The Jazz Are a Championship Team
The 2018-19 Utah Jazz bear the closest resemblance to traditional championship teams of the past: dominant big man, dynamic perimeter player and roster laden with reliable veteran talent. Besides the current Golden State Warriors and Jordan’s Bulls of the 90s, the majority of titles have been collected by teams centered around a historically great big man.
Offensively, Jazz center Rudy Gobert is not that player but his stretches of defensive dominance drastically alter his team’s upside. OTG contributor Jorge Cantu details what he expects out of the Jazz this upcoming season.
This team caught fire after the trade deadline with the return of Gobert and by handing the keys to the offense to Donovan Mitchell. They were 19-29 prior to the trade deadline, seemingly out of the playoffs, then came roaring back with a 29-5 record to capture the 5th seed in the Western Conference.
Coinciding with this successful stretch was the exodus of one-dimensional players Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood, both of whom didn’t exactly carve out significant roles with the contenders on which they landed. In return, Utah opened up a rotation spot for Jae Crowder and more minutes for defensive minded grinders like Royce O’Neal. The Jazz built upon their strong deadline work by having an underrated off season that shored up the rest of their roster.
The Jazz are in the mix for the top seed. Golden State and Houston are the only teams ahead of Utah, if for no other reason than each has bounced the Jazz out the playoffs the last two seasons. But both the Warriors and Rockets have questions about their rosters that could shift the balance of power in the conference.
Golden State lacks depth beyond its Big 4, something they could have addressed in the offseason. You half expected at least one or a combination of guys such as JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli or Anthony Tolliver signing on the minimum to ring chase. The lack of depth makes any injury to Durant particularly threatening to the Warriors’ success because they won’t simply revert back to pre-Durant Warriors.
Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes all played significant roles that Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, and Jonas Jerebko cannot replicate. Iggy and Livingston both being four Finals runs older are not going to generate the same impact they used to either. Signing Cousins, if healthy, has made the Warriors theoretically unstoppable at positions one through five but the bench could be a liability throughout the season.
A much more active Rockets general manager Daryl Morey keeps churning out singles out of untradeable assets. It's possible Ryan Anderson could be missed if Brandon Knight has difficulties bouncing back from injury or isn’t moved for a better shooter. PJ Tucker, Carmelo Anthony and Tyler Ennis are all solid shooters at this stage of their careers but Anderson provided guaranteed spacing in case James Harden, Chris Paul or Eric Gordon went down for an extended period.
We also forever say goodbye to those bowel inducing plays for defenses where Harden would pick and roll with Clint Capela while defenders had to stay glued to Anderson and Gordon spotted up four feet beyond the arc. The returned assets Marquese Chriss and Knight (still owed $15.6 mil next season) shouldn’t expected to be difference makers in the playoffs either so hopefully this is a precursor to another move.
I can picture a scenario where both Capela and Paul taking their foot off the pedal a hair after enjoying the first and last big contracts of their respective careers a little bit this off season. A month or so into the season Harden can’t believe other players are trying less than him and checks out until well after the All-Star break. Playing Melo in the Anderson role provides other teams instant offense as Houston’s switch defense allows easy access to attacking him.
The real special thing the Jazz have going for them is that everyone on this team have a particular ‘f*** you’ aspect about them. Their locker room could be a support group for those that have suffered NBA slights. Mitchell for being passed on until the 13th pick and losing ROY. Crowder for Boston fans cheering for Hayward while he was playing the same position for them. Thabo Sefolosha had his leg smashed by the NYPD. Gobert was upset Hayward left, though, to be fair, Hayward was like ‘I didn’t even know we were that close’. Derrick Favors because he was yanked out of Brooklyn for Salt Lake. Joe Ingles was probably forced to break his own toys as punishment during his youth, why else act the way he does. And the entire league used to beat on Ricky Rubio so much that the Timberwolves front office cried extensively, making it worse. This concludes our tour of the Quin Snyder Academy for Frustrated Boys.
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Mitchell has the opportunity to end his career as a Hall of Famer if he capitalizes on leading this loaded Jazz team. Mitchell reminds me of a young Isaiah Thomas: all smiles, composure, and excitement on the court but upstairs the wheels are turning how to best rip your heart out come playoffs. Love this version of Mitchell and hope it continues for a couple years but will be ecstatic the day the NBA universe randomly turns on him.
The image of Mitchell soaking in boos night after night while still raining dunks and treys on teams and locking up their best perimeter threat is glorious. But that’s personal preference; Dark Giannis destroying Mike Dunleavy in the playoffs is still my favorite Giannis, Thunder Durant is a hero but with the Warriors he’s the best hate watch of all-time, inevitably killing teams in the 4th, and LBJ embracing the villain role en route to a 27 game win streak through intimidation with Miami’s blitzing aggressive defense and transition firepower. Mitchell is too good for it not to come, and he was passed on by 12 too many teams for him not to clap back somewhere down the road. The biggest criticism against Mitchell last season was his lack of efficiency but we’re talking about a rookie with a 28.8 usage rating per NBA.com. Going into this year as the focal point of the offense he should see more touches tailor made for him to take a good shot or make the right basketball play. Utah could attempt to reach that next level by trading Rubio for a great stretch four or more wing shooting and insert Mitchell as the full time point. Such a move might be good for his long term development but there would be growing pains along the roster.
Exum has not been healthy enough to fully evaluate and could be the best point guard on the roster when everything shakes out. He gives the Jazz another quality ball handler along with Rubio, Mitchell and Ingles who surprisingly has experience running the pick and roll. The defensive versatility and size of their guards and wings allows for the Jazz to efficiently shift players down to play small ball as Crowder, O’Neal, Sefolosha and Ingles all benefit from minutes at the four.
Favors and Gobert have enough experience working off each other to figure it out offensively but both benefit from their own space in the middle. I would only play those two every night I could get away with it; Ekpe Udoh is a capable backup if he rebounds which is always an “if”. The Jazz could employ a switch happy scheme with Favors at center to be prepared for the Rockets and Warriors and stay traditional when Gobert is on the floor. And even though he’s buried behind veteran talent Grayson Allen could be a factor for the Jazz as Dominic Roney lays out in his Hot Take.
In the end, this might not mean much. The last time the Jazz were great with Malone and Stockton they never won a championship either. Those glory years unfortunately coincided with the Bulls dynasty. In 20 years little has changed as this talented Jazz team finds itself competing in the midst of a Warriors’ run that shows no signs of slowing down, with a host of other franchises like the Celtics, Lakers, and 76ers looming as potential dynasties. Can a small market team like Utah compete against historically successful franchises in 2018? We’re about to find out.