By Jesus Gomez
The Golden State Warriors capped a dominant playoffs run by trouncing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals and sending the league into existential despair. What everyone feared when they landed Kevin Durant became true. Golden State appears to be invincible.
Trying to figure out who could eventually take them down in a series is tough. The Cavaliers and maybe the San Antonio Spurs have the talent to compete. Beyond those two teams, things get murkier.
The consensus seems to be that a team with enough shooters to go blow for blow with Golden State would have the best chance. Yet, taking the Warriors out of their comfort zone could be just as good a plan as trying to outscore them. And few teams are better suited to do that than the Utah Jazz.
The biggest knock on the Jazz as potential Warrior killers is the relative low ceiling of the team both in the long run and on a game-to-game basis. Golden State can reach heights that not many squads have seen, on any night. Without a couple of superstars who can match Durant and Stephen Curry shot for shot or multiple marksmen who can go off at any time, it’s hard to keep up for a full game, much less a series.
That Jazz don’t have either. Their best player is Gordon Hayward, someone who would ideally be a second option on a more top-heavy team. Close behind him is Rudy Gobert, a defensive specialist. They ranked in the middle of the pack in 3-point attempts and had no shooting big men. They lost six out of seven matchups against Golden State, including four straight in the playoffs this season. On the surface, it’s hard to consider them a threat going by recent results. But there are some caveats that need to be considered.
For one, the Jazz were never fully healthy when facing the Warriors. George Hill missed three of four playoff matchups. Rudy Gobert was out for one of them. Derrick Favors missed three regular season games. Gordon Hayward was out for two. That’s huge not only because those are the team’s best players but also because one of the Jazz’s biggest strengths is depth. They have role players who perform well in small roles but were forced to step out of their comfort zone. If Shelvin Mack has to average over 20 minutes a game, his team is in trouble.
Even under those circumstances, the Jazz managed to do something not many teams could: control the pace against Golden State. The Warriors still managed to outplay them on both ends because they are fantastic, but the games were played the way Utah intended. Considering the pace was lower in the few losses the Warriors posted throughout the season, that’s big. In fact, the two teams that beat them twice last year – the Spurs and Grizzlies – forced them into half court games. The Jazz are comparatively good on defense to those squads and might be better going forward.
Now, to be fair, in those defeats, defensive rebounding and turnovers were as big a problem for the Warriors as anything else. The Jazz couldn’t really exploit those weaknesses, which explains why they lost most of the matchups. That doesn’t mean they won’t in the future if they can stay healthy, though.
At full strength, Utah could start both Gobert and Favors to try to pound Golden State on the glass. Even if they don’t, they could have one or the other at all times on the court at center. Gobert is an elite offensive rebounder and Favors an above average one, especially when he plays center.
The Warriors would then have the option of staying big more than they’d like to – a win for Utah — or try to create a mismatch by moving Draymond Green up a spot close to full time. If they were to do that, the Jazz’s big men could wear him out. There’s a reason Steve Kerr doesn’t go to the Death Lineup constantly. It’s physically taxing to play small, especially against bruising teams like the Jazz.
Creating turnovers would be a bigger challenge, but still possible. Favors and Hill, in particular, are good at it and should get more opportunities to show that if they stay healthy. With marginal improvement there and the extra possessions coming from better offensive rebounding, Utah could put a lot of pressure on an opponent that thrives when it has as many opportunities to score as possible. Take away fastbreak buckets by avoiding turnovers – something the Jazz were very good at with Hill on the court – and they could turn every game against the Warriors into a war of attrition.
Slowing the game down and playing mistake-free ball is not a surefire recipe to beat Golden State anymore. Not with Kevin Durant bailing out stagnant possessions with his isolation scoring. But it could give the Jazz a fighting chance if they can muster enough scoring of their own.
That could be a problem, but even with all the injuries it suffered Utah almost finished with a top 10 offense. They lack a superstar scorer but have several wings who can handle the ball and get a bucket in Hayward, Hood, Joe Johnson and even Alec Burks. They are also used to grinding out points in the half court, which could play to their advantage against a Warriors team that doesn’t really value possessions. Utah could really make things uncomfortable for Golden State in the next few years.
Before they can even think of doing that, the Jazz need to keep their core together. Both Hayward and Hill are entering free agency, and both could realistically leave. If that happens, it’s back to mediocrity for Utah. If it doesn’t and they manage to retain one of Boris Diaw or Joe Ingles, however, they will have a deep, versatile roster. That means having options against the Warriors, but also the ammo to make a big move, something most second and third-tier teams lack.
If they re-sign Hill, Hayward and at least one of the forwards, Utah could make Burks, Hood and possibly Favors available for other pieces. Dante Exum and Trey Lyles are still young enough to either become good replacements for those who are traded away or be enticing pieces to a rebuilding team. The Jazz also have extra first round picks coming from the Warriors themselves and from the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they can’t beat Golden State with this roster even if it’s healthy, they can pivot.
The Jazz are never going to be a sexy pick to overtake the Warriors and become the class of the West. Their style, their lack of star power and the location of the franchise will make sure that remains the case. Yet very few teams can mount a better case.
Utah showed the ability to make even the best opponents play at its pace, has the elite defense that can make life hard for any offense in the half court and can trot out several long perimeter players who can score and defend multiple positions. If what they have now in their roster is not enough, they can still rely on internal development to get them to the next level or use their assets t make moves, which is not something other fringe contenders can do.
The Jazz might not survive this summer with their core intact. But if they do, they have as good a chance of beating the Warriors in the near future as any other challenger.