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July 28, 2021

Patrick Kinahan: The Jazz – legitimate championship contender or merely good team?

SALT LAKE CITY — Eleven consecutive wins bookended by two humbling losses makes the Utah Jazz somewhat of a mystery with 25% of the season over.

The impressive win streak vaulted the Jazz atop the Western Conference standings, looking down at the likes of defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and another expected contender in the Los Angeles Clippers. But both losses — to the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, respectively — leave the impression that maybe the Jazz are not quite as good as their 15-5 record.

All of it prompts the obvious question: Are the Jazz merely a good team destined for another early offseason or are they legitimate championship contenders? At this point in the season, there’s contrasting projections.

At their best, depending on playoff seedings, the Jazz appear capable of advancing to the second round for the first time in three years. Some experts, such as former NBA player Channing Frye, think this Jazz group is good enough to make a run at the title.

Speaking on NBA-TV after the Jazz beat the Dallas Mavericks for their 10th consecutive win, Frye said: “I’m seeing a different Utah Jazz team. This is not the team that doesn’t have expectations and is still trying to grow. This is a team that wants to win now.”

For the time being, anyway, Zach Harper of The Athletic agrees with Frye. Harper, who worked for The Zone Sports Network in Utah during the playoffs two years ago, ranked the Jazz at No. 1 in his most recent power poll, which came after Sunday’s loss in Denver.

Others, while quick to lavish praise on the team and coach Quin Snyder, remain skeptical to put the Jazz among the league’s elite. After the Jazz destroyed the Mavericks for the second consecutive game last week, former NBA big man and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins couldn’t go quite to the top but did offer up some respect.

In a tweet, he wrote: “Okay, I think it’s safe to say that the Utah Jazz is a dark horse contender.”

Dark horse contender is akin to a back-handed compliment, more or less meaning they are good but not really good enough. The almost-condescending quote comes despite the Jazz currently being only one-half game away from tying for the best record in the NBA.

The reluctance likely stems from the Jazz having no history of even coming close to contending for the championship. They have not made the conference finals since losing to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.

Fair enough.

But the strong start to the season is no fluke, not with the number of shooters the Jazz can put on the floor at any given time. Even compared to last season, with mostly the same personnel, the improvement is startling.

“They’re creating brilliant looks on the perimeter and cashing in so many,” Harper wrote. “It’s just flat-out overwhelming opponents. If they keep playing like this, they’ll have an argument for three All-Stars, which nobody expected prior to this season.”

As expected, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the mainstays, providing the Jazz with a strong foundation on offense and defense, respectively. The difference this year is Mike Conley, last season’s prize acquisition who fell short of expectations.

Transitioning from the top option on offense during a lengthy career with the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley struggled to find a role during his first season with the Jazz. Eventually, after missing one month due to injuries, Conley found his groove and began to mirror his success with Memphis.

In six playoff games — he missed the first one for the birth of his child — Conley shot 48% from the field and averaged 19.8 points a game. He hasn’t missed much of a beat this season.

“I was thinking more last year than I was (with Memphis) going out there and just playing,” Conley said on The Woj Podcast.

Patrick Kinahan

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