Utah Jazz: Their Biggest Problem is Not the Referees

The Utah Jazz finds themselves with the best record in the NBA at the all-star break. But all-stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert voiced their frustrations with the officiating after Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Mitchell was ejected from the game in overtime after not receiving a foul call. After the game, Mitchell said the officiating is “getting out of hand.” Gobert went as far as to say the team doesn’t get as many calls because they play in a small market. To an extent, Gobert’s thinking is on the right track, but it isn’t exactly the problem the Jazz face going forward.

Small Market vs Big Market

It is important to look back on the evolution of the NBA over the past 40 years. From 1980 to 1998 the league was dominated by big markets. Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit won 17 of the 19 championships. Houston accounted for the other two when Michael Jordan retired to play baseball. This era is when the league took off in popularity and is still what most NBA fans see the league as.

Today it is not so much about being a big market as much as it is about having big star power. Since 1999 small markets have become a player. San Antonio is one of the smallest markets in professional sports but the Spurs won five championships. Miami is a middle-of-the-road market and the Heat won three titles. Teams like Cleveland, Toronto, and Golden State have also won in the last 20 years. All of them had big-time superstars on their team.

Big markets still play a role as the Lakers, Celtics and Mavericks won recently. But before it was about having star power in a big market. Now it is just about having star power. Because the NBA is so popular now, the big markets aren’t needed to carry the finances of the whole league. 

Jazz Frustrations

The Jazz currently ranks 15th in free throws attempts per game. This stat does not backup Gobert’s big market theory. Teams such as Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even Sacramento rank in the top six in this category. Individually Utah’s two best players, Gobert and Mitchell, rank 23 and 26 respectively in free throw attempts per game. 

This seems to support the Jazz players that they don’t get calls. Except for the Jazz rank first in the league in three-point attempts per game. It is much harder to get foul calls when you aren’t near the rim. This doesn’t mean the Jazz aren’t deserving of more fouls but the more aggressive teams are the ones who tend to get more calls.

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There is a case to be made for Mitchell individually though. Most fouls occur when driving to the basket. He ranks 13th in drives per game with just over 15. He is sandwiched in between Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal. Despite all three of them having the same number of drives per game, Lillard and Beal average about half a foul more per game on these drives. This also results in one extra foul shot per game on average.

Mitchell can’t do this all on his own. If you want to get more calls you have to have offensive threats looking to draw fouls. This is where the Jazz will find their biggest problem, lack of star power.

Their second-best player, Gobert, is a two-time defensive player of the year. Unfortunately, his offensive abilities aren’t the same as his defensive abilities. He is fifth on the team in points per game. Most teams’ second-best player is also a guy who can put pressure on the defense, and the officiating, to put points on the board.

Similar Teams

The Utah Jazz roster is very talented. As mentioned before, Mitchell and Gobert made the all-star team this year. Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Mike Conley are all averaging over 15 points per game this season. Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neal, and Derrick Favors are nice role players to round out the rotation.

We have seen teams in recent memory that are very similar to this year’s Jazz team. In 2014 the Indiana Pacers were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. All-stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert led the team. The supporting cast included players such as George Hill, Danny Granger, David West, and Lance Stephenson. The Pacers almost lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks but won games six and seven to advance. They eventually lost in the East Finals to the LeBron James led Miami Heat in six games.

The next year the Atlanta Hawks were the number one seed in the East. Much like the Jazz, the Hawks had some really good players lead the way in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Other players included Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Demarre Carroll, Mike Scott, and Kent Bazemore. Horford, Millsap, Teague, and Korver all made the all-star team that year. The Hawks also made it to the East Finals before getting swept by the Cavaliers in Lebron’s second stint with Cleveland.

Teams like the Pacers and Hawks had a lot of talent but were missing that one or maybe even two phenomenal players to put them over the top. The Jazz face a similar problem with their roster as they prepare for a possible meeting against Lebron and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Taking the Next Step

The success of any team depends on the talent of the stars on the team. Mitchell and Gobert may be all-stars but they aren’t superstars. There is a huge difference. Not only do the officials see this but so do their peers. Mitchell and Gobert were the last two players drafted for the all-star game even behind Devin Booker and Domantas Sabonis who were replacements.

If a team wants to reach the next level they need to acquire talent that is greater than what they have. Utah is now in that boat. All-stars get wins and make the playoffs. Superstars not only have superior talent but the calls go their way as they accumulate championships.

As far as officiating, this is how it’s always been and always will be. All of these players are in the same league but they aren’t really in the same league.

Do you think the Utah Jazz are getting the short end of the officiating straw? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Tyler Samsel on Twitter @tylersamsel.

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