Are the Utah Jazz one of the elite teams in the Western Conference?


Written by Robby Lewis (@RLewis_NBA) on 08 December 2016

Connectivity, noun. – "the state or extent of being connected or interconnected." Leading up to the 2016-17 campaign, the Utah Jazz 3rd-year head coach, Quin Snyder, preached "connectivity." The word was the theme of the entire training camp — from day one, Snyder told the media "connectivity is not a tattoo, it's something that washes off and you have to keep putting it back on." Snyder and his staff knew that if this iteration of the Utah Jazz team wanted to make any sort of noise in the Western Conference, they would have to be interconnected on both ends of the ball. Becoming and staying interconnected, however, takes time.

For the Jazz, it's tough to have any consistent cohesion when you deal with a host of injuries. We are now at the quarter mark of the season, and the starting lineup has only played a combined 12 minutes together. Despite battling injury after injury to key contributors, the Jazz have consistently shown that they're more than willing to compete night in and night out. They currently sit seventh in the West at 14-9, only one game back from a tightly contested fourth seed. When you look at what the Jazz have had to deal with on a daily basis, managing injury after injury, the fact that they are sitting five games over .500 is quite remarkable. The team has used eleven different starting lineup combinations, which ranks second in the NBA behind the Dallas Mavericks.

How have the Jazz managed to keep their ship above water? For the answer, look to its captain,Snyder, who is steering the team through these rugged waters. Snyder has stayed the course, implementing his team's philosophies and core principles early on in training camp. His coaching style reflects his roster, and he is one of the most diversified coaches, displaying an exceptional ability to adapt and maximize the pieces he’s given on the fly. Although it’s still rather early, you have to tip your cap to Snyder — he is not only positioning the Jazz to make the playoffs but also maximizing their chances in competing for a spot to secure a prized possession: home-court in the first round.

Looking up and down the roster, the Jazz have experienced a wave of injuries. These bumps and bruises could easily wipe a team out of contention in a flash. The team has weathered part of the storm, but it's no secret that if the Jazz have dreams and aspirations to contend in the Western Conference, they will have to get and stay healthy. Speaking of health, let's rehash the wounds — to start the season, their small forward Gordon Hayward missed the first five games with a broken left ring finger. During Hayward's first game back versus the Knicks in New York, George Hill sprained his thumb. Hill  — who should be in the discussion for the most improved player even at the ripe age of 30  — missed eight games with the thumb injury and then proceeded to sprain his toe, forcing him to miss his last four games. Veteran power forward Derrick Favors, a massive piece for the Jazz, debuted the season on a minutes restriction and is currently out indefinitely with a knee contusion. Reaching further back into the rotation, sixth man Alec Burks has yet to make his season debut, as he continues to recover from a knee injury.

Despite all of those injuries to key players within the lineup, the Jazz currently flaunts an impressive +4.45 net rating, as well as ranking in the top 10 for both defensive efficiency (101.5, sixth in the NBA) and offensive efficiency (108.2, sixth in the NBA). If the Jazz can maintain those efficiency rankings throughout the season, they will certainly be on the list of the few teams who may have a chance to compete with the likes of the Golden State Warriors. 

What is the ceiling of this team when they actually are healthy? Hayward and Hill have only shared the floor for a total of 151 minutes in the course of  five games, but they are most certainly taking advantage of those opportunities, sporting a staggering net rating of +25.8 per NBA.com/stats. Oh, by the way, in those five games the Jazz are undefeated at 5-0.

Hayward is currently experiencing the best stretch of basketball of his career. As his murky contract status looms, his game is most certainly overshadowing those talks. Hayward redefined his body this off-season, adding strength and bulking up to a solid 235 pounds. On top of a newly bulked-up body, Hayward spent countless hours in a local Salt Lake City gym, mastering his balance and footwork. He's displayed an exceptional ability to take massive amounts of contact within the lane, keeping that balance and maintaining the ability to finish plays at the rim. Taking a step back and dissecting his summer, the fact that he skipped the Rio Olympics may have been a blessing in disguise — he not only got to spend more time with his family, thanks to the birth of his second child, but, per David Locke (the Jazz radio voice and founder of the Locked on Podcast Network), the Olympic games may have served as a significant disruption of Hayward’s daily summer off-season training schedule.

It's clear that the hard work Hayward put in is helping to shape a career year for him. He is one of seven players this season to score 30+ in three straight games, joining the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan. On top of scoring 30 points in three straight games, Hayward is riding an impressive nine-game streak of 20+ points a night. He's just joined the game's elite — with the likes of LeBron James, Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Harden, Cousins and Butler — as the only players in the league to average at least 23 points, six rebounds and three assists per night. That kind of production helps a team stay competitive in a tough Western Conference while facing injuries.

With Hill out, Hayward is manning the majority of the ball handling duties. Hayward's feel for the game oozes off the screen. Check out his court vision on this play here where he even throws an assist to himself:

As good as Hayward has been on the offensive side of the ball, he's improved vastly on defense; he is now rarely out of position and often making excellent help decisions. Hayward is also rebounding at the highest rate of his career, grabbing 9.8 percent of the allotted misses with his highest per-game total of 6.4 per contest.  

Hayward's play has become contagious — the Jazz function as a cohesive defensive unit despite their injuries. They have a distinct strategy and stick to it. The Jazz currently rank 29th in the NBA in shots allowed in the restricted area per NBA.com/stats. They are inviting teams to meet the stifle tower in Rudy Gobert, who is one of the best protectors of the rim in the NBA, and teams are missing. The Jazz rank second in the NBA, holding opponents to 54.8 percent on shots in the restricted area per NBA.com/stats. The Jazz open the paint, inviting guests to challenge Gobert, and suffocate the 3-point shot from the corners, currently ranked first in the NBA, only allowing 98 attempts per NBA.com/stats. Running teams off the 3-point line and forcing them into the paint with behemoths like Gobert has been an excellent way of inviting teams into the worst shot in basketball — the long two.

Things are starting to click for the Jazz, despite the injury questions. FiveThirtyEight projects the Jazz as a 51 win team, correlating to a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs. As the 2016-17 season is starting to take shape, the Jazz return to the playoffs is becoming more and more likely; however, like most teams, health will be the key component in deciding whether or not they have the ammo to make a run.

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