The Boston Celtics led Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to a championship. LeBron James won his first three titles with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Miami HEAT. Kevin Durant joined Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the Golden State Warriors and won his first ring. Last year Anthony Davis joined LeBron and won the 17th Championship Banner for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The main theme of the best teams in the NBA each season has been the power of the stars. This year is no exception as there are dynamic duos in each competing team. Some, like the Brooklyn Nets, even returned as the Three-Headed Monsters approached.
While most of the other teams decided to zigzag, the Utah Jazz chose to zag. Regardless of the method of their madness, it worked for Quin Snyder and his team. Today, they currently have the league’s best record and have won 19 of their last 20 games.
If Utah achieves their ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship this season, the most likely team they will be compared to is the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. While this team is brimming with talent, they are widely regarded as the best team to win a title without an elite superstar on their roster.
The two players who mirror each other between these two teams are the defensive anchors controlling the paint. Rudy Gobert and Ben Wallace made their living protecting the rim and securing the rebounds. None of these stars were called upon for offense, but they were so elitist defensive it really didn’t matter. Gobert and Wallace have both made multiple All-NBA teams and both have had a season in which they led the league in blocks.
As Gobert seeks his third Defensive Player of the Year award this season, Wallace has actually won the award four times in his career. Oddly enough, he won it the two seasons leading up to the Pistons’ championship season and the two following seasons.
Just as Utah hangs its hat on defense, the Pistons have also done so in their title race. The 2003-04 Pistons and the 2020-21 Jazz both rank in the top three in terms of defensive ranking, net ranking and opponent score while being one of the slower teams in the league.
Looking at each team’s shooting guards, Richard Hamilton and Donovan Mitchell turned out to be incredible scorers. Hamilton has led the Pistons in scoring this season and Mitchell has been Utah’s top scorer in every year since his rookie season. Although they are both putting the ball into the basket at a breakneck pace, the way they operate is quite different.
First, Mitchell’s use rate this season is higher than Hamilton’s. The ball is often in his hands as it does most of its damage on the dribble. During Hamilton’s championship season, his utilization rate was only 24.2, which ranked 31st that year. Most of his scores came on catch-up opportunities after a series of off-ball screens. Naturally, he perfected this part of his game after learning from Reggie Miller.
The floor general of these two teams were both veteran playmakers who sought the success of the team at the end of their careers. Mike Conley and Chauncey Billups both understand the concept of setting up the attack and moving the ball to where it needs to go. They share the same ideas in that they focused on distribution rather than scoring, but were fully able to do so when needed.
Expectations were high for these two players entering the league. Billups was drafted third overall and Conley was the fourth pick in his draft class. Their career averages are almost the same, but Billups was able to take his game to a new level at the end of his career, earning him the nickname “Mr. Big cap. ”His individual accolades are impressive, but his ability to perform in the clutch is something Utah is hoping Conley will be able to deliver in this playoff.
Bojan Bogdanovic may not be the defensive goalscorer Tayshaun Prince was, but he is a vastly underrated defender. Neither of the two assets here were All-Stars, but you just can’t assess what they’re delivering. Every team needs a glue contributor or some form of X-Factor that often plays a central role every night.
The role of the sixth man indispensable for each of these teams is a comparison between two very different offensive weapons. Corliss Williamson has been a major contributor for Detroit, but most of his production has come indoors, while Jordan Clarkson does most of his damage on the perimeter. Both of these guys had been starters for teams earlier in their careers but thrived in their roles off the bench.
Williamson came off the bench in all 79 games he played and was also Detroit’s second-highest scorer (by 36 minutes) that year. He won the sixth man of the year award in 2001-02 and Clarkson is clearly the favorite for the award this season. In Monday’s win over Philadelphia, Clarkson connected on eight three-pointers en route to a 40-point night in 29 minutes off the bench.
Beyond that, Rasheed Wallace and Joe Ingles are two guys who can easily get under the skin of the opponent. While R. Wallace was known for his outbursts, Ingles might just be the best trash talker in today’s game. Wallace played 29 games each for three different teams during the 2003-04 season, which culminated with the title. He played five more seasons in Detroit after that, posting impressive numbers and being selected twice for the All-Star Game. While Ingles may not match individual brands, he’s definitely a key player who can elevate this team into the playoffs.
A big difference between these two teams is the way they were built. When Joe Dumars took over as president, he had to make the tough decision to trade All-Star Grant Hill, who was planning to leave via free agency – but, of course, Ben Wallace was one of the players Detroit has. received in this business. Dumars then traded Jerry Stackhouse in 2002 to bring in Hamilton; drafted Prince with the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft; then signed Billups in free agency about three weeks later.
With this Jazz team, Conley and Clarkson were brought in via trades and Bogdanovic signed as a free agent after a year of career with the Indiana Pacers. Oddly enough, Mitchell and Gobert were both draft-day trades in deals with the Denver Nuggets. Ingles had an interesting path to Salt Lake City after the Los Angeles Clippers signed him and gave him up. Jazz claimed the Australian and has been there ever since. Elsewhere, Royce O’Neale was not drafted at Baylor and has been a key cog for that jazz team.
Utah is the true definition of the word team – example: they’ve had five different top scorers in their last 12 games, which doesn’t include Conley, who missed the last five with a hamstring injury.
After their Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, Billups summed it up pretty well: “They might have better individual players, but we always felt we were a better team.
Maybe Utah could say the same thing this summer.