With the proverbial halfway point of the season arriving with the NBA all-star break, the Jazz have had a season with a lot to digest already.
From a dominant start to a brutal January, the team has ridden more waves this season than world champion surfer Kelly Slater has in his career. There have been times when Utah has looked like the best team in the league and other moments where you’re unsure if they’re capable of being a true contender.
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have been named all-stars and players of the week this year, while Bojan Bogdanovic has emerged healthy and a top-tier scorer. Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale have overcome slow starts to look like crucial parts of a championship contender.
Sitting at 36-22 and in fourth place of the Western Conference standings, the final 24 games of the season are sure to be filled with as much drama and suspense as the first 58 games. But before we look at what’s to come, we look back at what has already happened.
“That’s how you build those winning habits,” Mitchell said. “And I can’t say those were there earlier in the year. Now we’re all holding each other accountable and all communicating, and that’s allowing us to take that step.”
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— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 16, 2022
Here are five things to know before the all-star break:
1.) Jekyll And Hyde Version Of Jazz On Full Display
There’s no doubting that the Jazz might be the most confusing or hard-to-pin team in the league.
On the one hand, they’ve beaten five of the top six teams in the East, swept the season series (4-0) over Denver, taken down Golden State by 26, and is 4-1 against Dallas and Minnesota. However, Utah also has losses to Houston, Detroit, Orlando, and Indiana, four of the five worst teams in the game.
While exceptions can be made for some of Utah’s lower level of play considering injuries and health and safety protocols, this roster is too talented as a while to have as many bad losses as it does.
When rolling and in a rhythm, the Jazz are extremely tough to beat — they have three separate win streaks of six games or more, starting the season 7-1 and 26-9. The offense is tops in the game and the defense, when active and communicating, is capable of being one of the best.
But when shots aren’t falling on offense, the defense tends to become lackadaisical, and the effort/communication goes down, leaving Utah vulnerable on both ends of the court. The Jazz also have a stretch where they lost 11 of 13 games, including going 4-12 in January.
So the question that begs an answer; are the Jazz true championship contenders, or are they pretenders? Based on the season as a whole, Utah is a team completely capable of winning the title as they often look like the best in the league — but the next 24 games will be telling.
“That’s the mark of a team that’s composed, and you understand you’ve got to go through adversity to get to the top,” Mitchell said. “It’s having fun with the game, even in our losses. I can’t say our losses were fun, but you look at the effort. … The energy is just different.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 17, 2022
2.) Injuries And Protocols Take Center Stage
Last season, the Jazz were lucky and rode the wave of good health to the top record in the league.
But this season, that has not been the case.
As mentioned above, a lot of the reason for Utah’s struggles and inconsistency extends a lot further than missing shots or issues on defense. It’s challenging to be the best version of yourself when you’ve rarely been fully healthy.
Although they were the last team in the league to have a player enter health and safety protocols, once they did, the Jazz began to lose players left and right.
Mitchell and Gobert have also missed extended time dealing with injuries while prized free-agent acquisition Rudy Gay got a late start to the season and has been sidelined with right knee soreness. Also, point guard Mike Conley hasn’t played in back-to-backs in an attempt to limit his minutes heading into the postseason.
Bogdanovic has played in 56 of the 58 games, with Clarkson and O’Neale checking in at 55 and 54 games played. Conley, 52 games, is the only other Jazz player to have missed less than 10 games. That means that five of Utah’s top nine rotation players have missed at least 12 games this season.
It’s difficult to overcome those sorts of issues, which is why the Jazz refused to panic in January amidst the struggle. There was a lot of belief in the locker room that once the team got healthy, they’d be able to turn things around — and they did, as evidenced by a six-game winning streak right before the all-star break.
“Our energy is different,” Gobert said. “I feel like something happened within our team. … That slump really sparked something. I feel like we’re a team that’s trying to accomplish something.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 17, 2022
3.) Mitchell and Gobert Named All-Stars… AGAIN
Teammates for the past five years, Mitchell and Gobert will travel nearly 2,000 miles to finally be apart. Mitchell will suit up for Team LeBron while Gobert will play for Team Durant in the all-star game on Sunday in Cleveland — tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. MST.
