SALT LAKE CITY — Based on Charles Barkley's track record of predictions, it'd be wise to take anything Sir Charles says with a massive grain of salt. But on Thursday's "Inside the NBA," Barkley — like he's donemany times this season — came to Utah's defense.
Despite having had the best record in the league for much of the season, the Jazz are often slated behind the Lakers, Clippers, Nets, Bucks and maybe even the Suns and 76ers when it comes to championship talk.
"We have given the Jazz no respect, I'm gonna stop doing (that)," Barkley said. "Not a single person I've heard on this show, on any other show, has said the Jazz (could win). They've had the best record for the last six months in the NBA. I think the Utah Jazz can win the championship."
"The whole thing?" Kenny Smith asked in response.
"The whole thing," Barkley responded. "They got the Coach of the Year. They got two (actually, three) All-Stars, they got the Sixth Man of the Year. Remember, last year they got jobbed because (Bojan) Bogdanovic didn't play in the playoffs. They would have beat Denver last year if Bogdanovic had played."
All that likely being accurate, Smith explained why so many have been hesitant to accept the Jazz as a legitimate title contender even with their gaudy resume.
"Proven commodities usually win in the league, that's all," he said. "So, it (Utah) hasn't been a proven commodity. I just haven't seen it, unless it's an assembly of superstar players, teams come out of nowhere and win the championship. They have not taken those steps. Lose it this year and win it next year? Possibly."
The NBA, unfortunately for many, is a fairly predictable league. The Warriors and Cavaliers met in the Finals for four straight seasons, and LeBron James has made the Finals in nine of the last 10 years. So Smith definitely has a point. That said, there are exceptions.
Before Dirk Nowitzki went on a historic tear through the playoffs that culminated in Dallas upsetting the James-led Miami Heat to win their first title in 2011, the Mavericks were a "known commodity" on the other end of the spectrum: They were expected to find a way to lose. They had lost four straight in the 2006 Finals after going up 2-0 and then won just one playoff series over the next four seasons.
The 2014-15 Warriors won 67 games en route to their first of three titles in a five-year window, but hardly anyone saw it coming. Golden State entered that season fresh off a Game 7 loss in the first round and had the seventh-best title odds. Despite blitzing the league all season behind a retooled offense to take advantage of its elite shooting (sound familiar?), those Warriors faced heavy doubts heading into the playoffs. Can a 3-point shooting team really win a title? They quickly made that talk feel very antiquated.
"Utah is a veteran team," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said in January. "They are trying to win a championship right now, and I think they are capable of doing so. You know, they are where we were three or four years ago."
The 2011 Mavericks, 2015 Warriors, and even the 2019 title-winning Raptors didn't exactly come out of nowhere. But neither have the Jazz. All title teams deal with a learning curve.
The Raptors — sans Kawhi Leonard — were beaten by James' Cavs three straight seasons before breaking through. The Warriors had tough losses to the Spurs and Clippers in back-to-back playoffs before making a run to their first championship. The Mavericks faced heartbreak (losing in the Finals) and embarrassment (losing to a No. 8 seed) before Nowitzki carved out a path to a title.
So what about Utah?
The current version of the Jazz have only had one playoff run together — the heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Nuggets last summer. But that doesn't accurately represent their experience.
Donovan Mitchell led Utah out of the first round as a rookie, missed a game-tying 3 in the closing moments of a pivotal Game 3 in 2019, and scored the most points anyone ever has in a first-round series last summer. He's a playoff veteran now.
After former Jazz guard Kyle Korver had wrapped up his media sessions following that Game 3 in 2019, he asked the cameras to come back so he could share one final message: "I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell," he said. "I have never seen someone so young take ownership of a team, take ownership of his play, do it with charisma, do it with class. Never seen that in my 16 years in the NBA. He missed a tough shot tonight, but it's going to be part of his story."
Rudy Gobert was turned into a gif during the 2017 NBA playoffs when Steph Curry put a series of moves on him causing Gobert to spin completely around. Four years later, Gobert is in line to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award and outside Curry, not many guards have much success when they isolate against him.
Mike Conley has played in a conference final; Bojan Bogdanovic has played in two Game 7s; Joe Ingles has played big roles in four straight postseasons — all those experiences add up.
Does that mean the Jazz are ready to suddenly compete for a title? Maybe, maybe not. But the thought isn't as crazy as some would have you believe.
"They've lost the first round," Smith said. "You go from getting first-round knockout to championship? That's the holdup."
The good news: It was with other championship teams, though, too.