The Utah Jazz went out early in the playoffs yet again, and they did it in the most Jazz fashion possible: blowing a double-digit lead and missing a wide open game winner in the last possession of Game 6. After a series of post-season failures, this summer looks to be eventful for Utah.
To figure out their next moves, they need to identify what went wrong and decide who of their two best players they will stick to. Will, or should, they go with their young franchise SG in Donovan Mitchell or bank on defense and make Rudy Gobert their top guy?
Before we answer that, let’s take a look at everyone surrounding them. Quin Snyder has been an elite coach during his tenure in Utah, but during this series against Dallas he played a big part in his team’s elimination. The offense looked stagnant, essentially forcing Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson to hunt iso possessions and try to hero-ball their way to getting hard-earned buckets.
The defense, due in part to a lack of personnel, looked terrible at times, with the Mavs getting pretty much any shot they wanted outside the three-point line (although, to be fair, there were also times when the Jazz executed their rotations perfectly, especially in Games 4 and 6 in which they looked the most hungry for the win). His insistence on playing Royce O’Neale over Danuel House Jr. and Hassan Whiteside over Eric Paschall, who gave the Jazz some much-needed switchability on defense and a wildcard element on offense, was detrimental to Utah being very predictable and Dallas shutting them down. All in all, as great a coach as he is, Snyder got completely outcoached by Kidd during these games.
Should the Jazz move on from him? That might help. The Jazz have a clear mentality problem, and leadership is the most to blame for that. Snyder has clearly been unable to develop a winning culture when it matters for Utah, and he doesn’t look connected enough with Donovan Mitchell to solve some tendencies of his that continuously hurt the team (more on this later).
This team’s identity needs to change top-to-bottom, and a coaching change might just be enough to jumpstart this process. Reportedly, though, Snyder’s job is safe if he wants to return so all that will probably remain in the realm of possibility, at least for now. Thankfully for the Jazz, despite the aforementioned, Snyder is still one of the best coaches in the league and a team can very well win with him at the helm.
What needs to change for the Jazz this summer is the roster. This collection of players doesn’t compliment the talents of Utah’s two franchise players, and that reflects badly on everyone involved: Mitchell and Gobert look worse and less valuable than they are, the rest of the players look nearly incompetent at times and the coaching staff has to make do with pieces that don’t fit. Utah’s supporting cast needs a major shake-up.
So, who are the prime candidates to depart the Jazz? Honestly, most likely nobody on the roster is feeling 100% safe right now. Starting from the role players: free agent Hassan Whiteside seems checked out from the Jazz, while the team will probably choose to pick up the team options on Eric Paschall and Trent Forrest as well as resign Danuel House Jr., provided better options fall through.
The Jazz will also probably stick with youngsters Udoka Azubuike and Jared Butler. Minor role players such as Juancho Hernangomez, Rudy Gay and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are all under contract and will most likely serve as fillers in potential trades.
The Jazz’s actual asset pool is not very rich, but it’s there: the starters. Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale should all be up for grabs right now, given that they are the only Jazz assets that hold any actual market value. Right now, Jordan Clarkson is probably Utah’s most valuable non-Gobert, non-Mitchell asset. He didn’t have a very good season but he was the Jazz’s most effective offensive threat in the playoffs, and we’re just one season removed from his Sixth Man of the Year award win. Clarkson should be on the top of Danny Ainge’s to-trade list, followed directly by Mike Conley.
Conley made the All-Star game last season but this year he started to show his age. All his stats and percentages dropped, and he was nearly unplayable on defense at times. Honestly, it’s hard to tell what his trade value is right now, but there’s definitely a team out there that can be persuaded to bank on experience with him. Another player of questionable market value right now is Royce O’Neale. Theoretically, he fits into one of the most sought-after types of players in the NBA: a 3nD wing. However, this series against Dallas showed all his weaknesses.
He shot 28% from 3 and he constantly looked helpless against his assignments on defense, so he was bad at the two things that he’s supposed to provide on a regular basis. There’s really not much reason for the Jazz to hang on to him, although there’s really no telling on what they could get back in a potential trade.
The player that probably has the best case to stay on the Jazz for next season is Bojan Bogdanovic, who had himself a decent playoffs this season and actually looked competent guarding Luka Doncic at times. Bogdanovic still being on the Jazz at the start of next season would be a positive thing for them, but he’s far from untouchable if the right offer is put on the table.
The biggest question facing the Jazz right now, though, is what should be done with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, who reportedly don’t get along well and haven’t had much post-season success in their tenure together. Which of them, if any, can be that guy for the Jazz, who is the most important for the team’s playstyle and who brings the best chances of winning going forward? Is either of them even worth holding on to, or are they just delaying the inevitable rebuild?
