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Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets defends Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
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How Close Are The Utah Jazz To The Denver Nuggets?

Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets defends Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – It’s difficult to not be in awe of the Denver Nuggets current playoff run. The plucky group of underdogs has overcome two 3-1 series deficits, the first team ever to do so in one playoff run, and now are coming off a promising victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in game three of the Western Conference Finals that may shift the series in their favor. It might be even more difficult for Utah Jazz fans to watch the Nuggets and ask “what if?”

But how close are the Jazz to the Nuggets? How close is Donovan Mitchell to current NBA darling Jamal Murray?

The easy answer is maybe a few inches. That’s how much Mike Conley’s would-be series-winning three-pointer missed by that would have advanced the Jazz to the Western Conference Semifinals. Or one could say a few seconds. That’s the difference between Mitchell’s unforced eight-second violation and a likely game one victory for the Jazz and a potential sweep.

Instead, the Jazz are sitting at home and the Nuggets are three wins away from the NBA Finals.

Mitchell and Gobert Vs. Murray and Jokic

Often times when potential contenders are compared, the best solution to who is better is to look at the top players on the roster. Between the Jazz and Nuggets, it’s not quite that simple.

If we are to trust the latest available information, it’s difficult to say Mitchell and Murray are anything but a draw. Both players had multiple record-setting 50 point performances in their head to head matchup. Both players scored at unimaginably efficient rates, and both players hit impossibly difficult shots in crunch time to keep the games close.

While Murray has become the modern darling of the NBA, and rightfully so, it’s not difficult to imagine Mitchell earning that same praise had the Jazz advanced past the first round.

Then, we must turn to Rudy Gobert against Nikola Jokic. There can be no argument that Gobert is one of the top centers in the league. With Defensive Player of the Year awards under his belt, and having been named to his third All-NBA team, Gobert is simply one of the best at his position.

The problem, right now, Jokic is better. In a league that continues to shift towards high scoring offenses, Jokic’s do-it-all offensive game is too valuable to overlook. The Serbian big man can initiate the offense off from 94 feet, can operate both as a low post threat and a face-up scorer, and is one of the best offensive rebounders in basketball.

To top it off, he might be the best passing center of all time. Simply put, Jokic is as elite offensively as Gobert is defensively, and right now, the league favors Jokic’s style of offense.

That isn’t to stay Jokic get the best of Gobert each time they step on the floor, that much was apparent in the first round of the playoffs. But as a whole, Jokic’s offensive contributors are harder to negate league-wide.

The good news for the Jazz, at his current cost, even if he doesn’t improve on the floor, Gobert is not the reason the Jazz haven’t advanced. Outside of a few select matchups with Jokic each season, Gobert is the best center on the floor in the overwhelming majority of games when the Jazz step on the floor.

The Supporting Cast

The major difference between the Jazz and the Nuggets, at least in the first round of the playoffs was the supporting cast, not only in production but also depth.

The Jazz entered the NBA bubble without forward Bojan Bogdanovic, arguably the team’s third-best player and the second-leading scorer. Without Bobdagnovic, the Jazz were forced to reach further into their rotation, playing lower-paid players longer minutes in the postseason.

Additionally, the Jazz were without Conley during the first two games of the series who left the Orlando bubble after the birth of his child.

As a result of the lack of depth, the Jazz were playing their top six players at least 28 minutes per game. The Jazz five starters all averaged at least 33 minutes per outing. the Jazz had just four players averaged between 10 and 30 minutes, including rookie Juwan Morgan, and Emmanuel Mudiay who appeared in only three games.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets have had just three players average 33 minutes per game so far in the playoffs. Seven other Nuggets players are averaging between 10 and 30 minutes per outing. That’s allowed the Nuggets to have a true 10 man rotation in the postseason, providing key moments of rest for the more valuable role players.

So while the talent at the top of the rosters is comparable, the Jazz simply lacked the depth to compete with Denver. The Jazz ought to be able to bank on the return of Bogdanovic to solve most of the team’s issues, and would have had a terrific opportunity to advance past the Nuggets in the playoffs had he been available.

But the team would be well served filling out roster spots eight through ten to feel truly comfortable entering the 2021 NBA season.

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