Jazz can’t run this comeback

Over the past six seasons, no Western Conference team has won more regular season games than the Jazz. No team from either conference has a better aggregate point differential. Still, if Utah loses at home Thursday night, surrendering their first-round game to a Mavericks team that didn’t have Luka Doncic for the first half of the series but now leads 3-2, a reckoning comes in for this list. .

The fifth-seeded Jazz have no room for error after dragging the entire regular season — and now the playoffs — throughout. Star goaltender Donovan Mitchell could be hampered after suffering a hamstring injury late in the 25-point Game 5 loss. most consistent and energetic throughout the duration of the series.

Prior to last year, Utah’s four playoff losses under coach Quin Snyder were when the Jazz were the bottom seed. They still hurt — especially a 3-1 lead in Denver in 2020 — but at least came with a reasonable apology. There was no shame in losing to the 2016-17 Warriors. James Harden’s Rockets were a bad stylistic match. The blown lead entered the bubble.

Still, the 2020-21 Jazz was meant to be different, a no. 1 seed with one of the best point differentials in league history. Sure, Mitchell and Mike Conley were both injured, but Kawhi Leonard tore his ACL in Game 4 of their conference semifinal series, and all Utah needed to reach its first conference final. in 14 years was to beat a Clippers team missing its best player. Then Los Angeles won four in a row. And now, with Utah set to lose another series to a team with an injured star, all playoff failures are too high to ignore any longer.

A loss in this series would mean the franchise can’t fool itself into thinking that this core, at this point, can still challenge for a title. The problems start on defense – which was, ironically, once the team’s calling card under Snyder, with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the middle. Yet Gobert is such a hard-hitting defender that Utah has overcompensated the other way in their transactional approach, trusting Gobert to hold down the fort on his own while emphasizing offense with new additions in the rest of the list.

The infusion of talent has worked: the offense has improved in each of the past four seasons, going from midfield to best in the league this season. But at the same time the defense has become more erratic, going from a top-two unit in 2017-18 and 2018-19 to 10th-best in 2021-22.

And facing playoff opponents ready to attack a defense that has been leaking for seven games, the Jazz couldn’t hold on any longer. The Clippers in the playoffs and the Mavericks in the playoffs followed the same general game plan: drive past a lax perimeter defender, force Gobert to assist at the edge, and kick an open shooter that spreads the ground.

Doncic leads the league in drive rate this postseason, with 36 drives per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum. Jalen Brunson ranks second, with 33 to 100. No other player on a playoff team is above 30. And the Mavericks average about 1.2 points per possession when Doncic or Brunson are driving. That’s a better scoring rate than the NBA’s best offense.

Since undergoing the offensive makeover, Snyder has never properly adjusted to counter this weakness. But the defense is not the only culprit; the league’s best offense also failed in this series. In the regular season, a league-high 47% of Utah’s shots were 3-point range, and the Jazz had 14.5 triples per game, which ranked second. In five games against Dallas, however, only 37 percent of Utah’s shots have come from beyond the arc, and the team is only eight 3s per game, fewer than any other team.

If the struggles continue for one more game, what’s next for the franchise? It is natural to think that changes are coming. Snyder is almost certainly gone, to begin with. The only active head coaches with a longer tenure are Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr, who have each won multiple championships. Snyder never even reached the conference finals.

But for the list itself, four possible paths present themselves. Which Utah — and new CEO Danny Ainge — takes could change the tenor of the NBA’s offseason.

1. Stand up and step back

I laugh! If Utah loses in the first round, this course of action would be downright negligent and highly unlikely, to boot. Let’s move on.

2. Commerce Gobert

If the Jazz want to shake up their stagnant roster while remaining competitive, the obvious option is to trade one of their two stars, but not both. Gobert is just one season away from a five-year, $205 million extension, but even as a flawed center with a big contract entering his 30s, the three-time All-Star should still attract suitors.

Charlotte and Atlanta both finished with the top 10 offenses and last 10 defenses this season, and Gobert could single-handedly catapult them into the final standings. Charlotte, in particular, has an urgent need for a capable center, while in Atlanta, Gobert and Trae Young would make a fascinating pairing of players with functionally opposite skills. (Clint Capela has one year left on his contract and could be moved to free up space for a better player in Gobert.)

