Back in August, no one in the realm of professional basketball said the Utah Jazz would be one of the eight best teams in the National Basketball Association this year.
Except maybe Rudy Gobert.
After the loss of all-star Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics, after injuries to key players including himself, after a miserable December in which they won only five of 18 games, the ridiculously tall Frenchman declared on Jan. 5, “We will be fine.”
In the end, they were so much more than fine. Extending a tradition stretching back 35 years, the small market Utah Jazz in 2018 are once again the biggest overachievers in the NBA.
And if Gobert was always unwavering, Donovan Mitchell was always electrifying.
No one in a Utah Jazz uniform has ever had a rookie year like Mitchell’s. Not Karl Malone. Not John Stockton. Not Darrell Griffith, who won Utah’s only Rookie of the Year award back in 1981.
Mitchell’s rise began as a twinkling in the pre-season and saw steep and steady progression. A handful of dazzling dunks got him invited to the NBA’s dunk contest, which he promptly won.
But it was in the playoffs, when the most eyes were upon him, that Mitchell’s star burned brightest. In the last game of the season for the Jazz, before hobbling his foot, Mitchell singlehandedly brought the Jazz back against a mighty Houston team with his smorgasbord of moves and shots.
Even after losing three straight games, no one is calling the Jazz losers.
That includes the guys in suits. General Manager Dennis Lindsey upped his game with his recovery plan from the loss of Hayward, led by the drafting of Mitchell. And coach Quin Snyder? He managed each game and an entire season magnificently, stepping over injuries while giving his new star the room to make mistakes.
Will Mitchell and Gobert be the next Stockton and Malone, pairing up for 18 straight years? Not likely.
Still, to the extent that the Jazz imprints its brand on Utah — this year adding Red Rock uniforms and Delicate Arch on the hardwood — it shows Utahns as a hardworking bunch who exceed expectations.
Next season looks promising, so promising that it begs the question. If the Jazz are that good, how good will they be when they overachieve again?