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What have been the biggest surprises, disappointments and difference-makers?

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With the NBA season now one-third complete, and the Utah Jazz (22-9) currently sitting in third place in the Western Conference, Salt Lake Tribune and Salt City Hoops writers discuss the state of the team to this point.

What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments? Where do Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert rank among the league’s best? And what moves, if any, might help the Jazz the rest of the way?

How has this season compared to your expectations so far?

Andy Larsen, Salt Lake Tribune: Over the aggregate, it’s roughly what I expected, but with a couple of quirks. I didn’t expect the Jazz’s excellent offense to get even better in 2021, but it certainly has. Hassan Whiteside’s ability to make an impact far outstrips what I expected from him. I’m also surprised that the Jazz are now playing Mike Conley in back-to-back games after not doing that a season ago. Load management, this isn’t.

Riley Gisseman, Salt City Hoops: It’s been more of a roller coaster than I expected! The Jazz struggled mid-November against teams like the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Heat at home, but Rudy Gay’s introduction to the rotation had an immediate positive impact much quicker than I’d thought it would be. He’s a bit reminiscent of what the Jazz likely thought they were getting in the failed Jeff Green experiment two years back, but it’s been nothing but positive returns from Gay so far.

David Smith, Salt City Hoops: The Jazz have met my expectations, perhaps even exceeding them slightly. One of the major things to watch going into the season was the team’s response to their auspicious postseason ouster. After an uneven start, they have blistered opponents offensively and their new additions have gelled seamlessly. They are looking great and are showing resilience.

Eric Walden, Salt Lake Tribune: Not far off from what I expected, to be honest. That the offense has leveled up yet again is something of a surprise, just given how efficient this team was a year ago, but that’s splitting hairs to some degree. While there is disappointment in some circles in the sporadic level of effort, I find that to be wholly unsurprising. This is no longer a team intent on claiming the best record in the league and the No. 1 seed in the postseason, but rather one committed to improving every step along the way on the path to postseason success.

Mark Russell Pereira, Salt City Hoops: This season has nailed my expectations when it comes to the very broad metric of a win/loss record. I never got frustrated over losses to the undermanned Pelicans and Pacers —those are just blips that shouldn’t garner overreaction from anyone. I expected Utah to not quite set the world on fire while they maintained Conley’s minutes and perhaps experimented with new defensive approaches, so their relatively chilly record compared to the Western Conference-leading Phoenix and Golden State is unsurprising.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (11) as the Utah Jazz host the Charlotte Hornets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.

Thatcher Olson, Salt City Hoops: On par for my expectations, so far. Though the Jazz took a circuitous road there, the Jazz are a top team in the NBA by net rating and record. They went through a rough stretch followed and preceded by two long winning streaks. They’re once again a top-10 offense and defense. The only surprise is their offense took another step up from great to near all-time historic levels.

Where would you rank Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert among the NBA’s best?

Larsen: Both have played at a top-20 level this season. Gobert’s impact is heavily on display in the advanced statistics, in the top-10 of Win Shares, Value over Replacement Player, and Player Efficiency Rating. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s offensive advancement in the last couple of weeks has made him the NBA’s Player of the Week — he’s been so brilliant in both scoring and finding teammates for open shots.

Gisseman: I wish I could compare how Jazz fans feel about Gobert and Mitchell now to how they felt about Stockton and Malone before the Hall Of Famers had their first conference finals appearance in their seventh season together. Gobert, as a historically good defender, has been one of the most impactful players in the league for nearly seven years now, and Mitchell has seemingly exploded into being arguably a more valuable piece for Utah at this point. The Jazz have one of the best offenses in league history and a top 5 defense today, and it’s heavily due to those two players.

Smith: Both stars are arguably playing the best basketball of their careers. Gobert is showing heightened aggressiveness on the boards and better decisiveness offensively. Defensively he has been dominant. Quel surprise! Mitchell has been brilliant during the streak. He scores in so many ways and his defense has never been stronger. Gobert should be a slam dunk—pun intended—for All-NBA (first-team perhaps?), with Mitchell being a very strong candidate, too.

Walden: Every offseason, Rudy makes a comment along the lines of “I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can do.” While this is hyperbole to some degree, the general sentiment is true for both players in that, with every new campaign, they seem to add another dimension to their respective games. Their latest leaps have them both in the vicinity of the NBA’s top dozen players now, in my estimation. Donovan’s increased efficiency from inside the arc, and Rudy’s ever-expanding collection of offensive wrinkles (nerve-wracking as they may be) have elevated them. All-NBA Second Team honors are a distinct possibility.

