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What Are Utah's Top-Five Storylines At The Halfway Point Of The Season?
From Rudy Gobert's legitimate MVP candidacy to Utah's improved depth and a brutal second half schedule, here are the top-5 storylines from the first half of the year
It's the halfway point of the season — or just past it.
Regardless, it's already been a season full of many highs and a few lows.
From multiple long winning streaks, highlight dunks, and insane blocks to a brutal road trip and some tough losses, Utah has somehow managed to pack a whole season's worth of drama in the first 42 games of the year.
Reflecting on what was — and looking forward to what could be — here are the top five storylines of the 2021-22 season thus far.
It's a 2-for-1 vote day and we've got some work to do ...
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 13, 2022
1.) Rudy Gobert's MVP Candidacy
Entering the season, there was no doubting Gobert's greatness on the defensive end of the court. After all, the three-time and reigning defensive player of the year was the linchpin in one of the top defenses in the league last season.
While he's continued his excellence on that end of the court, Gobert has turned into a legitimate MVP candidate due to his play on the offensive side of the ball. From a eurostep to a mini jumper and the ability to play under control and find the open man, Gobert has proven that he's somebody defenses need to account for on that end of the court.
He leads the NBA with 31 double-doubles on the year, averaging 15.5 points and a league-leading 15.1 rebounds per game. He's shooting 70.6% from the floor and 68.3% from the free throw line, both of which are career-highs.
But his progression on offense isn't entirely out of the blue — at least according to Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell saw Gobert take steps forward on offense last season, but then put it together during the preseason.
"He did it in the preseason, he did it in training camp, and now I think that's the level we're going to see out of him the rest of the year," Mitchell said.
In 71 games last season, Gobert scored 20 or more points nine times. In the 37 games he's played this season, he's scored 20 or more points 11 times. He grabbed 15 or more rebounds 27 times last season — and has already done so 19 times this year.
While he's still somewhat of a longshot for Gobert to overtake some of the other leading candidates in the MVP race, the respect he's getting in the league has been long overdue.
"If you're the best in the world at something, people become insecure and try to discredit you," Gobert said. "People are going to try to discredit what I do, what we do as a team. ... It's been the same my whole career. I'm just going to keep winning awards, winning trophies, and hopefully help my team win something bigger than that."
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) November 25, 2021
2.) Offseason Acquisitions A Success
After finishing with the best record in the NBA last season, the Jazz struggled in the playoffs and fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in six games. Despite dealing with a myriad of serious injuries — including ones to its all-star backcourt of Mitchell and Mike Conley — head coach Quin Snyder and GM Justin Zanik still felt that there could be improvements on the roster.
So Utah went out and made three big moves.
First, the Jazz traded for Eric Paschall, a former first-team all-rookie member with the Golden State Warriors two seasons ago. They also added prized free agents Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gay, two veterans capable of changing the outlooks of their respective teams.
Halfway through the season, it's safe to say that Snyder and Zanik get A's for the success of the new players.
Gay, finally healthy after offseason heel surgery, is averaging 9.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game. He's shooting 37.7% from beyond the arc, making him an ideal small-ball center when the Jazz elect to match up with other teams.
The addition of Whiteside might've been the biggest surprise of the offseason, especially considering Gobert was already on the team. But rather than seeking a chance at a starting role elsewhere, Whiteside came to Utah to play for Snyder with Gobert and chase a championship ring.
He's averaging 8.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 16.4 minutes per game — already with six double-doubles on the season.
Paschall has been a delightful surprise, playing when needed and always providing a boost for the team whenever he comes on the court. With Utah severely hampered by health and safety protocols recently, Paschall has averaged 15.5 points per game over the past four games.
"I believe that for every championship team, the key really is the second unit," Gobert said. "You saw it with the Spurs back in the day, and even the Warriors. The second unit is really important too."
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 8, 2022
3.) Utah Prioritizing Health
Despite posting the best record in the NBA last year, the Jazz struggled in the postseason in large part due to injuries. Whether it was Conley's hamstring injury or Mitchell's sprained ankle, it was a real shame that the healthy version of the Jazz wasn't able to make an appearance when it mattered most.
While injuries are a part of the game, Snyder and his training staff elected to prioritize health more than ever this season. Instead of chasing wins and a potential No. 1 overall seed for the playoffs, Utah would be more than willing to sacrifice those victories and extra minutes played for more rest time.
Halfway through the year and Snyder is making good on his word.
Through 42 games, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson have played the most, appearing in 41 games on the year. Mitchell has missed four games to deal with nagging injuries, while Gobert and Conley have missed five games due to health and safety protocols and rest, respectively.
Snyder and the Jazz understand what's at stake for them his year, how good they are, and how good they can be. They haven't shied away from expressing their expectations — this is a team that believes it's capable of winning an NBA title.
But to do so, Utah has to be healthy come April, May, and June — and that's something that Jazz are preparing for at the moment.
Mountain Mike appreciation
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 13, 2022
4.) Donovan Mitchell Reaching New Heights
While Gobert may be the legitimate MVP candidate on the team, Mitchell is the player who's most associated with the success of the Jazz.
He's been racking up awards throughout the regular season, already being named the Western Conference Player of the Week and the Western Conference Player of the Month in December.
Mitchell has built off the individual success he had last season in the playoffs, riding that wave into this season. Averaging 25.7 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game, he's proven to be exceptional through his unique ability to affect the game in multiple ways.
As a player, he's improved his vision and passing to help get others involved — but his feel for knowing when and where to attack is at an all-time high. He plays the game with such confidence and high IQ that there's rarely a situation where he feels out of sorts or rushed.
Offensively, his uniqueness to win beyond the arc, in the midrange, and at the rim is rare in the sport. Listed at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Mitchell is strong enough to score around the rim and athletic enough to create separation for his shot beyond the arc. His acrobatic finishes and crossovers are quickly becoming the stuff of legends at Vivint Arena.
While he should earn a trip to his third consecutive all-star game in February, Mitchell's greatness is finally being recognized by the rest of the league as he's in the running to be a starter for the Western Conference.
| This is Donovan's first Player of the Month win https://t.co/sfpI0upfsv
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 4, 2022
5.) Second Half Schedule Is Tough
It's a good thing the Jazz have played so well in the opening half of the season because the second half schedule is brutal.
The Jazz currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, closer to top-seeded Phoenix (4 games back) than fifth-seeded Dallas (5.5 games ahead).
The final 40 games of the year will test Utah's depth and resolve.
The Jazz will play the top three teams in the West (Phoenix, Golden State, and Memphis) nine more times — including three more games against the Los Angeles Lakers as well. This doesn't include a five-game and six-game road trip later in the year.
It's unknown what the Jazz will do, but finishing in the top four should be a priority over the second half.