For the second consecutive year, the Utah Jazz have been dismembered and buried by the Houston Rockets in five games. It wasn’t fun: Utah missed every wide-open three and James Harden perfected his fish-out-of-water routine. Now we’re left with so many Jazzy questions I feel like flopping around on the ground. Instead, I will take the high road and do my best to find answers WITHOUT throwing my hands in the air and pleading for a foul call on every possession. Because I’m an adult. And I have manners. And I’d look like a boob if every time I dicked up I made puppy eyes at the nearest authority figure and pretended the world was ending.
Should this team stay together?
Yes and no.
I say this as someone well aware of the Jazz’s shortcomings (Rubio liners, Ingles ref nagging, Niang plodding): this team is fun. 50 wins fun, or more with favorable breaks. The regular season will always be entertaining (cue the comeback win against Giannis and the Bucks) and the postseason will always end in disappointment. In a league of tanking and sunk costs, there are worse fates than a perennial playoff team incapable of climbing the entire mountain. I’m not opposed to Utah rolling this roster over and embracing what some surmise is the “quintessential ‘82-game’ team.” This team is fun and will continue to be fun.
That being said, an 82-game team is not a 16-game team. Regular season game planning and roster construction is a different beast from the playoffs and Utah’s flaws — partially hidden and manipulated during the grind of an 82-game season — are an open book come April and May. Donovan Mitchell is a one-man offense that can be snuffed out by a locked-in defense. Rudy Gobert’s defense falls from one-man wrecking crew to merely good against pace-and-space squads. Utah’s outside shooting — minus an aging, hobbled Kyle Korver — does not exist (25% on wide-open threes against Houston).
The blow-it-up model favors great risk in hopes of great reward. Mitchell and Gobert are mainstays — Rubio, Favors, and Crowder integral yet disposable pieces of the current Jazz squad. All three spots need an upgrade for the Jazz to shift from good to great. Many names have been bandied about as potential chess moves, not all of them realistic: Mike Conley, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Malcom Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, Tobias Harris, etc. Conventional wisdom says chasing a championship is the ultimate goal and for this to happen, hard choices must be made. Is it time to bid farewell to some of the players who fit seamlessly into Utah’s system, embrace the community, and create an enjoyable viewing experience for fans?
Donovan Mitchell’s 2018-19 season: progression or regression?
Donovan Mitchell is 22. An accelerated jump in his rookie season led to a heap of expectations for 2019, some fair, some not. Frame this entire discussion through that prism: he is young with room to grow, and the Jazz’s future is riding on him becoming a superstar.
A local beavis once said, "(Donovan Mitchell) is the most beloved Utahn in the history of the state — already, one year in! We already call him a Utahn! I was here for [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone. We loved those guys. But he's already surpassed Stockton and Malone in the way he's beloved by this state. And it's because he has embraced this state — because he loves us." I have no idea what this means and there’s no way it’s true. But the honeymoon is over.
Mitchell followed up his rookie campaign with a shockingly similar sophomore campaign. His ppg average jumped from 20.5 to 23.8, explained by a rise in volume but not efficiency. His shooting/turnover splits were nearly identical: 43.7% FG, 34% 3P, 80% FT, 2.7 TOV his rookie year; 43.2% FG, 36.2% 3P, 80% FT, 2.8 TOV this year. His playoffs were an absolute dud (21.4 PPG, 32% FG, 25% 3P, 72% FT, 4.2 TOV), culminating in a 4/22 stink bomb in game 5.
It’s hard to say how much blame Mitchell deserves for the Jazz flameout and how much the front office deserves for requiring Mitchell to be alpha and omega for an entire offense at age 22. The answer probably lies in the middle. Gobert and Ingles were MIA in playoff action. The final five minutes of every game revolved around a string of Mitchell isos into the heart of a poised, aggressive defense. It didn’t go well, though the Jazz expecting him to succeed in that situation seems unfair.
Getting Mitchell playmaking/scoring help is offseason priority number one. What would Mitchell have looked like if the Jazz pulled the trigger on a Mike Conley trade at the deadline? What would having a co-creator/scorer on the roster do for his development? Presumably good things — served in a more efficient manner — but this is mere theory until the Jazz make a move.
Current Utah depth pieces: yay or nay?
Yay and nay.
Royce O’Neale was the revelation of the playoffs, giving Utah hard minutes and defending like a frenzied badger. Grayson Allen was not. Jazz fans’ high hopes for Allen’s rookie season turned sour when they discovered he’s bad. AND he refused to trip anyone, resulting in a disappointing and listless season of basketball. Niang and Neto are what they are. Exum will taunt the organization with brief flashes of potential quickly followed by major injuries and/or the inability to control any part of his body. Korver’s playoff injury masked a very effective (post-trade) regular season for Utah’s adopted son. Sefolosha should probably not be playing basketball more than two minutes per night.
O’Neale is the jewel of the bench mob. A starting position could be in his future, especially if his three-point shooting continues to improve (35% in 2018, 38% in 2019). He fits perfectly inside Utah’s defensive scheme — swamp passing/shooting lanes and funnel everything towards Gobert. He has potential and room for improvement. Everyone else is dispensable.
Is the NBA even cool?
The flopping, flailing, and bitching has reached unprecedented heights. It swallowed Game 1 of the GS/HOU series and it’s not just James Harden. Every team is culpable. I’m still recovering from five games of UT/HOU — Harden and Paul complaining incessantly into the ears of every ref, Ingles matching them complaint-for-complaint. Does this ever end? Will the lines between basketball and soccer be blurred until NBA players are stretchered off the court each time a hangnail is discovered? The NBA can put a stop to this but has chosen not to. Do they care? If we haven’t reached the breaking point, I’m afraid to find out what it is.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)