The 2015–2016 marked the fourth year in a row that the Utah Jazz failed to make the playoffs. That four year streak ties the longest playoff drought that this team has had since it moved to Utah in 1979. At one point in time, between 1983 and 2003, the Jazz franchise made the playoffs for twenty straight seasons in a row. But since legendary head coach Jerry Sloan stepped down from his position, this team has missed the postseason in five of its past six seasons.
But coming into the 2016–2017 season, many believed that the Utah Jazz would return to the playoffs. The Las Vegas sports books set the over/under for the Jazz’ win total this season at 47.5 wins; that would’ve been good for fifth place in the Western Conference last year. Many media outlets placed the Jazz as one of the five or six best teams in the Western Conference heading into the year, with some of them predicting that Utah could finish as high as the third seed by the end of the season.
So why was there so much optimism for a team that failed to make the playoffs last year, and didn’t really make any major, franchise-altering free agent acquisitions during the offseason? Simple. It’s because what the Jazz may have eschewed in “quality,” they’ll make up for in “quantity,” utilizing a roster that’s as deep as any group you’ll find in the NBA.
First, they’ll undoubtedly be a lot healthier this year than they were last year. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors — two of their front court starters — combined to miss nearly half a season’s worth of games (41) between the two of them. After becoming only the 10th first rookie in franchise history play in all 82 games, Dante Exum missed all of his sophomore season after tearing the ACL in his knee while playing for the Australian national team over the summer. All three guys are part of the promising foundation that this team has built over the years, and getting them back and healthy, in order to use their prodigious skills and further develop all their talent, would be a huge boost for the Jazz.
Then, there’s the additional young talent that the team already has, in addition to those guys coming back. Rodney Hood, the team’s first round pick in 2014, started 79 games last year for the Jazz, in only his second season in the NBA. At 6-foot-8, he not only had the size to play any wing position on the court and guard any wing player of the opposing team, but he also had the ballhandling ability that allowed the Jazz to overcome their thin point guard rotation last year. Trey Lyles, the team’s first round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, is a 6–10 forward whose versatility, outside shooting, and do-a-little-bit-of-everything skillset gives the Jazz another talented piece in their front court.
And last but not least, there’s still their “franchise player” in Gordon Hayward, who’s only 26 years old himself. Coming off a 2015–2016 season where he averaged a career-high 19.7 points per game, Hayward established himself as a versatile playmaker who can make shots from the wing, finish around the hoop, or make plays for other teammates (he averaged 3.7 assists per his 36 minute average last season). The former star of the Butler University Bulldogs is well-known for taking his alma matter — who was then coached by Brad Stevens, who now coaches the Boston Celtics — to the NCAA Championship game. In that game, he missed a game-winning, buzzer-beating, half-court shot, which hit the backboard and rim. But, after a highly-successful two-year stint at Butler, the Jazz picked him with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
To help with the cadre of young talent that this organization has accumulated over the year, the Jazz shrewdly added several veteran pieces to this roster, giving this very young group the experience and wisdom it’ll need to win tough games in their conference. George Hill was brought in to shore up the point guard spot for Utah, while serving as the “bridge” between the present and the future at the position, and a mentor, of sorts, to Exum. Swingmen Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw have had illustrious NBA careers, and ample postseason experience. They’re the type of players who can help teach and guide the younger players in the locker room, because of the success they’ve had in the league.
Fast forward to the present, and the braintrust of the Utah Jazz is finally starting to see their blueprint come to life. In a league where so many teams make moves focused on winning immediately, the Jazz look like they’re in fantastic position because of their discipline in sticking to the plan that they laid out: draft talented players, find coaches who will develop those players, sign veterans who can help mentor those players, and then take care of those players when the time comes.
Through the first evening in February, the Jazz are in fifth place in the Western Conference, and only one game away from taking possession of one of the top four seeds in the West. Since December 1st, Utah is 19–11. They went 10–5 in December, and then 9–6 in January. With their .620 winning percentage, they’re on pace to win about 50 or 51 games this year, which even exceeds the expectations set forth by the sports books.
For the first time since 2011, the Jazz will finally have a player represent the team in the All-Star game. Hayward was voted in as an All-Star reserve by the Western Conference coaches, becoming the first Jazz player to be selected to the All-Star team since Deron Williams six years ago.
Ironically, the fact that the Jazz will only have one All-Star has been a small source of controversy, because you could easily make an argument that Gobert deserves to be joining Hayward. Gobert has emerged as perhaps the league’s best rim protector, and easily the most imposing defensive presence on one of the best defensive teams in the NBA (more on that in a second). Gobert averages 13 points and 13 boards per game, but he also leads the league in blocks per game (2.55). On top of that, he’s first in true shooting percentage, second in offensive rating, first in defensive rating, and fifth in rebounding. Gobert’s efforts are a major reason why the Utah allows the fest points per game in the NBA (95.5), by a pretty healthy margin.
With a team that has the talent and athleticism to play any style of offense, a defense that’s able to stop opposing teams from putting the ball through the hoop, and a head coach (Quin Snyder) who’s continued to guide this team in the way it needs, the question is: what’s next for the Jazz? They look like they’re a lock to break their streak of seasons without a playoff appearance. They have the talent to make any series against the stalwarts of the West an interesting one.
The next step in their progression remains to be seen.