For the third time in his career, Mitchell has been chosen to the all-star game — not a bad stat considering it’s just his fifth season in the league. Mitchell’s third all-star appearance is tied with Boston’s Jayson Tatum for the most from the 2017 draft class, making Mitchell’s selection at No. 13 look like an absolute steal.
In what’s shaping up to be one of the best seasons of his career, Mitchell leads Utah in scoring with 25.4 points per game, adding 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. He’s shooting 45.4% from the field and 34.6% from beyond the arc, showcasing his ability to score from every level.
He’s one of two players in the league to average 25 points, 4.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game, along with LeBron James.
Despite his detractors, Gobert’s reputation and skillset extend further than the words reigned down upon him from his supporters.
As arguably the best defensive player in the game, Gobert has continued to dominate on that end of the court as he seeks a record-tying fourth defensive player of the year award. While his blocks per game are down slightly from his career-high, his overall player efficiency rating is at an all-time high of 25.29, ranked seventh in the league.
He’s third in the NBA with 35 double-doubles on the year but has the least games played of anybody in the top-10. He’s averaging 15.7 points and a league-leading 14.8 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 71.1% from the floor and 68.9% from the free throw line, which are career-highs.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 17, 2022
4.) Danny Ainge Comes Back To The Mountain West
After retiring from the game of basketball following his role as President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics in June, Ainge noted that he wanted a break from the 18-hour days that come with running an organization. He wanted to spend more time with his family and invest in other hobbies, including golf.
His break didn’t last long. In December, Ainge was announced as the new CEO of Basketball Operations and Alternate Governor for the Utah Jazz.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Ainge said at his introductory press conference. “Ryan (Smith) and I have known each other for a while, but had I not had an opportunity recently to spend a lot of time with Dwyane Wade, Quin (Snyder), and Justin (Zanik), and felt their enthusiasm and excitement to bring me on board. … They sold me to take this opportunity.”
Upon graduating from BYU, Ainge elected to pursue basketball full-time, where the Boston Celtics selected him. He spent nine years with the team, winning titles in 1984 and 1986 while being named an all-star in 1988. He also played for Sacramento, Portland, and Phoenix before retiring in 1995.
One of the greatest basketball minds of his generation, Ainge returned to the court in a different capacity in 1996 — serving as head coach of the Suns before his retirement in 1999.
He once again returned to the game in 2003, joining Boston as the Executive Director of Basketball Operations for the Celtics. During his 18-year career in Boston’s front office, Ainge helped bring a title to the Celtics in 2008 while also named NBA Executive of the Year.
5.) Records Be Broken, Ranks Be Climbed
It’s already been a special season for the Jazz in the sense of individual accomplishments.
Gobert and Mitchell have both been named all-stars and players of the week, and Mitchell picked up his first career player of the month award.
But the triumphs don’t stop there.
Not only did Mitchell achieve those accolades, but he also crossed the 7,000-point total in his career — in just his 300th career game. He is the third-fastest to 7,000 career points in Utah history, behind Adrian Dantley and Pete Maravich. He’s also the fourth-fastest active player to accomplish the goal, behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony.
In the same game, Mitchell reached his milestone, Gay scored his 17,000th career point. In his 17th season in the league, Gay has career averages of 16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.2 steals in 1,018 games.
Gobert has continued to climb the ranks of the NBA’s greatest when he blocked a shot in the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season. It was the 1,294th block of his career, moving him to No. 50 all-time in league history. He also ranks 16th in NBA history with 2.2 blocks per game.
“Growing up, I never would have thought my name would be up there,” he said. “Looking back at the journey, all the hard work and dedication and being able to be mentioned with all those great names, it’s amazing. It’s only going up from here. … It’s a great blessing.”
With head coach Quin Snyder out due to health and safety protocols, assistant head coach Alex Jensen took over the leading man role and came away with his first career victory.
Joe Ingles, who was recently traded to Portland following a season-ending knee injury, scored his 5,000th career point. His 41.4% percentage from beyond the arc is tied for 18th all-time for eligible players, ranking first in Utah history. He’s also Utah’s career leader in made three-pointers, breaking John Stockton’s record on January 29, 2021.
Lastly, Clarkson moved to No. 10 all-time in Jazz history in made three-pointers when he knocked down a shot from deep on February 14 against Houston. The reigning sixth man of the year, Clarkson has found his rhythm later in the season and looks like a problem for Utah opponents.
Coach Jensen leading us to the
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 3, 2022