30 Teams in 30 Days: Utah Jazz suddenly on upswing after surprising playoff run
Donovan Mitchell's dominant rookie season has Utah upbeat for 2018-19
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s Team: Utah Jazz
Who’s new: Grayson Allen (Draft)
Who’s gone: Jonas Jerebko, David Stockton
The lowdown: Left woozy by the summer departure of free agent and franchise star Gordon Hayward, the Jazz gave the ball to a rookie and pulled a surprise by nearly winning 50 games and bouncing Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs. Their season was made more remarkable considering center Rudy Gobert played only 56 games because of knee issues. But Donovan Mitchell (20.5 points per game) was an unexpected savior and far better than anyone imagined. He won over his teammates and coach Quin Snyder quickly, then earned respect around the league for taking charge and also bailing out Utah in a number of close games, both rare for a rookie.
Mitchell finished as the Kia Rookie of the Year runner-up. Snyder made good use of the rotation and found functional roles for most and the Jazz used Mitchell and defense to flourish. By the playoffs, Mitchell was arguably the best player on a floor that featured former Kia MVP Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and the Jazz entered the offseason feeling confident about the future.
In 2016, the young Portland Trail Blazers made the playoffs, stunning the LA Clippers in the first round before giving the Golden State Warriors a feisty series in the semis. Encouraged by the bounce and swagger showed by an emerging club, the Blazers handed out contract extensions and … they haven’t done anything special since. In hindsight, every one of those extensions looks like a mistake.
The lesson: Fool’s gold can sometimes, um, fool you.
Are the Jazz headed down that path? The situations aren’t exactly the same, yet similar to a degree. Instead of going outside to make a few cosmetic changes to the rotation, Utah was mostly content to keep free agents Dante Exum and Derrick Favors, giving each contracts that were somewhat generous in a soft market that worked against most players.
Exum signed for three years and a reported $33 million, or roughly the going rate for a backup point guard. But Exum’s run in Utah has been interrupted by injury and, even when healthy, his play was inconsistent. He perhaps earned the benefit of the doubt in the playoffs when he stepped in for an injured Ricky Rubio and had moments of solid play.
Evidently, the Jazz feel Exum’s better days are just ahead. He’s only 23 and after investing so much time in him, Utah wasn’t ready to cut him loose. He brings great size (6-foot-6), is energetic, and point guard isn’t a Jazz strength. If nothing else, Exum gives Utah a sense of security.
Favors is richer after signing a reported two-year, $36 million extension as no other team was willing to beat that price for him. The last two seasons weren’t exactly robust for Favors, who battled through injuries, sporadic play and found himself benched because of mismatches in today’s stretch-happy NBA. Favors has worked to develop more of a 3-point shot, but his lack of perimeter shooting was exploited by Houston in the playoffs.
But as the case with Exum, the Jazz have years of player-development invested in Favors. As Utah’s longest-tenured player, Favors is a solid defender next to Gobert and the Jazz outscored their opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with the two bigs on the floor together. And even though he’s seemingly been around Utah forever, Favors is just 27 years old.
The decisions by the Jazz to maintain the status quo isn’t unusual with this franchise, which has long prided itself on stability and player development. Strangely enough, Mitchell claims to love life in the Wasatch Mountains — something to remember when and if he ever reaches free agency (unlikely, since the Jazz will surely break the bank for him).
Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey moved up to take Mitchell in the 2017 Draft and has a knack for finding talent in places where few others search. He has had a solid track record in the Draft and with the 21st pick took Allen. A year ago, the Duke shooter considered entering the draft, but got mild feedback from NBA types.
Allen brings 3-point range to a team that ranked 13th in 3-pointers made and attempted last season. Unless he makes an impact right away, Allen will be in the back end of a rotation that showcases Joe Ingles for distance shooting.
The trick for Utah is to match or surpass last season’s effort while catching no one by surprise this time. And the Jazz must do that with virtually the same cast as before.
Coming Next: Oklahoma City Thunder
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