Pereira: Mitchell is a top-10 player in the NBA, but firmly in the bottom of that. That’s no discredit to him, but rather an acknowledgment that the highest tier of NBA stars exist in a totally different pantheon. That said, with Kawhi Leonard injured, and Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard struggling to start the year, Donovan suddenly finds himself scratching the top five. I abstain from ascribing a ranking number to Gobert. He’s the best defensive player in basketball, and it’s not close. That’s what matters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks a shot by Washington Wizards center Daniel Gafford (21), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards, at Vivint Arena on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Olson: This is a hard thing to do. However, by nearly every standard (net rating, 538′s raptor, ESPN’s PER), they are both top 10-30 players in the NBA. In my mind, the 1A tier is reserved for MVPs, past MVPs, and title winners, such as Kevin Durant, Stephy Curry, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, among others. Gobert and Mitchell are among the 10-20 players in the 1B tier. Where they fall within the 1B tier is hard to judge and a topic for a longer conversation.

What aspect of this season has impressed you most? What has disappointed you most?

Larsen: I thought Hassan Whiteside was done. After all, he was a Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision for the Sacramento Kings, so that they could play Damian Jones. That tends to be a last stop for players. But instead, he’s been really quite good, going from terrible screener to excellent one, and making a rim protection impact down low. Meanwhile, I will admit I’m disappointed Jared Butler wasn’t able to find his way into the rotation — right now, he’s more suited to being the lead man than to playing with better players around him.

Gisseman: The Jazz offense is rolling. They are essentially one more 125 point game away from having both the highest points per possession in league history and having the most points per possession above league average in NBA history. Anyone who doesn’t realize how terrific the Jazz offense is at this point is simply being ignorant. The Jazz late-game execution has been most disappointing. While they’re tied for the best point differential in the league, they’re 6th in point differential when within 5 points in the final 5 minutes, and they’ve gone just 6-6 in close games.

Smith: While most expected Gay to be a difference-maker (which he is), it was unsure what Utah would get from Whiteside. He has proven doubters wrong thus far, providing scoring, rebounding and rim defense for the second unit. His production behind Gobert has been excellent. A disappointment has been the sometimes-baffling turnover issues. For a team boasting continuity, there are still outings where the frequent miscues are puzzling.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Hassan Whiteside (21) as the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

Walden: If I had told you in the preseason that this year’s Jazz team would be far superior to last season’s group, would you have believed it? Utah leads the NBA in offensive rating by a whopping 4.7 points per 100 possessions. The gap between them and second-place Charlotte is greater than the gap between the Hornets and the 21st-rated Celtics. That’s just nuts. As for the disappointment … Utah may have the sixth-rated defense, but there is legitimate concern that Marcus Morris’ critique may be right, that perhaps no one other than Rudy Gobert is actually a capable defender.

Pereira: Gay and Whiteside have wildly impressed me. My expectations for each were quite muted after Utah’s recent history of incredibly disappointing free-agent signings. Gay’s isolation and midrange preferences and Whiteside’s history of waning effort also portended possible challenges. Instead, both have been terrific and have meshed wonderfully in Utah. I wish any of the younger talents — Butler, Miye Oni and Elijah Hughes — could earn minutes as the 10th man. Trent Forrest is fine, but those other three have higher upside. It’s a shame they haven’t shown Quin Snyder enough to see the floor.

Olson: As Andy has chronicled, the Jazz are among the league leaders in 3-pointers made and attempted. The biggest surprise, and perhaps the main reason why the Jazz have a historic offense is their league-leading 2-point percentage. This combination makes for a versatile and lethal offense. So far nothing about the season has disappointed me. I expected the Jazz to be an elite team. Success or failure all hinges on a deep playoff run this year, not the regular season.

As it stands, how confident are you about the Jazz in the playoffs?

Larsen: I still need to see more. The Jazz struggled against the Miami Heat’s flexible defense in both matchups this season. And then there’s the fact that they haven’t really dealt with the roster’s core weakness: they can’t stop the Jamal Murrays of the world from scoring 50 and the Reggie Jacksons from scoring 30. Positive games against the guard-heavy and excellent Warriors and Suns, coming up in the next couple of months, would go a long way to easing these concerns.

Gisseman: More confident than 2021? It’s difficult to quantify because if Mitchell and Conley’s body’s had held up through the playoffs, we have no idea where the Jazz would be right now. They’ve largely addressed their most significant holes, though. They’re pacing Conley through the season, added a terrific small ball option in Gay, Forrest looks far more ready to fill in for a Conley/Mitchell injury, and they have got a better offense this year despite shooting 1.5% worse from deep. They’ve got to stay healthy and their starting backcourt is still small, but things look bright right now.

