The Dramatic Rise of the Utah Jazz

Two weeks into the season, the Jazz find themselves firmly in the playoff picture out West. How have they done it?

Not too long ago, the Utah Jazz were synonymous with success. Just mentioning the name would conjure memories of Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton. With head coach Jerry Sloan at the helm, the Jazz were a playoff staple throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

From 1984 to 2010, Utah made the postseason an impressive 24 out of 27 times. The franchise owns the fifth-best-winning percentage of all time, .536.

Since Sloan left, however, the Jazz have made the playoffs once in the last five seasons. After a 19-34 start last season, it was looking like the Jazz would never get back on track and return to their former glory.

At the 2015 All-Star Break, the organization decided to move on from then starting center Enes Kanter and give second-year French phenom, Rudy Gobert the job all to himself. The move paid immediate dividends as the Jazz finished hot, going 19-10 to close out the year and bring hope back to a rabid fanbase.

Because the Jazz have the third-youngest roster in the NBA, many considered Utah another year away from a playoff spot,  us included, despite being one the best teams in the West late last season. With the season two weeks old and the Jazz sitting with a 4-3 record and at the fourth spot in our power rankings, let's take a look at how it has been coming together for them this season.

Early-Season Results

Through seven games this season, Utah has faced a somewhat hard schedule. While their opponents have a combined record of 26-27, five of the seven have been on the road. Of their losses, two of them came against the two of the top three teams in the East: Detroit and Cleveland. In both contests, too, they have battled and had a chance for victory.

On the road in Cleveland, the Jazz were tied with less than five minutes remaining and were within two points with 15 seconds remaining before ultimately losing by four. If there was ever a moral victory for a young squad, it was that one. The narrow-but-high-scoring loss to the Cavs (118-114) showed they could keep up offensively with the NBA's elite teams, a big concern entering the season.


With point guard Dante Exum tearing his knee and being lost for the year, before it even began, many wrote off the Jazz offense as incapable of succeeding. Considering with Exum, the Jazz ranked 19th or worse in field goal shooting, three-point shooting, turnovers and assists last season, no one expected much on that side of the ball from Utah. 

While they still rank near the bottom in points per game, Utah boasts the 10th most efficient offense with a 104.7 Offensive Rating. They also rank in the top three in both three-point percentage and turnover percentage.

The early offensive success can be tied to the resurgent play of their backcourt, specifically Alec Burks and Trey Burke.

Burks faced big expectations last season after signing a $42 million extension at the start of training camp. He rewarded the Jazz with a miserable shooting performance, a career-low 40 percent from the field, before injuring his shoulder and knocking him out for the year after only 27 games. 

Coming off the bench so far this year, the 24-year-old has bounced back. His shooting has returned to his career average of 44 percent. The guard's three-point shooting is off the charts as well as he is making over 50 percent of his attempts through seven games. Averaging 15.6 points per game, Burks ranks right behind Gordon Hayward for the team lead. 

With Burks and his plus-minus average of 5.1 on the court, the Jazz offense picks up the pace and their efficiency as well. 

Burks Splits On Court Off Court
Offensive Rating 106.3 101.1
Pace 95.4 88.4

The only player who gives the offensive a boost similar to Burks is the much-maligned backup point guard, Burke. Coming off the bench behind Raul Neto, Burke has been a game-changer when on the floor. With Burke running the show, Utah posts a 110.3 Offensive Rating. With Burke on the bench, that plunges to 98.5.

While his assists have plummeted to 2.1 per game, Burke is off to the best shooting performance of his career. With a career mark of 37.4 percent from the field, entering the season, the third-year point guard is hitting 48 percent of his shots including over 52 percent from three. Always thought of as an explosive scorer coming out of Michigan, Burke is finally showing better shot selection as he is taking more high-percentage shots.

Nearly 40 percent of his shots used to come from 24 feet or farther from the hoop. While he still loves to fire away from deep, he has almost doubled the number of shots he is taking from three feet or closer. Driving to the basket instead of settling for mid-range shots, Burke has increased his personal Offensive Rating to 110, well above his career average of 100. He currently sits as  our 45th best player with a 4.9 nERD rating, which indicates how many wins above or below .500 a player would make an average team over a full season.


The calling card for the Jazz down the stretch last season and in the first couple of weeks so far has been their defense.

Jazz Defense Final 29 games in 14-15 Rank 2015-16 Rank
Opp. Points 89.0 1 89.7 1
Opp. FG% 42.2% 2 40.9% 1
Opp. eFG% 46.5% 2 45.7% 6
Opp. Points in Paint 38.1 5 34.3 1
Defensive Rating 94.8 1 97.5 5

Ranking first in opponent field goal percentage, first in opponent assists, and third in opponent turnover ratio, their harassing defense continues to lead the way. Specifically in the front court.Utah's defense since last year's All-Star break is arguably the best in the NBA. While the extremely sluggish offensive pace they play at, Utah is dead last in possessions per 48 minutes, contributes to limiting opponents points and shot attempts per game, the fact remains that Utah is contesting said shots at an elite level.

Power forward Derrick Favors held his own last season, averaging 1.7 blocks per game. However this season, while his blocks are down, he has taken his defensive game to another level.

He ranks fourth in the NBA with a 90.2 Defensive Rating. Where he is getting the job done is when defending shots less than 10 feet from the basket. On average, his opponents 7.6 shots per game from that range. Favors is holding them to a 35.8 field goal percentage. The expectation is the opponent would make nearly 53 percent of those attempts.

The 17-percentage-point difference on shots down low helps his rim protection numbers, specifically points saved where Favors ranks in the top 20,  per

While Favors is in the midst of the best defensive season of his career, his frontcourt mate, Gobert, overshadows him in virtually all defensive categories. 

Gobert2015-16 Rank
Total Rebound %20.17
Block %8.34
Defensive Rating92.06
Def. Box Plus/Minus 6.61

Leading everyone in the NBA,  concerning rim protection, Gobert is easily in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as the face of one the league's top defenses.While last season was the Stifle Tower's breakout season, many wondered if the 23-year-old would show any regression this season given the weighty expectations placed on him entering 2015-16. Albeit seven games is a small sample size, Gobert has shown his ability to maintain his lofty ranks.

Can They Keep it Up?

With a top-10 offense and defense, regarding efficiency, the Jazz are primed for a breakthrough this year. Having already shown they compete with an elite team, Cleveland, the real test on how high the Jazz can rise in the West will come during the slogs of the midseason. 

With six players in  our top 50, in terms of nERD, the talent is there in Salt Lake City. Now, if they can keep up the early season success and maintain good health, the Jazz will have a shot to find themselves playing in meaningful games come April.