The Utah Jazz defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 112-97, on Sunday evening to clinch a playoff berth. The win gives them 47 on the season with two games still to play, including a season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers that could have playoff-seeding implications.
To say it’s been a successful season thus far would be an understatement.
The Jazz weren’t supposed to be this good. They lost their best player to free agency over the summer, and despite winning 51 games and a playoff series a season ago, were pegged to win just 40-to-41 this season by most sports books. They didn’t have the benefit of a high draft pick, nor did they sign any major free agents to replace what they’d lost.
And yet, here they are, a top-4 seed in a deep Western Conference, even despite a 17-26 start to the season. Coming back from that kind of hole is difficult enough, but everything about this Jazz team is impressive — and against the NBA grain.
The Jazz are not a team with a recent history of success. Last season’s playoff berth was their first since 2011-12, and their first playoff series (or even game) win sine 2009-10. In the West playoff picture, only the Timberwolves and Pelicans can really say they’ve been as starved of success recently as Utah.
Utah isn’t a major destination for free agents, and in fact lost Gordon Hayward in free agency to bigger-market (and more successful) Boston. When you aren’t a major free agency draw, you have to build other ways, but even some of those routes were unavailable to the Jazz.
This was not a team that used years of tanking to slowly build through the draft. They hit rock bottom in 2013-14, which did give them the top-5 pick that turned into Dante Exum, but they didn’t continue that path like, say, the 76ers did to get where they are today. They gradually improved, which meant their draft picks gradually got worse.
Instead, the Jazz relied on smart draft choices when they had them and even more timely trades, none of which looks better than the draft-day trade last offseason to net Donovan Mitchell, who has a compelling Rookie of the Year case and looks like a star in the making.
Beyond Mitchell, it’s not a team of stars. Rudy Gobert is the closest thing they have to one, and his defense is as good as it gets in the NBA, but he’s hardly a headliner the likes of which the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Pelicans or Blazers have. Rickey Rubio never quite turned into the star Minnesota thought they’d drafted, and the rest of the roster is mostly made up of role players — good ones, but not the type that’ll take over a game or series for you.
So the Jazz didn’t sign major free agents (and instead lost one), and don’t have the kind of locale or recent winning history to do so. They didn’t tank for several seasons to pile up draft capital. Instead, they gradually improved over a few seasons, didn’t panic when arguably their best player departed over the summer, made some shrewd trades (including one for a potential rising superstar), and proved everyone wrong with a season of success no one saw coming.
The Jazz are, really, the antithesis of the current NBA. They never peaked and won a championship, nor did they hit rock bottom with consecutive top-5 picks. They simply improved, gradually, without much in the way of stars — all the way to potentially a top-4 seed in the NBA’s far more difficult conference.
For that, they should be celebrated.
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