Smith: Gay and Whiteside give Utah better flexibility off the bench. Snyder is experimenting more with different lineups and approaches on both ends of the court. He also is being very prudent with Conley and Joe Ingles. These are all positives. The perimeter defense is still quite suspect and needs to be addressed. I feel Utah can certainly contend for the championship.

Walden: There has been a proclivity in some circles to already reduce the Western Conference to a two-horse race, with the assumption that Golden State and Phoenix are miles ahead of everyone else. This is a mistake. I don’t see Utah as a demonstrably lower-tier team than either of those two. Problem is, I also can’t definitively argue that, as constructed, this team is any more a legitimate contender than it was a year ago. Yes, the offense has taken another leap, and yes, there is greater versatility. But can they get a stop when it matters? I just don’t know.

Pereira: I am wildly confident about the Jazz’s playoff outlook. Last year’s exit was not a representative performance, but it still served as a teaching moment for improvement this year. Every single player this side of Jordan Clarkson possession looks as good as or better than last season’s form. Snyder is trying out some tweaks here and there. The bench is a solid step better. The generally wide open NBA title race only serves to accelerate my confidence. Utah has a real, tangible chance at a championship.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) chats with Quin Snyder, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Indiana Pacers at Vivint Arena, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Olson: Slightly more confident than last year. The Jazz have proven the past several years that they’re at least a fringe championship contender, if not better. However, that hypothetical designation hasn’t translated to a deep playoff run yet. They’ve hit roadblocks every year. They’ve transformed their offense and I trust their ability to score, but they will have to be a better defensive team against different offenses and small-ball lineups.

If you were in the front office, how would you approach the trade deadline?

Larsen: It’s been rumored that the Jazz are looking for a defensively-oriented wing to add at the deadline, but I’m less worried about how the team will defend the LeBron Jameses of the world than the Steph Currys. Royce O’Neale and even Bojan Bogdanovic has done a good job on the bigger wings, but how do they guard the waterbug quick guards? That’s where I’d look, to add one of the league’s elite guard defenders as an option to turn to in the playoffs when stops are needed.

Gisseman: I remember reading a quote from Toronto’s Masai Ujiri after taking a significant risk in trading for Marc Gasol in 2019: “We’re going for it, and we think you can help”, Masai told Gasol. Ujiri has since said that he hadn’t won a championship before, so he just kept adding pieces. That’s the direction I believe Justin Zanik and Danny Ainge have to take the rest of the season. The Jazz have depth to sacrifice to get better top-end talent, even if that’s tough to commit to. Fighting to land a guy like Jerami Grant, Harrison Barnes, or even (deep breath) Gordon Hayward would be a championship-driven move.

Smith: In 1998, the Jazz boasted the NBA’s best record and looked like they could top the Bulls. Even so, they swung a bold trade for Rony Seikaly. Although that did not work out, that is the type of approach Zanik should adopt here. When you have team capable of winning it all, it is best to be wisely aggressive. Wing defense should be the priority.

Walden: It’s a tricky situation, because there is such tremendous chemistry among the existing rotation players, and they all make viable contributions to what has been a historically epic offense. Is there some redundancy there? Perhaps. I’m not as eager as many are to ship off Jordan Clarkson, though, as I fear they would miss his shot-creation. Still, there’s no denying the Jazz remain horribly susceptible to prolific outbursts from scoring guards. If J.Z. can procure a viable perimeter stopper for the right price (Joe Ingles, maybe?), that’s a deal worth upsetting the status quo for.

Pereira: As I mentioned in the previous answer, Utah is currently a title-built team. I see no value in dumping preciously-limited draft capital to make marginal or qualitative improvements. Accordingly, I would not trade any Jazz rotation player but for a truly significant, no-questions upgrade. I acknowledge that this would require a major, bluest-chip asset to effectuate. That’s kind of my point—go big, or stay confident.

Olson: The biggest weakness the Jazz have is still wing defenders. If there is any way to get a wing that will improve the Jazz roster and be part of the playoff rotation, then Justin (and newly hired Ainge) need to get it done. A meaningful move would likely have to involve players with salaries like Ingles, Clarkson, Bogdanovic, and/or multiple draft considerations. It is a tough choice but one that has to at least be looked at.

https://www.sltrib.com/sports/jazz/2021/12/24/utah-jazz-roundtable-what/ What have been the biggest surprises, disappointments and difference-makers?

Beth Allcock

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