Unless you have been following the NBA intently this season, you may not notice that the Utah Jazz quietly have the leagues best record.
The Jazz have been the singular standard of excellent basketball play thus far. Not the revamped system of the LA Clippers under Ty Lue. Not the restocked stardom of the Brooklyn Nets after the James Harden trade. Not the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and their march toward a repeat.
Utah has lost just once over the last 21 games, and have a 24-6 record on the season, two games better than the Clippers.
So why are NBA fans, the media, and even the league not paying much attention to the Jazz?
We have seen this story plenty of times throughout NBA history. The fairytale, up and coming team ascending to the top of the conference with excellent team play, but ultimately falling short of a championship appearance.
The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks are the most recent example.
That Hawks team came out of nowhere to win 60 games, and it pounced on the league for a full month when it won 19 straight games and went 17-0 in January. That run resulted in one of the corniest awards decisions we’ve ever seen, with their starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
When you compare this Jazz team to that Hawks team, you see some comparable talking points. In 2015 fans and pundits were just waiting for that Hawks team to be proven fraudulent as a title contender in 2015. The Hawks didn’t have that superstar caliber player, the one you are confident in to go head to head with LeBron James in a best of 7 series.
The Hawks took their 60 wins against LeBron’s Cavaliers and got swept. We didn’t see the Hawks coming before that season because they didn’t exist as a true contender. Our skepticism was proven correct.
This Jazz team has something closer to said superstar in Donovan Mitchell, but let’s be honest with each other, Mitchell is a full step, maybe step and a half below superstar level. I can easily see the same outcome if the Jazz link up with LeBron’s Lakers in the playoffs.
The 2015 Hawks are not the only example I have.
Anyone remember the overly exciting, talented, but shortcoming Sacramento Kings of the late 90’s early 2000’s?
From 1998 to 2001, the Kings were building toward a brilliant culmination in basketball purity. They took the league by storm with Chris Webber and Vlade Divac trying to harness their flashy, unstoppable (in so many ways) point guard Jason Williams.
The franchise went from missing the playoffs 11 out of 12 seasons to right in the thick of things in the Western Conference, battling the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. The 2001-02 team is the one most relatable to this Jazz team.
They slowly built but were frustrated by early playoff exits in previous years, but with the addition of Mike Bibby as another ball hander and scorer, they felt primed for a title run. The Kings won 61 games that season and boasted the best net rating (plus-8.1) in the NBA with the fifth-best defense and third-best offense.
There was just one glaring, massive hurdle this fun team had to overcome, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. That Lakers squad was the standard for the league, and nobody seemed to have the firepower to thwart it. The Kings gave it the best effort of anybody back then.
The Kings had the Lakers down 3-2, and on the ropes in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. They had the Lakers beat, until they didn’t. The star power that is Shaq and Kobe combined with experience overwhelmed the Kings who were not ready for the brightest of lights.
I get a ton of vibes of those Kings in this Jazz team. A team on the cusp after disappointing playoff runs, but still not there yet. Better, but not championship tier.
And that is where the true substance of this conversation and any surrounding the Jazz will begin and end. Can they win a championship?
Everything from here on out is pointless if they can’t win a championship. They’ll just become the next member on the list of very good teams who peaked in the regular season.
Just look at them within their own conference at the moment. DO we really trust them as a top 4 team let alone the best team heading into a playoff run?
While the Clippers receive perennial doubt in the postseason because of their franchise hipster, their star tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be trusted more if healthy. A year ago the Denver Nuggets were in the same boat as the Jazz are now, a proven playoff team but not take serious as a true contender. But after making the conference finals last season, taking out the Clippers and Jazz in the process, they kind of proved they belong in title contender conversations. And we still have the defending champion Lakers in the picture. Damian Lillard and the Blazers are another team in the game boat with the Jazz right now, but even they have that top 10 player needed for a championship.
The Jazz are just lingering in no mans land despite their excellent play.
The bodies and skeletons of hopeful championship teams have littered the playoff pavement for decades due to the historic stars standing in the way.
Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Reggie Miller never ended up with titles because of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Shaq and Kobe denied those Kings teams and some great Portland Trail Blazers teams in their run.
Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs kept Steve Nash out of those ceremonies and parades.
The Warriors denied Chris Paul and James Harden, although Harden will try to remove himself from that lore in the uniform of the Brooklyn Nets moving forward.
LeBron James kept a generation of Eastern Conference teams out of the NBA Finals.
Sure James has lost more Finals than he won, but ask that 2015 Hawks team or the Indiana Pacers when he was in Miami or the young and exciting Oklahoma City Thunder or Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, or Carmelo Anthony if they feel his NBA Finals record is diminished.
The Jazz can’t be taken seriously as title contenders until they slay the dragon, or king if you will. Maybe some of that is doubting this specific squad, but it’s actually just history letting us know that it’s really hard to win a title, even when you’ve shown elite basketball play for an extended stretch or two. It is the way NBA works and has worked since the beginning.
It’s unfair to say the Jazz have to win the title to be taken seriously, but this league is littered with a lack of fairness when it comes to this stuff. The Jazz are formidable. The Jazz are currently historic. And the Jazz are trying to announce their presence with authority.
They won’t be able to definitely make that claim until he postseason, and they have a brutal pathway in front of them.
Point being, are the Jazz are at a cross roads in defining their legacy. How are they going to be remembered?