SALT LAKE CITY — Ten in a row and 15 out of 16; the numbers are reaching epic proportions as the Utah Jazz hit the midway point of the NBA season.
As the Jazz continue to pile up the wins, there are obvious questions: Are they really this good, capable of being a serious contender for the NBA championship? Or is this impressive streak a byproduct of beating up on a slew of mediocre to below-average teams?
It’s true the Jazz have feasted on sub .500 teams since losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder at home on Dec. 9. The loss culminated a stretch in which the Jazz lost six out of eight games, including two at home.
But this is still the NBA, a league in which most teams are good enough to win games on a given night against any team. The fact is, after somewhat of a slow start given preseason predictions, the Jazz are living up to the hype.
“Regardless of who you’re playing and what their record is, they’ve still got 10, 12, 15 NBA players out there,” Joe Ingles said in his weekly interview with The Zone Sports Network. “You’re not in this league unless you’re a really good basketball player.”
Several factors have contributed to the Jazz climbing from sixth place in the Western Conference to second, trailing only LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Unlikely as it seems, it started with an injury to a starter and the team’s highest-paid player.
Ineffective compared to the last two seasons as a starter, Ingles struggled to begin the season coming off the bench. The acquisition of Mike Conley, who makes $32 million this season, led to coach Quin Snyder’s decision to feature Ingles with the second unit.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, it did not work as planned. But once Conley went down with a hamstring injury, Ingles returned to the starting lineup and is now playing the best basketball of his six-year NBA career.
"I'm playing with more confidence now than I was at the start of the year," said Ingles, stressing his improvement is on him and not related to Conley's situation.
The latest win, which came this week against the Brooklyn Nets, typified the brilliance of Ingles. The left-handed Australian tied his career-high with 27 points and made 6-of-8 3-point shots.
In the team’s ninth consecutive win, without an ill Donovan Mitchell, Ingles scored 20 points to go along with nine assists. Along the way, he keeps the team loose with his smile and constant trash talking to anyone within the sound of his voice.
“I’m just in a really good spot,” Ingles said.
Collectively, the biggest difference is the markedly improved production on offense. In addition to Ingles and Mitchell, the Jazz can now count of scoring from Bojan Bogdanovic along with several others.
Jazz management also deserves credit for making two bold moves to bolster the talent last month. The Jazz cut Jeff Green, who was added as a free agent in the offseason, and traded for Jordan Clarkson.
Trading for Clarkson meant finally giving up on Dante Exum, the fifth pick of the 2014 draft. The oft-injured Exum never came close to living up to his lofty draft status.
Clarkson has provided the scoring punch off the bench the Jazz seriously lacked before the trade. Interestingly, the 10-game win streak matches the number of games Clarkson has played for the Jazz since the trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We’re getting contributions from a lot of guys,” Snyder said. “Our whole goal has been to try to get better. I think we’ve been able to win in different ways and different guys have stepped up.”
Barring significant injuries, the two biggest challenges facing the Jazz is reincorporating Conley into the lineup and beating better teams.
Soon enough, the Jazz can silence the doubters by continuing to win when the schedule turns tougher. In the 13 games before the All-Star break commences on Feb. 12, eight of the future opponents currently are above .500.
For real or not, check back in four weeks.