First off, it’s reasonable to dismiss most reports of bad blood between them as media fabrication. It’s no secret that the media tend to feast on small markets with elite players, with a recent example being reports about Zion Williamson’s unhappiness in New Orleans, which Zion himself proved incorrect.
After Rudy Gobert’s notorious microphone incident in March 2020 (note: over two calendar years ago) and the strain it put on the relationship between him and Donovan Mitchell, the media have been more than willing to pick apart the Jazz and continue to build (at times false) narratives actively hurting a small market franchise enjoying success. Mitchell and Gobert don’t have to be best friends; they just have to be functioning teammates, and there’s very little evidence to suggest they can’t be.
Most of this evidence is a narrative that picked up steam during the Dallas series, one about Donovan Mitchell not passing enough to Gobert. That ties in perfectly with a very important issue, which was the cause of much of the Jazz’s pains in these playoffs: Mitchell’s mentality. Right now, the most prominent negative qualities of Mitchell’s game are all products of his choices and, thus, solvable. He has shown he can be a good defender; coming into the NBA, defense was regarded as one of the best aspects in his game.
When he is locked in he’s a positive defender, able to use his body correctly, albeit often undersized… the problem is, he’s rarely locked in. Even hidden on defense, guarding the Mavericks’ worst offensive player in Reggie Bullock, Mitchell gave up way too many points due to a lack of effort, which is a huge shame for a player with his qualities. Another tendency of his that hurts the Jazz is him hero-balling in the clutch and not trusting the gameplan enough.
This has been going on for a while now; when the Jazz are near the end of a close game, Mitchell tends to get the ball and drive towards the rim, his tunnel vision preventing him from seeking the best unguarded option after the defense collapses on him (this is not usually a problem of his on regular, non-clutch possessions). Among 44 starting guards for this past season, Mitchell owns the 26th best net rating (-5.3) in the clutch, which is simply not good enough for an All-Star leader of a team who regularly likes to put the game on his shoulders.
Simply put, he needs to trust the gameplan always, not only when he’s winning. It’s crucial that he fixes these issues, and it looks even more crucial considering that they’re, for the most part, a choice.
All that said, the Jazz should definitely not move on from him. Everything Mitchell says or does is a sign that he’s loyal to Utah and wants to stay for the long haul, and he also showed very early on that he’s a winning player when surrounded by a system that works. He can very well be Utah’s franchise player for years to come, and giving up on him already will set the Jazz up for failure.
Same goes with Rudy Gobert. At this point, we know who Gobert is: a historically great defender who can carry his own weight on offense. He can’t, and is very unlikely to ever, shoot or have a passable post game, but he’s so good at what he does that focusing on what he doesn’t do seems silly. Utah’s entire defense is built around him, and that’s with a supporting cast not suited to his abilities.
This brings us to the question at hand: what should the 2022-23 Utah Jazz look like? First off, Donovan Mitchell needs to play point guard full-time. His size fits better with the PG position, which will help him look better on defense, and he’s made great enough strides in his playmaking ability that he can fill the role perfectly. Quin Snyder has already dabbled a bit with the idea these past couple of years, but hopefully the departure of Mike Conley will open up the position for point Mitchell to become a regular reality.
Even if he doesn’t improve his defense, he can be hidden if surrounded by enough defensive wings, which should be the top priority for the Jazz this off-season. Athletic, 3&D wings have to be the name of the game right now for Utah, since they compliment Mitchell and Gobert’s playstyles so well. Mitchell will be able to survive on defense and Gobert will be the most valuable he can be on both sides; he will have less ground to cover on defense, so he’ll be able to protect the rim to the elite level that he can, and he’ll have shooters outside the 3-point line on offense to pass the ball to on the short roll, similar to the 2020-21 regular season.
All in all, contrary to many popular opinions, the Jazz shouldn’t completely blow it up this summer, but instead opt for a massive retooling around their two stars. Trading either Gobert or Mitchell, provided that the return is not insanely good, is more likely to prove hurtful than beneficial for Utah. After all, how often does a small market franchise end up with an elite All-Star defensive player and an elite All-Star offensive player at the same time?
The Jazz should exhaust all possibility of making something happen with this duo, something definitely doable, and move on only when it’s absolutely necessary. At the end of the day, recent failures may have blurred this view but this is still the team that got the 1st seed in the league just a season ago and had been improving steadily for years before that. Treating it as a failed era all reminders of which should be burned is very unfair to everyone involved; the coaching staff, the players and, most of all, the fans ourselves.