz are currently tied for 4th in the West conference with the Dallas Mavericks. If the standings remain the same, Dallas would be their first-round opponent. Utah is currently on a three-game losing streak and if that trend continues, they could fall as far as the play-in tournament. In that scenario, they could face the second-place Grizzlies or even the league-leading Suns in round one.
Many love Donovan Mitchell. He has an elite-level handle that is beautiful to watch. He can change direction on a dime, drive to the basket or spot up a jumper. If you double-team him, he will find the open man more often than not. He is a true All-Star and a Top 10 NBA talent.
Rudy Gobert is another highly talented All-Star for the Jazz. His presence in the paint is as good as any other player in the NBA. I was surprised to find out that Rudy is 0-9 in career 3 point attempts and it would be fun to see him break that goose egg. But as dominant as Gobert is in the defensive end, he likely gives up some productivity in scoring potential.
Jordan Clarkson is a former sixth man of the year winner and is a force coming off the bench. He isn’t going to win that award this year with his numbers down slightly and Tyler Herro having a great season in Miami. Regardless, he remains a valuable asset coming off the bench for the Jazz.
Utah Jazz: Weaknesses
This is a franchise still haunted by the ghost of Michael Jordan who defeated them twice in the NBA finals. That Jazz roster even boasted two Hall of Famers (Karl Malone and John Stockton). Because of their playoff history and their dominance in the regular season, expectations for this team are much higher than most other NBA teams. Nothing short of an NBA Championship for the Jazz would be considered by its fan base as a successful season.
But here’s the question… If the Jazz could not win a championship with two Hall of Famers in their lineup or with a team sporting the best regular-season record, how can anyone expect them to do it this year when the team is not as good?
Mavericks, Grizzlies, & Suns
The biggest obstacle the Jazz face this season is the quality of the three teams they are likely to face in the playoffs. There is a good chance they would need to defeat all three of them to reach the finals. While upsets in the NBA playoffs do happen, pulling off three upsets in consecutive series against high-quality opposition is extremely unlikely.
The Mavericks will be a tough out for any team they face in the playoffs this season. Everyone is looking at Luka Doncic to expand his potential this year by winning at least one playoff series. He nearly did it last year but blew a 2-0 lead against the Clippers. It’s difficult to see him blowing that same opportunity this year.
The Jazz defeated the Grizzlies in last year’s round one playoff matchup. If they do face the much improved Grizzlie this post-season, one may fear the result will flip and Utah may only survive 5 games.
The Jazz do not match up well against the Phoenix Suns, perhaps nobody does. There isn’t an advantage in any area for Utah when facing Phoenix. This too could be just a five-game series.
If the Jazz manage to get past the Mavericks, they would be large underdogs against the Grizzlies. If they manage to get past the Grizzlies, they would be even larger underdogs against the Suns. For them to get past all three, the stars would need to align in historic proportions.
Best Player Edge
As Jordan proved, having the best player on the court can often be the difference in a seven-game series between two evenly matched teams. If Mitchell is the Jazz’s best player, how does he match up against the stars of the other three teams?
The Mavericks haveDoncic. His skill set goes beyond just an All-Star level and he seems destined for a Hall of Fame career. This edge favours Dallas.
The Grizzlies have perhaps the most exciting young player in the league with Ja Morant. He can dominate a game by himself in a way that not even Donovan Mitchell can match. This edge belongs to Memphis
One could argue either side of the debate as to who is better between Mitchell and Devin Booker. One can lean towards Booker because of the presence of Chris Paul at his side who makes everyone around him better. Edge: Phoenix.
So regardless of who their opponent is, the Jazz will not have the best player in any series.
The Utah Jazz seem to have once again missed their window of opportunity to win an NBA Championship. This year’s team is not better than last year’s edition that lost badly in the second round to a team without their best player (Kawhi Leonard). The team is on a clear downward trajectory and is a franchise with a history of underperforming in the post-season.
One can foresee a first-round exit for the Jazz in 2022. That makes the Jazz NBA Pretenders in 2022.
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