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NBA -- The Utah Jazz: the best defensive team in the NBA

Which team had the best record in the NBA over the last 35 games of last season? Which team had the best defensive rating in the NBA last season?

Which team had the Defensive Player of the Year awardee last season? Which team had the runner-up for Rookie of the Year award last season? Which team had the runner-up for Coach of the Year award last season?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is the Utah Jazz. Reason why the team from Salt Lake City was chosen by as one of those capable of stashing away with the NBA championship should the defending titlist Golden State Warriors fail.

Defense, which the Jazz possess, will be their most lethal weapon in their campaign in the coming 2019 NBA season. Utah’s performance from January 22, 2018 wasn’t too long ago not to be remembered. That day, the Jazz were beaten by the lowly Atlanta Hawks to drop their record to 19-28.

From that day forward, however, the Jazz emerged as the best team in the NBA, finishing the season on a 29-6 run capped with their eventual elimination of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Not only were the Jazz winning games, they, likewise, held one opponent that crossed their path below 100 points and besting the Warriors and the Houston Rockets for the best net rating (difference between a team’s offensive rating per 100 possessions and defensive rating per 100 possessions) in the NBA during that 35-game run.

But a 35-game skein backed with such impressive advanced statistics showed that the Jazz were a very good team for nearly half of the season.

What jump-started the Jazz’s season was when coach Quin Snyder made the bold decision to hand the keys of the offense over to rookie Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell, who displayed abilities that immediately made most of the 12 teams that passed on him question how they missed on such a dynamic player.

While his numbers were impressive — 20.5-points, four rebounds and four assists per game — it was the fearlessness that he displayed during the team’s stretch run that really put the league on notice. Why, he even outplayed the reigning league MVP, Russell Westbrook, in the Jazz’s first-round victory over the Thunder, averaging 28.5-points, seven rebounds and three assists for the series.

Most future superstar guards need a year or two of seasoning before coming into their own. Not Mitchell. Utah’s slim championship chances are tied to Mitchell’s development in Year 2. He plays like a cross between Dwyane Wade and Damian Lillard.

With the Stifle Tower (Rudy Gobert) anchoring their defense, an excellent coach and a good supporting cast, the Jazz are a playoff team if Mitchell merely maintains the status quo from last year. But if he makes a leap to a top-15 player in his second year, then fans can look forward at a contender.

Gobert is entering the coming season as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, an award he won despite playing only 56 games last season. At 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, Gobert is easily the most impactful rim protector in the NBA right now.

And while his side-to-side agility and offensive game lag behind his shot-blocking skills, Gobert teaming up with the other talented defensive players, like Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Ricky Rubio, makes the Jazz one of the more complete defensive teams in the league.

Still coach Snyder will need to get the most out of at least two of their three guards off the bench -- Alec Burks, Dante Exum and Grayson Allen. Burks flashed some scoring ability early in his career but has played more than 64 games only once in his seven years in the NBA.

Exum, is also injury-prone but has a chance to be this team’s version of Marcus Smart — a guy who is always making stuff happen, whether it shows up in the box score or not. Allen possesses a similar skill with Mitchell, but he is still a rookie lacking in mental toughness and consistency.

Of the three, the team would be best served if the two who emerge are Exum and Allen. Expect Snyder to prioritize their development off the bench.

Don’t be surprised if Utah is in the mix for the second or third seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz have the best defense and rim protector in the NBA, a massive home-court advantage playing in the altitude, a top-five coach and, if they’re lucky, the next Dwyane Wade. That’s a recipe for 50-plus wins.

Click here to view a list of other articles written by Eddie Alinea.

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