The Western Conference of the NBA has had no shortage of disappointing potential contenders this year - Minnesota, Denver, Dallas, and New Orleans are all walking, jumping train wrecks who entered with at least some version of playoff aspirations.
One team that could have been grouped with those squads before the year but certainly doesn't belong there now is the Utah Jazz. They are 24-16 through their first 40 games and are showing real potential to chase down the Clippers and gain the crucial fourth seed in the conference and home-court advantage in the first round. Don't mistake them for serious title contenders just yet (At +5000 to win the title at BetOnline they are behind seven other teams and in a different stratosphere from the Warriors and Cavs, and even this price seems overly optimistic and way short on value). They are doing a lot of things right, though, and are an easy team to have high hopes for the rest of this year and beyond.
Here's a look at seven factors driving this team:
Gordon Hayward: Hayward isn't the most talented or athletic player in the league, but I just love watching him play. His effort is never anything less than absolute, and every year he finds ways to raise his already sky-high basketball IQ and contribute more to his team. He's also emerging as a very strong leader. He feels like a guy who will play in Utah forever, and he will be the leader and face of the team over that time - like Dirk in Dallas or Malone and Stockton before him in Salt Lake. He's setting career highs in scoring and rebounds this year, and his shooting is the best it has been in a long while. And yet with the way he is playing, and the comfort he shows with Coach Snyder, it's very easy to feel like the best is still ahead for him this year. Give him time with, hopefully, a roster that is finally healthy, and we could see by far the best ball of his career down the stretch. I am very bullish.
Rudy Gobert: The Frenchman doesn't get nearly enough credit. He is really, really good, and if he didn't play in a media wasteland like Salt Lake City he would be a much bigger star. When he is on the court he owns the paint like few players in this league can. He changes the game. He is defensively elite, and he's only 24 so he's just going to keep getting better. Gobert is a big part of the success of this team, and that isn't going to change. He and Hayward are a heck of a one-two punch going forward.
Dante Exum: We've been able to be so positive up to this point, but this is a current dark spot for this team. Exum was a serious prospect in the 2014 draft despite skipping college and entering the draft straight out of Australia. The Jazz went all in on him, and it just hasn't paid off. He was underwhelming as a rookie, lost last season to an ACL injury, and then has been so weak this year that he has lately found himself glued to the bench. He's a guy without an obvious role at this point, and he just doesn't do enough to warrant a lot of minutes. He's a non-entity right now, and the hope is that he can avoid being a distraction. Snyder clearly isn't a fan right now, and I struggle to imagine him having a long-term role here.
Injuries: This team has been hit ridiculously hard by injuries so far this year. Hayward, Derrick Favors, George Hill and Alec Burks have all missed time. There are twin bouts of good news here, though. First, they have managed to not only survive the issues but come through them pretty strong. Second, they are finally mostly healthy right now. If they can stay that way then they should be able to field a consistent lineup and really take steps forward.
Quin Snyder: Mea culpa time. I was highly skeptical when Snyder was hired to coach this team. My view was tainted by the messy way his time at Missouri ended in scandal and by the fact that over the four years before getting the gig he had been an assistant for four different teams. My hopes were not high, but I was wrong. Snyder deserves a tremendous amount of credit and is doing an elite, Top 5-in-the-league kind of job this year. He has had to craft seemingly a new roster every night, but through all the chaos and setbacks he has this team playing very well and quite potentially heading not just for a playoff berth but perhaps even home-court advantage in the first round. Snyder won't win Coach of the Year, but he should get a vote or two. When he was hired I was sure he'd be fired by now.
Depth: It's an odd complaint, but right now the Jazz have too much depth. Or the wrong kind of depth. They are a team that relies heavily on their starters, so those five - Hayward, Hill, Gobert, Favors and Rodney Hood ideally - are going to eat up a lot of minutes. Behind them, they have a roster that they can go 14 deep with but not enough players who warrant big minutes. That leaves Snyder to juggle limited minutes between a lot of players, leaving few happy. Guys like Alec Burks and Trey Lyles could use more minutes than there are to give them right now. In an ideal world the team would shorten the bench and find a core that works better for their needs, but the path to doing that isn't as clear as it should be.
Betting performance: This is a team that has a really good look at 50 wins, but they are not shining in the same way at the betting window. Not even close. In fact, at 19-20-1 ATS through their first 40 games they have been useless to bettors on the long term. They are 10-9 ATS at home and 9-11-1 ATS on the road, so location hasn't affected their betting impact, either. Despite winning six of their last 10 they are just 3-7 ATS over that stretch, so they certainly aren't helping bettors out lately.
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