As the Jazz were tearing through their post-All-Star break schedule and working their way up the Western Conference standings, and fans began to discuss in earnest the team’s postseason potential, many such conversations inevitably centered around a single if not wholly definable premise: Progress.
Everyone wants this Jazz team to take the proverbial next step. The problem is nailing down exactly what that is — a task made all the more difficult by the way the playoff seedings ultimately unfolded.
After the previous two seasons ended with Utah making back-to-back trips to the Western Conference semifinals, must the Jazz make it to at least the Western Conference finals this time? What about dispatching the highly-regarded Rockets in the first round, and at least putting up a good fight against Golden State in the second?
After the Jazz brought back virtually the same roster from last season … and wound up finishing with the same seed in the Western Conference … and now will face the same Houston franchise that knocked them out of last season’s playoffs in the second round, falling to the Rockets in the first round this year would represent … what, exactly? Stagnation? Regression?
You see — this whole “progress” thing is tricky business. Which is why the Jazz themselves are trying to tune it out altogether.
“We want to win every game we possibly can, but if we start focusing on saying, ‘Alright, we need to get to the conference finals,’ you’re gonna forget that you’re in the first round,” said Donovan Mitchell. “If we just focus on the game by game, let that take care of itself — I wouldn’t say let it go unspoken, but kind of just let everything fall into place — then we’ll be good.”
From media day on, coach Quin Snyder has said that the goal for the 2018-19 season is simply to maximize the potential of this group.
It’s a philosophy his players have supported and endorsed.
“We only have one goal, or internal expectation, and that’s to get better every day,” said forward Georges Niang. “We started dropping games when we started focusing on goals other than getting better every day. When we just focus on that, we take care of business and we’re rolling. So I think we’re just gonna stick to that — continuing to get better every day, and play to be a little better than we were the day before.”
Fans, of course, tend to prefer bigger-picture and more tangible results.
Still, why such urgency now for this group to demonstrate “progress"? After all, this is but the second season for Mitchell, a budding superstar. And Rudy Gobert isn’t exactly long in the tooth, yet.
It’s not as though John Stockton and Karl Malone were “Stockton and Malone” when they first teamed up in the 1985-86 season, just for the sake of reminder. Their first two years together, Utah was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. In their third season as a duo, the Jazz took the Lakers to the brink before falling in the Western Conference semis. Then it was two more years of first-round exits, followed by another season of going out in the second round.
It wasn’t until their seventh year together that they made it as far as the Western Conference finals … where they lost. And they didn’t finally break through for an NBA Finals appearance until the 1996-97 season — their 12th together.
These days, that group’s slow-burn rise up the postseason ladder is viewed with near-mythical reverence as the necessarily-steady confluence of improvement and circumstances. It may also be impossible these days to replicate such patience.
Still, again, this group is young — so what’s the rush?
Well, the origins of this iteration of the Jazz technically trace back to the summer of 2013, when the front office opted against retaining big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, believing the franchise had plateaued — short of the playoffs — with them as its cornerstones. From that perspective, this is the sixth season of the bottom-out-and-rebuild project.
The summer 2017 departure of then-face of the franchise Gordon Hayward typically might have forced yet another hard reboot, except the combination of Utah’s defensive dominance (thanks to the continuing emergence of Gobert) and the unexpected offensive dynamism of then-rookie Mitchell made it unnecessary.
This group gets it. They publicly embrace the one-game-at-a-time mentality, but they still know where the road is ultimately supposed to lead.
“I don’t want to put any limit on what we can do. I want us to believe that we can go all the way — and I think we really can,” Gobert said. “It’s not easy; we’ve gotta have each other’s back — there’s gonna be some tough moments. But if we put that on our minds, we can surprise a lot of people, and probably surprise ourselves too.”
All Times Mountain
Game 1 • Sunday at Houston, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 2 • Wednesday at Houston, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 3 • Saturday at Vivint Arena, 8:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, ESPN
Game 4 • Monday at Vivint Arena, 8:30 p.m.
TV: ATTSN, TNT
Game 5 • April 24 at Houston, TBD*
Game 6 • April 26 at Vivint Arena, TBD*
Game 7 • April 28 at Houston, TBD*
* If necessary
Mitchell similarly doesn’t shy away from openly acknowledging that winning an NBA championship is what they’re all here for.
“Why can’t we do it? Why can’t we, as a team, get to that point?” Mitchell asked rhetorically. “[Some] media, you know who I’m talking about, they say, ‘Wow, those are your expectations?’ Would you say the same thing if I was on Golden State? Would you say the same thing if I was on Houston? Those teams, obviously, have been that far; we haven’t, but I think we have the mentality to get there.
“You don’t get to where you get to as a team without that mindset,” he added. "It helps when you have teammates that have that mindset as well. It’s not just one person; it’s not like I’m the only person that thinks about the Finals — Rudy comes in with that mindset, Joe comes in with that mindset. That’s why you play.”
That process starts Sunday with Game 1 in Houston. Where it ends? Maybe with a championship. Maybe with a single series win. Maybe with an opening-round defeat that precipitates an offseason of substantial change.
In the meantime, maximize the talent of this group — that’s still the goal, still the benchmark for that abstract “progress.” As for how close they are to that?
“I don’t know,” Niang conceded, “you want to be playing into June, and it’s not close to June yet.”