SALT LAKE CITY – Conventional wisdom in the NBA playoffs has long remained that teams need to stumble before making a strong push to contend for the championship.
The Utah Jazz can speak to the point as a franchise, falling short in the postseason for 13 seasons before reaching consecutive finals in 1997-98 where they lost twice to the Chicago Bulls. Even the greatest of them all, Michael Jordan, lost in the Eastern Conference finals the two seasons preceding the first of his six NBA championships in 1991.
Without much of a pedigree, the best team over the course of the concluded 72-game regular season will attempt to break from the long-held line of thinking. Armed with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, even though the bulk of the roster hasn’t enjoyed much success beyond the first round, the Jazz are shooting for the first championship in franchise history.
While precedent is not with the Jazz, the dream of winning it all remains a possibility. Not every champion endured years of hardship before hoisting the trophy.
In a bit of an interesting twist, the Jazz need only to look at the history of their anticipated first-round opponent. The Golden State Warriors won the championship in 2015 despite having won only one playoff series over the prior seven seasons.
To a degree, the Jazz mirror the accomplishments the Warriors had in successive regular seasons leading up to their first title. Starting with the 2012-13 season, the Warriors increased their win total by 20 games from 47 to 67 over three years before beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals to conclude the 2014-15 playoffs.
Starting with the 2017-18 season, the Jazz have improved their winning percentage each of the last four years with the best mark in 22 years at .722. The actual win totals these past two seasons were rendered irrelevant for comparison sake due to COVID-19 reducing the number of games played.
As with the Warriors before winning the championship, the Jazz collectively don’t have much playoff success outside of winning a first-round series in 2017 and 2018. Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson were on other teams that advanced beyond the first round.
Can this year’s Jazz nucleus do the unthinkable? Some think so.
“In 2014, the Warriors were out in the first round,” Golden State radio broadcaster Tim Roye said during an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “They lost to the L.A. Clippers. In 2015, they’re raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in Cleveland. So, yes, it can happen. Personally, I think for the Jazz the karma and the cards are falling into place here.”
Looking at the rosters of both teams, Roye said the Jazz compare favorably to Golden State’s first championship team. He sees similarities in the style of play, noting both teams relied on great perimeter shooting and a strong defensive presence at the rim.
Remember, the 2015 title came without Kevin Durant. After the Warriors lost in the finals the next season to Cleveland, Durant signed as a free agent and was on the two title teams in 2017-18.
“The door is wide open for Utah to take (the title) this year,” Roye said. “When I’m looking at the numbers and looking at their personnel, it reminds me of the Warriors team – 3 (point-shooting) heavy-team that has multiple wings that can guard different positions and very good rim protection.”
If the opinion of Golden State’s version of David Locke doesn’t do it for you, then let’s take it up a notch. None other than Steve Kerr agrees with Roye.
Speaking to Jazz broadcaster Michael Smith in March, the Warriors’ coach also likened the Jazz to his first title team. That team featured sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson along with do-everything Draymond Green.
“Here was Steve kind of making this case to me that, ‘Listen, they’re as good as we were in some ways,’” Smith said. “I don’t see the Steph and Klay super-duper-star-shooter. But Steph and Klay were not Donovan Mitchell, either.”
There you go, the comparisons are there. Now it’s up to the Jazz to get it done.