Utah Jazz & Philadelphia 76ers: Surprise Contenders for NBA Title

Ben Simmons
via AllProReels.com / CC-BY-2.0

At the beginning of the current NBA season, most analysts didn’t expect these two names to be sitting atop the standings, but here they are: the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz.

While both were expected to be contenders (as they were last season), the teams were considered (by most) as second-tier contenders. Both the 76ers and Jazz proved everyone wrong, as they sit atop their respective conferences with the Jazz going 26-6 and the 76ers 21-11, as of press time.

Though the Jazz and 76ers are leading each NBA conference, it is no surprise to see the Lakers remaining as the favorite to defend their title. But, the eyes are started to position on the Sixers and Jazz which have seen their odds dramatically improved as two of the hottest teams in the league, according to Sports Betting Dime.

How did they get here and will be the favorites in the playoffs?

The Jazz, on one hand, have become a “hyperefficient machine”, as described by The Ringer. To date, Utah has won 22 of their last 24 games, giving them the NBA’s best record (26-6). The team is built around center Rudy Gobert, who has the best of the league at drop defense on pick-and-rolls… almost forcing opponents into taking threes or a midrange jumper.

They’re also first in the league in 3-point attempts (42.6 per game) and third in 3-point percentage (39.9), the only team in the top five of both categories. Every player in the Jazz’s regular rotation is shooting at least 36% from the three-point line (except Gobert and backup center Derrick Favors)… and that makes them dangerous and able to put up points in a hurry.

With Gobert anchoring the paint, the Jazz are able to play more shooters than most teams. Their pieces just align perfectly… as you can see in their record.

The Philadelphia 76ers team that couldn’t contend last fall is no more. Thanks to the leaps in the games of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, as well as new personnel and coaching, they’re playing like a top contender in the league.

Simmons is having the best season of his career, taking his defense to another level and justifying his own self-proclaimed “best defender in the league” title. In fact, no one in the NBA handles the ball as much and effectively defends opponents’ best scorers than Simmons. The only player close is LeBron James. (see the video below). It’s all coming together for the 24-year-old this season. He’s being more aggressive in driving the lane, setting screens and his passing has always been phenomenal. He still doesn’t have a jumper, but in everything else, he’s making a massive impact… resulting in the success of his team

Then there’s Embiid. At 26 years old, he’s become one of the best centers in the NBA and a legit MVP candidate this season, especially if the Sixers can hold onto the No. 1 spot in the East. Experts are even comparing him to past big men like Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan.

In addition to Embiid’s creavity in the post, he’s a master at drawing fouls. This season, he’s putting up 11 freethrow attempts per game and shooting 85%. So far, this season, he’s averaging 29.8 points and 11.3 rebounds.

Joel Embiid
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Defense is solid, but on offense, the team is still questionable.

Will both teams remain on top by the end of the season? We will have to wait and see.