Surging Utah rises to near top of West. The hard part comes later.
Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (left) leads the team in scoring (24.2 ppg.) Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Surging Utah rises to near top of West. The hard part comes later.

Like a cup of Postum at a Salt Lake City diner, the Utah Jazz are scorching hot, winning 10 straight and rising to second in the Western Conference. After a disappointing start to the season, Utah (28-12) is in the middle of the playoff picture, and its fans are clamoring for respect. Have we all been sleeping on the Jazz, and is this the season the team finally makes noise in the playoffs?

Joe Ingles is superbly running the offense, Rudy Gobert is shutting down the paint, and Donovan Mitchell is playing like an All-Star on both ends of the court. The team's leading scorer averages 24.2 points per game (up from 23.8 last in 2018-19), shooting better and more efficiently than he did last season. Mitchell is nearly unstoppable from mid-range (55% on shots 10 to 16 feet from the basket), and he's playing better without Mike Conley, sidelined since mid-December with a hamstring injury.

The Jazz went all-in this season on Conley, sending players and picks to Memphis for the 32-year-old. A better shooter than Ricky Rubio, the Jazz's point guard last season, he seemed like a great fit on paper as a tough-minded back-court partner for Mitchell. He’s famously the best player never to make an All-Star team, simply perfect for team that always feels underappreciated. But it's no coincidence Utah went on its roll without Conley, Dante Exum (traded to Cleveland for Jordan Clarkson) and Jeff Green (released) in the lineup. None are good defensively, and their replacements have thrived.

Thrust into a starting role, Ingles essentially took over as point guard with Conley went out. He handles most of the ball-handling responsibilities and leads the team in assists. Ingles might not look like or move like a conventional NBA player, but he has fantastic on-court instincts, an uncanny knack for being in the right place and making the right pass. It’s poetic that after Houston erased him in last season's playoffs by constantly forcing him right, he’d take a page from James Harden’s playbook and add a step-back three. 

Utah's lineup shuffling also has led to Royce O’Neale getting more playing time. He’s a ferocious defender, moves the ball, and has the highest individual offensive rating on the team. Content to remain in his lane, O’Neale doesn’t bother with things like dribbling or driving to the hoop. He knocks down catch-and-shoot threes, with 62% of his shots coming from beyond the arc. And with O’Neale and Gobert on the court together, the Jazz defense gives up nothing.

Utah also is getting contributions from unheralded players. Clarkson was an afterthought on the sinking ship that is the 2019-20 Cavaliers, but in Utah, he’s a much-needed scoring threat off the bench (15 ppg.). Georges Niang is hitting 45% of his threes. And even lottery bust Emmanuel Mudiay has played decently on offense, perhaps the best testament to the team's coaching and player development. 

Utah is eighth in defensive rating and 11th in offensive rating (adjusted for pace of play). The team leads the league in three-point percentage, and it allows the second-fewest three-pointers. Utah only gives up 21.1 free throw attempts per game, seventh in the league, so it apparently is a perfect analytically inclined team.

Utah has possibly the most impactful defender in the league (Gobert) and a giant home-court advantage from playing at altitude (15-3 record in Salt Lake City). And we haven’t even mentioned Bojan Bogdanovic and his effortless 21 points per game. 

OK, that's the good news. Now let's wallow in negativity.

Utah fans and beat writers are constantly complaining about being disrespected. Gobert cried after he didn’t make the All-Star team last season. While it's perfectly fine for men to show emotions, especially if they’re French, it certainly felt like Gobert was crying because he didn’t get a prize. When Mitchell was in the Rookie of the Year race against Ben Simmons, Jazz fans fed the narrative that Simmons should be ineligible since he sat out his first pro season. Mitchell even wore a sweatshirt featuring the definition of “rookie,” which is the definition of “pathetic.” And it leads to the public not believing in actual excellence from the Jazz.

If the Jazz fans were a fable, they’d be "The Boy Who Cried Disrespect." Or, for Gobert, just “The Boy Who Cried.” It’s hard to react evenly to Jazz exceptionalism when the team’s broadcasters are awarding Gobert triple-doubles for the ephemeral “screen assist” statistic. The Jazz are like actual jazz music, in that people claim to appreciate it, but don’t seek it out when they have a choice. People who are into it spend a lot of time evangelizing for its quality. And, when you think of jazz or the Jazz, you’re probably thinking of an old guy who stopped playing decades ago.

Utah kills it every season in advanced metrics, but that statistical dominance hasn’t translated to postseason success. The Rockets bounced them from the playoffs in consecutive years, with Gobert struggling against Harden. Gobert also struggled against the Warriors in 2017. Those were both great teams, so maybe it’s no knock on Utah, but it feels like a pattern. Utah did knock off the injury-hobbled Clippers in 2017 and beat the Thunder in 2018, in a series in which Mitt Romney taunted Russell Westbrook, a sentence I never expected to write.

The numbers point to this team’s excellence and upward trajectory, but it’s going to be hard to truly believe in the Jazz before the playoffs begin. Utah ultimately must figure out two things: how to integrate Conley back into the team, even if it means bringing him off the bench, and how to keep Gobert on the court during the playoffs, even against three-point-heavy attacks. 

Anything short of the conference finals this season for Utah is a disappointment. Any team that hired Rodney Dangerfield for on-court entertainment, as the Jazz once did, should know that until then, it won't get any respect.

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