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If not now, when? National pundits still can’t seem to wake up to the Utah Jazz

The Jazz finished the regular season with the best record in the league and are playing beautiful basketball. Why then are so few people around the country talking about them?

Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) run to Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00)
Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) run to Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) after he made an acrobatic shot during the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz are the best team in the NBA nobody is talking about.

They had the best regular-season record in the league. They’re playing beautiful basketball, the way it’s supposed to be played, like, you know, a team. They ran roughshod over the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.

Doesn’t matter. They’re largely overlooked and have been all season, even while winning all those games. They’re overlooked because they’re in a small market, because they’re not, well, the Lakers, because they’re not sexy, because they don’t have a diva on the team (thankfully) a la LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, and they don’t have Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee on the bench (thankfully).

They’re overlooked because there’s no drama and controversy (what!, they get along?!). They’re overlooked because, well, the Jazz are always hanging around, year to year, but it never amounts to anything. They couldn’t even win the title with Stockton, Malone and Hornacek. They’re overlooked because they run a tight (and classy) ship; there’s no leaks or gossip or rumors from the front office — that’s never been their M.O. — and what fun is that for the media? They don’t seek attention that way.

While the Jazz are overlooked, the attention is focused, as always, on James, this time because of his oldness and his injuries and, as always, the shortcomings of his teammates (time for him to find a new band?). The attention is focused on the Clippers and their superstar union, which is struggling to advance to the second round. The attention is focused on the Nets, who are this year’s super-duper player-picked concoction. Remember, this is a league that focuses (obsesses) on a very small number of superstars, and when those superstars struggle then what do you do? Bye-bye, LeBron James, eliminated after just six games.

Which leaves the Jazz where? This week some of those TV sports gabfests finally woke up and asked the very same question: Why haven’t we been talking about the Jazz?

Or the Suns, Nuggets and Bucks, who get the same brushoff as the Jazz.

As usual, the Jazz are hanging around, running with the cool kids in the class. Let’s face it: they’re due. Long overdue. Do you realize that since the 1995-96 season they have the second most wins in the NBA. Score it:

1) Spurs, 1,372 wins

2) Jazz, 1,198 wins

3) Lakers, 1,188 wins

4) Heat, 1,173 wins

And during that time only one of them has failed to win a championship.

1) Spurs, five championships

2) Jazz, zero championships

3) Lakers, six championships

4) Heat, three championships

This season the Jazz have again ranked among the leaders in wins, this time at the top. They had a league-best 52-20 record. It marks the first time they’ve ever had the best record outright — they tied the Bulls in 1998 and the Spurs in 1999 for that distinction when Karl Malone and John Stockton were running the floor for the Jazz.

Having the best regular-season record in the NBA is of course no guarantee of postseason success. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 (44 years ago), only 19 times did the team with the best record win the championship (43%). In the last 17 years, it’s happened only five times (30%).

(All of which speaks to one of the many flaws of the NBA: With so many regular-season games, they have become meaningless and players tend to be unmotivated to play with intensity until the playoffs. This year the league played 10 fewer games because of the pandemic; they should lop 20 games off the schedule permanently.)

This has been building for a long time. In the last 38 years the Jazz have qualified for the playoffs 30 times, but of course they never won a championship, although they appeared in two NBA Finals. They have been a model of efficiency. Even after they lost Stockton and Malone to retirement, and then lost Gordon Hayward to the free-agent thievery and dumped Deron Williams — both considered the future of the team at the time — the Jazz didn’t take long to reload.

Maybe this time, the Jazz will finally get over the hump and be rewarded for years of sustained excellence.