The Mavericks and Raptors would also be interested if Gobert was made available, according to reports. And the rumors of Gobert at the Warriors won’t go away, even if it strains financial credulity to imagine Golden State adding his salary when Draymond Green and Jordan Poole are soon to be extended.

But would that half-step be worth it for Utah? Every key player on the roster is under contract for next season, but if Gobert leaves that defense would likely crumble. It’s not a perfect comparison, but Utah has allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions with Gobert off the field this year, according to Cleaning the Glass — a shade worse than the Hawks’ 26th-ranked defense.

Atlanta couldn’t fight for a championship with such a porous defense; heck, even the Nets, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, lost in the first round partly because of a weak defense. Utah lacks the offensive talent of Brooklyn, and it would be even worse on defense without Gobert. At least for 2022-23, a Gobert trade alone would no longer set Utah up for more success, which would then raise questions about Mitchell’s desire to stay on a middle team long-term. (Or maybe he’d be happy to finally play without Gobert, no matter what Snyder says in his pre-game rants.)

3. Trade Mitchell

Similar logic also applies to Mitchell’s simple trade. If the Jazz want to separate their two stars, Mitchell, a 25-year-old primary ball handler with All-NBA potential, should theoretically fetch more. He would immediately be the main target for any franchise looking for stars this summer. But then what would happen to the Utah offense, especially with Conley turning 35 next season?

It may not be popular opinion, but in the short term, a Mitchell trade might counterintuitively make more sense than a Gobert trade. Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic could replace Mitchell’s scoring better than anyone could replace Gobert’s defense. But that team wouldn’t be competing for a title either — and that would be much worse in the long run, because aside from Mitchell, the Jazz don’t have much of a future.

This is the natural cycle of most teams in contention trading draft picks to improve current production and picking near the bottom of the first round when they hold on to their picks. But Utah’s draft efforts have proven particularly impotent since 2017, when it added Mitchell via the draft and Royce O’Neale as an undrafted free agent.

The Jazz have kept just four rookies in the last four drafts, opting to trade everything else before playing a single game. Neither member of that quartet has made it for the team either, meaning it hasn’t added any young talent to its core since Mitchell half a decade ago. (Udoka Azubuike came one pick ahead of Jaden McDaniels and three ahead of Desmond Bane. Ouch.)

Jazz draft pick since Donovan Mitchell

Year To take Player Result
Year To take Player Result
2018 21 Grayson Allen Moved to Memphis after one season
2019 53 Justin Wright Foreman Played 4 career games
2020 27 Udoka Azubuike Averaged 3.0 points per game in 32 career games
2021 40 Jared Butler Averaged 3.8 points per game in 42 games

Going forward, Utah also doesn’t have huge draft capital. The team is already sending its first-round pick to Memphis this summer as part of the Conley deal, and it owes a protected first-rounder to Oklahoma City in 2024.

4. Swap Mitchell and Gobert and blast

If trading just Gobert or Mitchell doesn’t sound appealing, then the best option for Utah might be a complete teardown and trade the two stars. At this point, they might as well continue the sellout and take care of their other useful veterans as well.

The Jazz generally did not take a tanking position; they have won at least 30 games in 38 of the past 40 seasons. But this list has no easy way out. The 2003-04 Pistons remain a historical anomaly as a championship team with no true MVP candidate, and neither Mitchell nor Gobert, or any other player on that team, fit that bill. Gobert is too limited in attack, despite his singular defensive talents; Mitchell isn’t as natural a creator for his teammates as other backcourt stars, while the Mavericks have fully exposed his defensive shortcomings.

Without another step forward from Mitchell or a bit of lottery luck down the road, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz looking any more competitive next season than they have in the past six. years – when, as has been painfully clear spring after spring, they just aren’t competitive enough.

Of eight Utah players averaging double-digit minutes in these playoffs, Mitchell is the only one under the age of 28. three oldest teams this season were the Lakers (average age of 30.2), Jazz (29.3) and Nets (29.1), all facing existential problems questions this offseason. Older teams are generally better than younger teams, but they have a harder time when they fall short of expectations, because what else is there to do but start over?

The Jazz might be forced to find out what’s going on over that cliff if they lose one more game to Dallas. The Mavericks had to hit rock bottom before finding their next path to discord, in the form of a proposed trade for Doncic. Utah could demand that kind of rebuild now, and it’s looking at a long offseason of impossible odds in the meantime.

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