Once Gordon Hayward (finally) announced his decision to sign with the Boston Celtics as a free agent, most people wrote off the Utah Jazz as a playoff team. It was understandable on the surface; Hayward was, at worst, their second best player and the only serious offensive threat on the roster.
Without him, it was hard to envision a path where Utah could score enough to compete in the West. Once Rudy Gobert went down and it became clear that Rodney Hood wasn’t going to make a leap, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream.
The thing about pipe dreams is sometimes they actually come true.
A lot had to happen to get there. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell had to turn into a bonafide top option quicker than anyone expected. Australia’s favorite gym instructor Joe Ingles had to justify his new deal — and by averaging 12-4-5 with stellar defense, he did just that. Derrick Favors had to remind the NBA world he’s darn good when he’s upright. Ricky Rubio had to settle into a new offense, the slowest one he’s ever been in, with pieces in and out of the lineup. Head coach Quin Snyder had to push the right buttons amid the injuries.
Most importantly, Rudy Gobert had to come back to stabilize everything. The Jazz were 18-26 when Gobert made his return to the lineup. From Jan. 19 onward, the Jazz went 30-8, had the best defense in the NBA by a mile, and led the NBA in net rating by a healthy margin. With Mitchell destroying defenses on one end, and Gobert shutting down the paint on the other, the Jazz suddenly became one of the most balanced — and feared — teams in the NBA.
The Oklahoma City Thunder found that out the hard way in their first round series. Many predicted OKC’s playoff experience and star power would give them the edge, but Utah pulled off the upset. Stifling defense, impressive shot making from Mitchell, Rubio, and Ingles, and OKC imploding led to a six-game series victory.
The Rockets ended Utah’s playoff run in five games, but the message was sent. Utah proved they belonged. Moving forward, they should not be dismissed as a potential Western Conference power. The foundation is there, and the Jazz have a summer to build on it.
6. In terms of intrigue, where does this Jazz team rank compared to other versions you’ve covered?
It’s the most intriguing team I’ve covered. For the first time they have a bonafide star who is a recognizable face around the league. They have powerful locker room personalities, and they have possibly the best defender in basketball. I think the Jazz will be a 50-win team next season in a loaded Western Conference. It will be interesting to see how this team builds off this season.
5. You’re (technically) a Utah guy so I must ask: who gets your ROY nod between Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons?
Haha, I’m not a Utah guy, but I voted for Donovan Mitchell because he was the unquestioned top offensive option on a team that made the playoffs in the Western Conference, which was one of the most difficult individual feats of the season. Simmons had a terrific season, but what Mitchell did carrying the offensive burden night in and night out ultimately tipped the scales for me.
4. We didn’t get to see much of Dante Exum this year, but he showed some nice flashes in the playoffs, especially on defense. What do you expect his market to be like?
I think he can possibly get an offer for as much as $10 million a season. Exum is 22 with elite measurables in size and athleticism for his position. His defensive upside is also quite high. He may not morph into a star, but he will at worst be a valuable role player in this league for years to come.
3. Derrick Favors reminded folks just how good he is when he’s upright. He’s still just 26 somehow, but his fit alongside Rudy Gobert still feels a bit forced. Do you think he should be back, or should Utah look for a stretch option there?
The Jazz certainly want him back. The union with him and Gobert wasn’t as forced as the narrative would have you believe. The two really like each other and the Jazz are able to keep an elite rim protector on the floor for 48 minutes, something not many teams around the league can do. Whether he’s back or not is still anyone’s guess. But, the Jazz were a terrific defensive team in part because they had Favors and Gobert.
2. What is the biggest need you think Utah needs to address this summer?
I think they need another dead-eye shooter. But that describes many teams, and I’m not sure that’s going to be on the market. The Jazz have a lot of ingredients, but shooting, as well as another guy who can create his own offense, are big needs heading into next season.
1. Utah has two picks (21, 52) in this year’s draft. Who would you like to see them target?
I think they will go best player available. They could also explore the market to either trade up, or trade for a veteran, similar to what they did two years ago for George Hill. The Jazz are confident they can find a good player at No. 21 in what is a deep draft. Fifty-two is typically a crapshoot that late in the draft. Odds are the person selected there will have problems making the opening night roster.
Some guys to keep an eye on: Oregon wing Troy Brown, Villanova guard Dante DiVencenzo, Maryland wing Kevin Huerter, and Duke guard Grayson Allen.