The Best in the West

Julian Andreone

Ever since the Los Angeles Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George in the summer of 2019, the basketball community in Los Angeles and particularly at school has erupted in a whirlwind of anticipation for the upcoming NBA season. Lakers and Clippers fanatics gathered on the quad daily, debating among themselves during free periods about which of the two teams was better fit to win the 2020 NBA Championship. The rivalry between the fanbases of the two Los Angeles basketball teams, known as “The Battle For LA,” is all but new. Historically, the Lakers have been far more successful than the Clippers, flaunting 16 championship banners in the rafters of Staples Center and planning to hang their 17th when fans return to the arena. When the Clippers play, the team covers these banners, which upsets many Laker fans who believe their historic achievements should be left untouched.

In the past decade, the Lakers have been generally unsuccessful, which put the Los Angeles rivalry on hold. Upon the Clippers’ acquisition of Leonard and George, however, “The Battle For LA” was rekindled. Before last year’s playoffs, there was a tacit consensus in Los Angeles that the two teams would meet up in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, the fans didn’t get the matchup they were looking forward to, but the anticipation has carried into the next season. The main difference between “The Battle For LA” this year and last year, though, is that there is a more obvious block in the road: the Utah Jazz.

More than halfway through the season, the Jazz have the best record, the third-best team defensive efficiency rating, and the third-best team offensive efficiency rating in the NBA. They have defeated some of the league’s most talented teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers. As the NBA’s third-best three-point shooting team, the Jazz have been cruising to wins with big performances from sharpshooters Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neal and Bojan Bogdanovic.

In addition to their impressive statistics, Utah has a highly respected coaching staff, led by head coach Quin Snyder. Snyder is often compared to San Antonio Spurs hall of fame head coach Gregg Popovich. However, Utah’s 2021 coaching staff is not its only similarity to Popovich’s San Antonio system. For instance, the Jazz often pass up “good” shots for “great” shots. Oftentimes, a player who has a wide-open three-point shot from the top of the arc will pass to his teammate who has a wide-open three-point shot in the corner because, statistically speaking, corner shots are a higher percentage than top of the key shots. Similarly, from 2010 to 2020, the San Antonio Spurs were top three every single year in corner three-point percentage and in corner three-pointers made. 

Utah attacks defensive schemes similar to the way that Spurs teams did in the 2000s. According to Jazz point guard Mike Conley, Coach Quin Snyder deliberately spaces the floor with shooters early in the game to force defenses to repeatedly close out on three-point shots. By the fourth quarter, teams’ defenses are exhausted from closing out on three-point shots all game which allows Donovan Mitchell to drive to the hoop for easy baskets in the paint. Similarly, coach Popovich surrounded his stars with shooters and former San Antonio Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was enabled to take over in the fourth quarter.

All-Star Donovan Mitchell showed that he can perform at “super-star level” during the 2020 NBA Playoffs. He had multiple 50 point games and forced a seven-game series in the first round against the Denver Nuggets. The Utah Jazz not only have competent super-star level talent, but a successful coach, system, and supporting cast. If the Jazz continue to shoot so efficiently from three-point range, at such a high volume, while also holding on to their standing as the second-best defense in the league, they will be dangerous in the NBA Playoffs. Indeed, they may be dangerous enough to spoil Los Angeles sports fans’ long-standing plans to enjoy “The Battle of LA.”