• Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Utah Jazz

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing obituaries for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

Donovan Mitchell has been the Utah Jazz's first offensive option from the start of his professional career, and has done as good a job as anyone could do from day one. Over his first two seasons, the Louisville alum averaged 22.1 points and 3.9 assists on .434/.351/.805 shooting splits, helping Utah earn the 5 seed in the Western Conference both years.

Those don't sound like world-beating offensive numbers because they're not. Mitchell has done a solid job carrying the load for the Jazz, but the other side is where the Jazz have thrived.

The last two seasons saw Utah center Rudy Gobert win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. His height and wingspan are enough to deter almost everyone from attacking the basket, and those who are foolish enough to challenge him usually end up feeling rejected. The Jazz finished 2017-18 and 2018-19 with the No. 2 defense in the league.

Mitchell did just enough to make the Jazz competitive offensively, while Gobert held down the fort defensively. It was a pretty good combination with minimal overlap, though that's not to say either was a one-way player.

The problem was that they ran into the brick wall that was the Houston Rockets. In both the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, Utah was shut down by Houston in ways that were very difficult to overcome given its roster construct. Gobert's cream-of-the-crop rim protection started to blend in with the crop because he couldn't stay home against Houston's five-out offense.

As for Utah's offense, it wasn't nearly good enough against a playoff-level defense like Houston's. Mitchell was basically the only shot creator for the Jazz: Ricky Rubio is more of a tone-setter than a scorer, Joe Ingles can only take on that load in a pinch, and everyone else was in a complementary role. The workload that Mitchell had on offense was a burden that even the Hall of Famers would have trouble assuming, let alone a guy who is barely old enough to drink.

Something had to give; the Jazz couldn't go into 2019-20 with the same roster construct. Mitchell needed help on offense, and the defense needed a backup plan behind Gobert.

The former was more than satisfied last summer. With Rubio entering free agency and the obvious need for someone more versatile than him, the Jazz traded for Mike Conley. The cost was steep though, as they had to give up two first rounders, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver to pull it off.

The reward expected to be worth it. Conley brought with him good enough scoring to lighten Mitchell's load, quality defense at the guard spot, and enough game management and veteran leadership to maintain what Rubio took with him.

Now that the backcourt got its boost, the frontcourt needed one too. Derrick Favors was hitting free agency, and his fit with Gobert was always a bit clunky since neither of them spaced the floor.

Utah did a complete about-face from its former 4-5 pairing, opting for a true stretch-4 in Bojan Bogdanovic. The former Indiana Pacer, Washington Wizard and Brooklyn Net was inked for four years and $73.1 million, an immense figure for a team in Utah's market to shell out.

Both acquisitions were uncharacteristic of a small market team, but Utah had to sh*t or get off the pot sooner or later. Mitchell and Gobert can both be free agents in 2021, and it's unlikely they could've kept both even before making the above additions.

Because Gobert won back-to-back DPOY awards, he was already eligible for the Designated Veteran Player Extension (more commonly known as the supermax) that can amount to as much as 35% of the salary cap. The Jazz can go over the cap to sign him to that extension, but they risk going into the luxury tax with either Gobert's signing or any supporting ones. No more than seven teams have gone into that threshold in a given season since 2014; Utah isn't a candidate to be the next.

TL;DR—the Jazz needed to go all-in for 2019-20 and 2020-21, and the additions of Conley and Bogdanovic were executions of that direction.

The results

The Jazz were dangerously good on paper, but they never seemed to get everyone on the same page. The 2019-20 Utah Jazz played as much whack-a-mole as they did basketball.

Conley was a big disappointment prior to The Bubble. He was expected to suffer a dip in scoring, but 13.9 points a game on 49.5% true shooting for the first 21 games was not thought to be reality. Then he injured his hamstring, missed five games, tried to play through it, and re-aggravated it to where he had to miss the next 15 contests.

When he returned he was a bit more efficient, upping his true shooting to 58.1% for the next 19 games (including 39.2% from downtown), but his scoring was still at a pedestrian 14.1 points a night. His supplementary production would've been fine if the Jazz were churning out wins, but they went a meager 11-8 in that stretch (2-2 in the four games he sat in between).

Conversely, the other big acquisition exceeded expectations. In 63 games, Bogdanovic averaged 20.2 points on a .447/.414/.903 slash line, including an excellent 60.3% true shooting clip. He provided exactly what the Jazz needed offensively, which is what they acquired him for.

The only below-par segment of Bogey's year was the end. After the league was suspended (an event with very close ties to Utah), he opted for surgery on his wrist that sidelined him for the entirety of The Bubble.

