After the Jazz surged to the No. 1 seed in the regular season, the season came to a disappointing ending as the Jazz were bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Clippers. It was the farthest the combination of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert had gone together in the last four seasons. Now, the two will look to get the Jazz back to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2007.
The Jazz brought back the main core of players that led the team to a 52-20 record last year. Not to mention, the team brings back two key sixth men, as well as an underrated free agent and draft pick. After receiving a lot of attention for their success, can the Jazz replicate the success while working under a microscope? Can the Jazz finally silence the doubters?
Point Guard - Mike Conley Jr.
Since being acquired from the Grizzlies, Conley has been the glue guy that has held everything together on offense. His presence allows Mitchell to play more off the ball. Conley’s role was noticed by the league, which led to him being selected to his first All-Star Game, which may come as a surprise as he is the all-time leader in points and assists with the Grizzlies.
Conley averaged 16.2 points and 6.0 assists per game last year. The more impressive stat might be that he shot 44.4% from the field, including 41.2% from the three-point range. As a team, the Jazz averaged the fourth-most points in the league, trailing just the Bucks, Nets, and Wizards.
Shooting Guard - Donovan Mitchell
Some believe that Mitchell is one of the most underrated players in the league. There might be some truth to that. Mitchell was selected for his second straight All-Star appearance last year after having the best season of his career. The 25-year old averaged a career-high 26.4 points and 5.2 assists. His rebounding tied a career-high, while his three-point shooting (38.6%) was the best in his career.
Mitchell has been getting compared to Dwyane Wade in recent times. The two play a very similar style of play. The main difference is that by Wade’s third season, he led the Miami Heat to an NBA championship and won Finals MVP. Mitchell has yet to make it out of the second round despite leading the Jazz to a No. 1 seed in the regular season. Will this be the year that Mitchell can officially silence the critics?
Small Forward - Bojan Bogdanovic
In 2020, the Jazz played the Denver Nuggets in a back-and-forth seven-game series that featured one of the best battles between Mitchell and Jamal Murray. In the end, the Jazz was tested in the first round. However, had Bogdanovic not missed the entire playoff series, and the backend of the regular season, the Jazz might have made a run to the second round.
With a healthy Bogdanovic, it showed why he is so important to the team. Bogdanovic’s numbers took a dip last year. His points per game dropped from 20.2 to 17.0. Both his rebounding and assists were slightly down, while he also saw a two-percent decrease in shooting numbers. Regardless, the Jazz was a top-5 offense and a one-seed when he played. The team will need him to stay healthy once again.
Power Forward - Royce O’Neal
O’Neal knows his role with this team. O’Neal averaged 7.0 points and 6.8 rebounds. He will look to provide numbers similar to what Derrick Favors brought the team all those years. Now, with Favors off the team due to salary cap reasons, O’Neal will need to hold down the fort.
With a lineup that features four main contributors, you need a starting five and O’Neal is the fifth option that will need to pick up a basket and get a defensive stop here and there. One interesting fact about O’Neal is that last year was a career-high in offensive rating per 100 possessions. O’Neal finished with a 121, which is way above the league average.
Center - Rudy Gobert
Gobert returns as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, which is the third overall award in his career. Gobert led the league in defensive rebounds and was second in blocks. Altogether, he gave the Jazz 14.3 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. He has established himself as the best rim protector in the league.
As a team, Gobert led the Jazz to the third-best defensive rating in the league. The combination of offense and defense that the Jazz has made the team finish with the best overall record. Now, the team needs to find a way to translate that success into the postseason as Gobert has also never played in a Conference or NBA Final.
Jordan Clarkson, Jared Butler, Trent Forrest, Joe Ingles, Miye Oni, Elijah Hughes, Derrick Alston Jr, Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall, Hassan Whiteside, Udoka Azubike
How convenient is it when you have the Sixth Man of the Year and the runner-up returning on the same team? Jordan Clarkson returns after winning the award after averaging 18.4 points off the bench. Joe Ingles was second with 12.1 points and 4.7 assists. Having both come off the bench gave the second unit life and allowed some of the team’s main starters to truly get a rest.
Despite losing Favors, the Jazz found a way to reload. Hassan Whiteside was an underrated pickup. Whiteside has everything to lose, while the Jazz have everything to gain. Whiteside averaged 15.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in a starting role for the Trail Blazers just two seasons ago. Swapping Gobert and Whiteside out could be the best starting/backup center combination in the league next year.
Other notable pickups include Rudy Gay, who averaged 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20 minutes of action. Gay is 35 years old, but one of the more established veterans in the league. Jared Butler might be the steal of the draft. While the focus was on Davion Mitchell in the draft, Butler was the team’s best offensive player for the National Champion Baylor Bears. Also, keep an eye on the development of Udoka Azubuike, who was once considered a top prospect in college.
Can The Jazz Silence The Doubters?
The easy answer is yes and we will take it even further. The Jazz are going to make the Western Conference Finals this year and here is why. For starters, the team brings back a team that was the No. 1 seed in the regular season. That has to mean something. The Jazz were even better than the Phoenix Suns, who made the NBA Finals. Had Kawhi Leonard never been hurt, we might be talking about the Clippers and not the Suns. The Jazz, who were defeated by the Clippers, have an opening as the Clippers appear to be taking a redshirt year.
Looking around the league, the Jazz are a better team on paper than the Suns. Had the Jazz played the Nuggets and not the Clippers, the team would have been in the Conference Finals, most likely playing the Clippers. Realistically, a Jazz-Lakers Conference Finals is a real possibility.
Donovan Mitchell is one of those special players in the league. He has the closest mentality to some of the greats like Wade and Kobe Bryant as a younger player in the league. He has consistently gotten better each year if you look at his track record. Not to mention, he is emotionally motivated to become a legacy player. It should not surprise anyone if he averages more than 30 points per game this season and the Jazz makes it back to the No. 1 seed.
As previously mentioned, the Jazz have a perfect balance on offense and defense on both units. The team is 10-players deep with a solid rotation for all five positions. The best teams in the league have this formula.
It’s never easy to predict what happens in the NBA, but fans in Utah should be excited. This team has the most promise since the late 1990s teams featuring John Stockton and Karl Malone. We saw Giannis Antetkounmpo break the mold of leading their originally drafted teams to the promised land. This year, it could be Mitchell’s turn to do the same.
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