— At a mainstream record store, you're most likely to find the jazz section somewhere toward the back, residing in the same section as the maddeningly innocuous and oft-ignored genre known as easy listening.
Walking past jazz music in a store is, of course, a matter of personal preference.
But overlooking the NBA’s incarnation of Jazz would qualify as a huge mistake.
Utah’s 37-23 record as of Monday ranked seventh in the West, just 2.5 games ahead of ninth-place Phoenix. Normally, a number-seven seed wouldn’t be intimidating any prospective playoff opponents, but this is a squad absolutely no one wants to see in the first round. Here are some of the key reasons why:
With apologies to Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, the NBA’s point guard hierarchy currently looks like this:
1) Chris Paul
2) Deron Williams
3) Everyone else
For the season, Williams’ 10.5 assists per game ranks second only to Paul’s 11.0, and his 18.6 points per game would rank fourth in the league among point guards behind Devin Harris (22.3 ppg), Paul (21.4 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (19.1 ppg) if Williams had played enough games to qualify (he has missed 14 games this season due to assorted leg problems).
Speaking of which, with those leg troubles no longer disrupting his rhythm, Williams has averaged 21.2 points and 11.1 assists since the start of January, numbers that almost precisely mimic Paul’s offensive mastery. And with the exception of Paul and the aging-but-brilliant Nash, no point guard in the league combines the ability to score in high volume while also elevating teammates’ productivity better than the fourth-year pro running the Jazz.
Make no mistake, Andrei Kirilenko is not the same dynamo he was when he averaged 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 2.8 blocks in 2003-04, and no one is going to confuse Ronnie Brewer with an all-NBA selection. But when playing at their best simultaneously, the Utah sixth man and starting two guard can be a game-altering tandem on defense.
Case in point: Kirilenko’s combined 2.9 blocks and steals per game (1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks) ties him with Paul (2.7 steals, 0.2 blocks) and LeBron James (1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks), who rank behind only Dwight Howard (1.0 steals, 2.9 blocks), Dwyane Wade (2.1 steals, 1.4 blocks), Marcus Camby (0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks), Josh Smith (1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks) and Tyrus Thomas (1.2 steals, 1.8 blocks) in terms of total defensive havoc wreaked — which is not an official stat, but probably should be.
Meanwhile, Brewer doesn’t have anything close to Kirilenko’s ball-hawking, shot-swatting resume, but he has been a true defensive force of late. In his last six games, the 23-year-old has averaged a dominant 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks while also averaging an impressive 19.7 points (up from his season average of 14.1). Those steals certainly aren’t a fluke, as he averaged 1.7 per game last year and has averaged 1.6 per game this year. The blocks could be considered a fluke based on Brewer’s track record (he’s averaged just 0.3 per game for his career), but there’s nothing shocking about them if you take into account his explosive athleticism. Above all else, the important thing to remember is that Kirilenko’s partner in D is still very much in the process of honing his craft.
By most accounts, having your All-Star power forward miss 44 of your first 60 games with knee problems would be considered a significant detriment to your season, and accordingly, the Jazz organization probably isn’t thrilled that Carlos Boozer has played in just 27 percent of the team’s games thus far.
However, that absence has had an unintended benefit: the emergence of Paul Millsap. Despite being slowed by some knee problems of his own, the third-year pro out of Louisiana Tech responded to Boozer’s layoff by unleashing one of this season’s most inspired breakout campaigns. Millsap has averaged career highs in scoring (14.4), rebounding (9.2), assists (2.1), steals (1.1), blocks (1.0) and field goal percentage (53.6), accentuating his consistency with a steady stream of double-doubles (26 and counting).
Now that Boozer is back after knee surgery, Utah has the luxury of deploying a two-headed power forward monster. On the one hand (or head, as the case may be), there is Boozer’s refined, polished and calculated post-up game and mid-range jumper, which represents a clear contrast to Millsap’s more physical, attack-the-offensive-glass style. And regardless of how the playing time gets divvied up, opponents now have the unpleasant task of facing a standout, starting caliber power forward for 48 minutes every night.
In reality, “Turkish Dirk” is not a commonly used moniker for Mehmet Okur, but when you stop to think for a second, it probably should be. In addition to the obvious comparison that both Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Okur (Turkey) are foreign-born stars, there’s also the fact that both are big men who are at their most devastating when unleashing a roof-scraping jumper at a critical juncture of a game.
Run down the list of some of the best outside shooting power forward/center types in the league and you come up with names like Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph, Antawn Jamison, David West, Andrea Bargnani, Troy Murphy, Rasheed Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But of those names, none shoots the long ball as proficiently as Okur, whose 46.5 percent 3-point accuracy ranks fourth best in the league. And in 2008-09, the 29-year-old has arguably been at his absolute best — Okur’s field goal percentage (50.1), 3-point percentage and scoring average (18.2) all represent career highs.
Consider the following breakdown of injury/personal matter-related absences for key Jazz players in 2008-09:
Carlos Boozer: 44 games missed
Andrei Kirilenko: 15 games missed
Deron Williams: 14 games missed
Mehmet Okur: 9 games missed
In case you’re wondering, that adds up to 82 games — a number you gladly associate with the duration of the NBA schedule, but one you’d rather not see representing the combined total of absences between four of your most prominent players as of early March.
So how have the Jazz remained in the playoff hunt with so much talent missing? A major amount of credit there has to go to coach Jerry Sloan, whose general demeanor is that of a man who would rather stand and fight a pack of rabid dogs in an alley than turn back toward the easily-climbed fence just behind him. It is that same mentality that has permeated Sloan’s team, and made it not only survive a devastating wave of injuries — but come out of it stronger.
Because of those injuries, this team’s record doesn’t tell the entire story, and it is because the entire story hasn’t been told that no team wants to face the Utah Jazz come playoff time.