Under the tenure of Quin Snyder, the Utah Jazz have been competitive in the Western Conference but have lacked the punch to progress to the later stages of the NBA playoffs. The franchise has failed to advance beyond the first round of the post-season in the last two years, suffering defeats at the hands of the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets. The elite teams in the Western Conference have provided issues for Snyder’s men in the playoffs, despite being more than a match for their rivals in one-off contests over the course of the regular season.
This was evident in the 2018/19 season. The Jazz split their series with the Rockets during the regular term but was bounced out of the playoffs in a 4-1 defeat in the first round by James Harden and company. Last term, the Jazz played the Nuggets tough in their three regular-season games, although it resulted in three defeats, including a tense 134-132 overtime loss. Snyder’s men looked to have reversed the trend in the playoffs, taking a 3-1 lead in the first round, only to lose three games on the bounce to suffer a heart-breaking elimination.
Utah has rebounded in the current term and after the opening two months of the campaign are on course to compete for the top seed in the Western Conference. There’s enough quality in the ranks to achieve the feat, but the true litmus test will come against the top sides in the Conference.
Can the Jazz Take a Step Forward?
Utah had built their success in the past on a stout defense. They’ve finished in the top-10 in the fewest points allowed over the last five seasons as highlighted by ESPN. This term they are once again on course to boast another formidable defense led by Rudy Gobert. The Frenchman has been named Defensive Player of the Year on two occasions and has not let his standards slip, averaging 9.5 defensive rebounds per game.
Utah has rewarded his form with a massive contract extension. However, there has been a strong effort around the 28-year-old to ensure that the Jazz is watertight. Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley Jr, and Royce O’Neale are all pulling their weight in the starting line-up, while the bench has been equally effective. Their solid defensive performances are easing the pressure on the Jazz in the final third.
Mitchell was exceptional in the 2020 post-season almost singlehandedly guiding the Jazz into the Conference Semi-Finals. However, during game seven against the Nuggets, fatigue took hold, and he could not deliver the victory. The 24-year-old has been on the level again this term, averaging 23.4 points per game. Mitchell’s form can be the difference between success and failure, and it’s encouraging for Snyder that the presence of other points-scorers on the court is bringing out the best in the point guard.
Conley Jr, Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson have all come to the fore, and their performances have earned their plaudits of Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. The well-rounded nature of the team will stand the Jazz in great stead in their bid for the top seed and a deep run into the post-season.
The Jazz is backed at +800 to win the Western Conference. This puts them behind only the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers in the minds of the bookmakers. The Jazz has already made a statement this season by defeating the Clippers with a strong outing on home soil as Conley Jr rose to the occasion, scoring 33 points in a 106-100 triumph. Utah is yet to meet the Lakers in the current campaign, but their clash could determine who sits in the top spot. LeBron James and company beat the Jazz in all three of their meetings last term, which puts Snyder and his team under the spotlight to issue a response to prove their title credentials.
It has been four years since the franchise finished top of the Northwest Division, finishing third in three-straight seasons. The Nuggets are their closest challenges and Nikola Jokic is operating at an extremely high level. Claiming the top spot in the division and beating their rivals would be the first step on the way to a potential challenge for the Conference, especially after the manner of their defeat in the playoffs last term.
There are tough challenges ahead of Snyder and his team, but they have the quality in their ranks and the opportunity is there for them to seize in the 2020/21 campaign.