There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of the Jazz, who sit third in the Western Conference at 8-4 and are throwing an unexpected monkey wrench in the playoff race. Six of their eight wins have come against lottery teams or very borderline playoff contenders, including home victories over Milwaukee without Andrew Bogut, New Orleans without Eric Gordon and a Memphis team in the early stages of adapting to Zach Randolph’s absence, and a road win over a Warriors team missing Stephen Curry.
The Jazz are also doing this with few standout or even unexpectedly good performances. Devin Harris has never played worse, to the point that he’s basically splitting point guard duties with Earl Watson. Gordon Hayward has improved his all-around game with more minutes and is a solid pick-and-roll option, but he’s shooting just 42 percent. C.J. Miles is shooting 33.7 percent and just hasn’t found a way to contribute consistently in the half court. The other young guys — Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks — have shown flashes, but only Favors logs significant minutes.
Raja Bell has recovered from an awful start to the point that he’s playable. Josh Howard has been a nice surprise, with energetic play on both ends, but it’s hard to envision him contributing more than his league-average Player Efficiency Rating. And Al Jefferson, though playing decent interior defense, is still fundamentally the same player — efficient post game, few free throws, fewer assists, even fewer turnovers.
Everything about the team screams “average.” Utah ranks 14th in points scored and allowed per possession. It has scored and allowed the same number of total points, a number that can actually be read as a positive, since it was minus-42 after two games and has pulled even since. It ranks between seventh and 16th in seven of the eight so-called “four factors” categories on offense and defense, and it ranks terribly in the one category (foul rate on defense) in which it is outside of that middling spectrum. The Jazz still don’t take or make three-pointers, something that would create fatal spacing issues for most offenses.
Even their schedule sends mixed messages: While they have had a fairly easy slate of wins, they have beaten two quality opponents — Philadelphia and Denver, the latter on Sunday night — and all of their 12 games have come in six separate back-to-back sets. The Jazz had no significant rest advantage or disadvantage overall.
So how is this team 8-4? And is that record a legitimate indicator of how good the Jazz really are? The first is easy to answer. The second is more difficult, though I’ll go on record now and say I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the Jazz make the postseason.
They’re winning for two broad reasons:
• Paul Millsap has been an absolute beast, and he and Jefferson give the Jazz a Grizzlies/Lakers-style two-man post attack around which they can build a legitimate NBA offense. These two were here last season, but Millsap has never been this good. He has never cracked 20 in PER in any season but stands at 25.9 now, seventh overall, looking right down at Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. He is shooting a career-best 55 percent, including a ridiculous 57 percent on long two-point jumpers, according to Hoopdata. He’s rebounding more than ever before, creating some off the dribble and has managed to cut his turnover rate to Jefferson-like levels.
If you are going to score enough to stay afloat despite the absence of a single above-average perimeter player or a pick-and-roll game, your post attack better be off-the-charts dynamite. Millsap and Jefferson have pulled the trick so far. The Jazz can enter the ball confidently to either and cut/spot up around them. Millsap works especially well from the high post as triple threat.
It will be hard for Millsap to keep up this level of scoring and efficiency, meaning Utah will have to get more from its guard/wing brigade at some point to avoid a collapse in scoring. Howard is doing more than expected, and Hayward should continue to improve. At some point, Harris and Miles are going to have to show up.
• Utah’s defense has improved dramatically, in lots of ways. The Jazz allowed the same number of points per possession last season as the Knicks and Wizards, which is to say they were awful. Average is a huge improvement over awful.
A few things are driving that improvement, and time will tell how sustainable they are. Perhaps most important: The Jazz have morphed from a bad defensive rebounding team (27th in defensive rebounding rate last season) into an average one (14th this season). Millsap has upped his rebounding numbers, Jefferson has maintained his and the Favors/Kanter duo off the bench is gobbling up everything in sight. The wing players are (mostly) capable rebounders, but the Jazz haven’t needed them much yet.
Given the size and skill of the big men, Utah should be able to maintain at least average numbers on the glass.
The next thing is more pressing: Opponents are throwing up bricks, especially from the perimeter, where Utah was sieve-like last season. Only the epically bad Cavaliers allowed opponents to shoot better from three-point range last season, but now Utah is holding opponents to just 32 percent shooting from deep — the 11th-stingiest mark in the brickier-than-usual post-lockout NBA. Teams aren’t taking many triples, either; only five teams have allowed fewer three-point attempts per game.
The Jazz’ size and shot-blocking are also deterring teams from getting close to the rim. Utah has allowed just 19.7 shots per game at the rim, the third-lowest average in the league and a significant drop from the 23 such shots they allowed on average last season, per Hoopdata.
In short: The Jazz have redistributed opponent shot attempts from the most efficient places — at the rim and behind the three-point line — to the mid-range area, which is far less efficient.
How legitimate is this? Well, with the 6-foot-7 Howard on board and the 6-8 Hayward getting more minutes, Utah can throw some long wing combinations out there. It has also been diligent in running teams off the three-point line, and it’s playing disciplined, well-organized defense, with all five guys working on a string.
Jefferson and Millsap are working hard, but neither is ever going to be a game-changing defender, particularly when it comes to containing pick-and-rolls on the perimeter. Opponents are still eating up the Jazz on these plays; Utah ranks 25th in points allowed per possession on pick-and-rolls in which the ball-handler finishes the play, a small improvement on last season’s No. 29 ranking, according to Synergy Sports. Guards are going to be able to turn the corner on Millsap and (especially) Jefferson, but Jefferson’s effort level has been noticeably better, and the rotations behind them are rock solid.
Don’t be surprised if the Jazz play decent, league-average defense all season, even if a few more perimeter shots fall here and there. It’s the offense that carries warning signs. If the Jazz don’t find more consistent help for the Jefferson/Millsap pairing, they are going to have trouble scoring enough to play .500 ball the rest of the way.