You would have thought somebody had asked Donovan Mitchell if golden retrievers are loyal, if tin roof pie is tasty, if a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster is pricey, if Shakespeare knew an action verb from a concrete noun, if the Earth rotates eastward in prograde motion, if Columbus sailed the ocean blue, if Daniel Boone was a man, if Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet.
He was quick and definitive in his response to what was, in Mitchell’s view, fairly obvious.
Are the Jazz better now than they were a year ago?
The team’s main offensive force answered — with no hint of real satisfaction, knowing there is much more yet to do — in the affirmative.
The playoffs are nearly here to help everyone else be so sure.
And, at present, they aren’t so sure. Shouldn’t be.
The Jazz have won more regular-season games this time around. Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have improved individually, Mitchell having averaged 23.5 points and 4.2 assists, up from 20.5 and 3.7 last year, and Gobert lifting not only his scoring to 15.8 points from 13.5, but his rebounding, too, to 12.9 from 10.7. At the defensive end, Gobert seems advanced in his general awareness as he roams the floor, protecting the basket.
But what about the team as a whole?
The Jazz added Kyle Korver, but otherwise the roster is about the same, a span of personnel inactivity that has tested the team’s emphasis on, as Quin Snyder so often says it, “Getting better every game.”
When that is the team motto, it has to be evident, otherwise it becomes hollow.
Last season, the Jazz scored 104 points a game and allowed 100. This time, they get 111 and give up 106. Their offensive rating was 16th. This time it’s 15th. Their defensive rating was second. This time it’s … second.
They seem to have grasped Snyder’s offense in a more complete way, embracing the changes, too. They shot the ball from deep more often, though with a bit less efficiency. They mastered the lob pass to Gobert, forcing opponents to either commit resources to slowing him or to give him space to cover the corner 3. Those defenses struggled to effectively slow both, which was Snyder’s intent, all along.
There is, however, a true defining element to the question, the only thing that really matters in the pursuit of NBA excellence — the postseason.
Everyone remembers what the Jazz did in 2018, beating Oklahoma City in round one, 4-2, and subsequently falling to the Rockets, 4-1, in the second round. The result of the first series was surprising, the the result of the second was not.
Mitchell was a mere rookie then, an exciting one to be sure, but one who was learning the ins and outs of playoff basketball, attempting to navigate around coaches and through opponents who were starting to game-plan for him. An entire second regular season of that same focus has steeled him, made him more than aware of the emphasis and how to combat it.
So now, after Wednesday night’s regular-season ender at the Clippers, the Jazz more than likely will get the Blazers, a team that has been affected by injury, but has powered on, playing well to close out the regular season. Damian Lillard has been rocksteady, the star that he is. He’s been rejoined by CJ McCollum, who has recovered from a bum knee enough to play through.
That guard line is a strength that can attack the Jazz’s biggest weakness in an otherwise elite resistance — perimeter defense. The list of scoring guards who have punished the Jazz in recent weeks, in losses and in wins, has been lengthy. And it will be exploited if not corrected, at least in part.
If the Jazz end up playing the Rockets in the first round, a formidable challenge, more of the same strong perimeter defense will be required.
If that matchup were to happen, right off the bat it would be a near-perfect measure indicating the actual progress of the Jazz. The Rockets are not the same exact team this year, but they are equally difficult.
If the first-round opponent is Portland, and the Jazz get past the Blazers, that would likely leave them with an even bigger challenge than they faced last year, namely, the Warriors. Another opportunity for them to track their real progression, or lack of it.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey says he is most certainly paying close attention to that arc or dip, whatever the path ends up being, whether it soars or sags: “The playoffs will give us a chance to learn more about our team.”
To learn where greater improvements must be made. If the team’s mantra is to get better every game, then that same effort and emphasis to improve should extend to personnel moves in every offseason, as well.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.