When we think of the Utah Jazz and their best years, the iconic “Stockton to Malone!” phrase comes to mind. For almost 20 years, the lethal pick and roll duo carried the franchise to two consecutive NBA Finals appearances against Michael Jordan and the Bulls in ’97 and ’98. Unfortunately, the Jazz lost both times but were always a worthy foe.
In both those years, the Jazz had finished with the second-best record and tied the Bulls for the best record in the league. This year, with last night’s win over the Sacramento Kings, the often doubted Utah Jazz secured home-court advantage throughout the postseason by finishing with the NBA’s best record for the first time in franchise history.
With the top seed come championship aspirations and considering the last Jazz team to make it to the finals was led by the current all-time assists leader John Stockton and a former MVP Karl Malone, who is second all-time in scoring, to cast the same expectations on a team that is not nearly as decorated would be somewhat unjustified. The two teams could not be more different.
One ran the pick and roll to perfection, looking to maximize the talents of two franchise players to get consistent looks going to the basket and on the perimeter. The other is led by an explosive guard who likes to create isolation plays to get rhythm shots from behind the arc for himself and his teammates, something they do very well.
One defended with physicality at all positions to apply ball pressure and force turnovers, while the other plays a more conservative style, constantly using their speed to run opposing players off the three-point line forcing them to take it to Rudy Gobert waiting under the basket.
Despite their dominant season, the jury is still out on the ’20/’21 Utah Jazz as contenders. While ball movement and high-volume three-point shooting have proven to be effective ways to win the regular season, many believe that you need at least two players on your roster that can create opportunities against all kinds of defensive schemes in the playoffs. Isn’t it ironic how we all want NBA teams to share the ball and play fluid, but when the stakes are highest, we believe that this is not enough to win games? That at the end of the day, the team with the most stars almost always wins it all?
The Utah Jazz, often maligned for not being your prototypical NBA championship contender, have more than just their own title hopes resting on this season and the next to come. They represent the plight of small-market teams that cannot afford to wait until free agency to build the next contender with a collection of superstars. With a ring, they can prove that there is a way to stay competitive in this league without loading up on the best talent and that it might actually be the right way.