Speaking of the season restart, the Jazz were headliners of the hours that shut down the NBA for four months. As the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading around the world, some of Gobert's relatives came to visit from France. Gobert started to experience flulike symptoms during that time, but played through them. He figured he was just sick.

Shams Charania, Tony Jones and Sam Amick of The Athletic get into the specifics, but basically Gobert didn't take his symptoms seriously. When he tested positive for the virus on March 11th, both the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder—and therefore the other 28 teams in the NBA—were thrust into uncharted territory.

The league suspended the season, and we didn't see another game of significance until July 30th. As fate would have it, the Jazz were competitors in the contest that resumed the season.

Without Bogdanovic, and with Conley battling injuries (but playing much better in Orlando), Utah wasn't as explosive. Conley's resurgence gave them another table-setter on offense, but he also missed the first two games of the first round bout with the Denver Nuggets.

That ended up being an excellent series, even if it didn't go Utah's way. Mitchell arrived this postseason, dropping 57 points in Game 1 and at least 40 on two other occasions. He was scorching hot from most areas of the floor, shooting 53.8% inside the arc and 51.6% beyond it. Any questions about him as a lead scoring option on a playoff team seemed to be quelled.

In fact, all three Jazz ball handlers played well. Conley's five games were pretty good and proof that he's still got a lot left in the tank, while Jordan Clarkson (???) averaged 16.7 points on 57.7% true shooting. It was the supporting cast that disappointed.

Gobert had a difficult time handling Nikola Jokic, a disappointing result considering that Jokic's more traditional game should be an easier matchup for Gobert than, say, the Rockets' five-out offense. Royce O'Neale hit 1.4 threes a game at a 45.5% clip, but added little else to the attack.

Instead of being Utah's swing piece, Joe Ingles found it difficult to get going at all. He only averaged 9.1 points on 7.7 shots a game; even though they went in at a respectable clip of 56.5% true shooting, they were few and far between for a team that needed some juice on the wings.

It didn't help that Jamal Murray was on the other side, and basically matched Mitchell with his own displays of brilliance. Along with some stellar performances from Jokic and alternating role players, the Nuggets were able to claw back from a 3-1 deficit and vanquish the Jazz.

One wonders how they would have done with Bogdanovic in the fold. His extra firepower would've certainly gotten the Jazz through those lulls that cost them so dearly in this Nuggets series, and his playoff experience from his Indiana days would've come in handy quite well when defending Denver's wings.

But with the past unable to be altered, the Jazz have to look forward. The near future has some important decisions in store.

The outlook

As mentioned in the first section, the Jazz might be forced to choose between Gobert and Mitchell. They complement each other well on the court, but Mitchell has made it clear that he wasn't a fan of how Gobert handled the coronavirus outbreak. They seem to be on good terms now, but that doesn't mean Utah's books will be.

Mitchell's rookie contract expires after the 2020-21 season, and he is eligible for an extension later this fall. When that time comes, both he and Gobert will be able to talk about their futures with the Jazz. But more important is how the Jazz handle each of their futures.

The rookie scale makes Mitchell's situation more flexible. Should Utah opt not to extend him this fall and wait until next offseason, he has a cap hold of $15.6 million, which would be substantially cheaper than his cap hit after agreeing to an extension, making it easier for Utah to add external pieces.

If the team wants to retain both Gobert and Mitchell, that cap space will dry up anyway. In the event that they want to retool around one or the other, trading Gobert and keeping Mitchell's cap hold on the books would make that strategy easier to carry out.

At the same time, it's hard to argue losing Gobert right now. He is entering his prime, the best defensive center in the league on most nights, and doesn't play outside of his strengths offensively. He has made sacrifices for the common good of the team, especially for Mitchell.

But if Gobert demands the full amount of a supermax ($40.3 million in 2021-22 and increases after that), the Jazz would be banking on that continuing through his age-33 season. The rules of the extension give them some leeway in how much they can offer him, as The Athletic's Danny Leroux gets into, but either way the Frenchman is going to get paid.

It's a tough situation if the Jazz opt to pick one over the other, but that's the life of a small market team. The Indiana Pacers are about to go through the same thing with Victor Oladipo. There are built-in advantages for the incumbent team, such as matching rights on Mitchell's restricted free agency and Bird Rights on Gobert, but the finances are still tricky.

The Jazz are in a pretty good spot for a team facing a franchise-altering decision in a small market. This is the case because they've drafted well and made smart additions on the margins, the two things you absolutely need if you're not a free agent destination. A betting man would wager that they figure this out while churning out 50-55 wins next year