Decked out in a black T-shirt, a sweet chain dangling around his neck, Donovan Mitchell sat in front of the media the other day, cool as he ever was, answering questions of all sorts. One of the most important answers he gave was regarding what he would do to make the Jazz a better team this offseason.
He wasn’t talking about working on his cross-over or his court awareness. He was speaking to helping Jazz management lure in a useful free agent or two. Whether he thoroughly knows the Jazz’s less-than-splashy history in signing free agents is uncertain. But Mitchell is completely aware of the significant role he could play in that pursuit now.
“My thing is,” he said, “we have the defensive player of the year, and myself, who’s still finding ways to get better. We have an amazing group, a bunch of guys who love to work. … From top to bottom, we have guys who are unselfish.
“Look, we want to win. We don’t care about the individual stuff. … It’s like a college atmosphere. You’re with your friends, playing the game you love. That’s the way it should be.”
Everybody knows what the Jazz need in their chase for title contention — gifted shooters. What is less obvious is whether those kinds of free agents would seek to play for the Jazz. Trading for a meaningful scorer would cost the club assets, which might be what it’ll have to do. Drafting a scorer, especially from the Jazz’s late selection slot, is not only a long shot, it’s a long route to finding a real solution.
Time is sliding by, considering that Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are coming into their own as NBA stars. This is a different era than that of Karl Malone and John Stockton, who spent the better part of two decades ramping up to their Finals appearances. Players these days aren’t quite so patient. Wasting time getting Mitchell and Gobert the help they need is a waste of their talent.
That makes this offseason critical for the Jazz.
But that tired-yet-unavoidable narrative remains: Are difference-making free agents willing to come to Utah? Beyond the track record, which suggests they are not, there are reasons for doubt. Size and demographics of the market are among them.
Salt Lake City is a unique place, a great place, as Kyle Korver said it, to raise a family, to enjoy the outdoors. It’s also somewhat monolithic in its racial makeup, with a small black population and limited commercial endorsement possibilities.
The fanbase is supportive, rabid even, but the recent incidents with a couple of fans, last season and this season, who were banned for yelling racially-charged stupidity at Russell Westbrook did not help in this regard. Players take notice of such things, and draw conclusions from them. The Jazz’s swift action addressing the incidents were widely applauded, and may have, at least partially, mitigated those concerns.
Still, ignoring such realities is to slam one’s eyes shut.
There are, however, advantages here.
The Jazz have gone to great lengths and expense to improve players’ experiences — with a new practice and training facility, stellar medical resources, a renovated arena, and attention to detail as to players’ — and their families’ — needs. Korver pointed out that even the food the Jazz provide is “amazing.”
“This is just a really good place to be,” he said.
Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey concurred, saying: “This state, this community, we have a lot to sell. … We’re very confident in our state, our city and our organization. So, we’ll get in there and see what’s available to us. We’re confident that we can continue to move the group forward. We’re not far away.“
That path and progression is, as Mitchell mentioned, appealing to free agents seeking a still-blossoming team for which to play. In Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz have two relatively young stars, one a defensive standout who doesn’t need the ball much to make his presence felt and another, a dynamic scorer, who is humble with an infectious positive personality that teammates rave about.
That’s why Mitchell’s appeals to free agents could hold sway.
Another bonus draw is Quin Snyder. He has a reputation around the league as a coach with a big brain and enough awareness and acumen to help players get better and utilize them in ways that leads to winning.In a 2019 player poll done by The Athletic, Snyder finished among the top coaches players would most like to play for.
“Everyone appreciates what he brings,” Jae Crowder said.
Yet another plus is this: The players who already are on this team, in this city, want to stay here.
Derrick Favors characterized his time playing for the Jazz — he is the longest tenured player on the roster — as “a blessing.”
“I’ve been enjoying my time here,” he said. “Hopefully, it will continue.”
He said he does talk with other players, that they often ask him what it’s like playing in Utah: “I tell them, it’s a little different. But it grows on you. It’s a great place. The organization is first-class, Quin is a great coach. You just got to give it a try. They’ll take care of you. It’s a winning environment. I think there are guys who would like to come here. I think free agents around the league are thinking about Utah.”
Said Crowder: “I got a lot of friends in the NBA, so I recruit. I want to do my job with that and bring some top-level players here to help us win. I’m definitely going to do my part, talking to guys, telling what the organization, what the team is all about. I’m with it 100 percent. Donovan’s all for it, Rudy’s all for it.”
Part of the draw, he said, is the overall vibe of the team: “No one’s worried about touches, no one’s worried about scoring or getting shots. We just play. We play free and together.”
It’s a pretty strong sales pitch for a team that is one star short: Come to Utah and play together, play free, play to win.
One last thing: The money is as green here as anywhere.
Now, we’ll see who’s buying.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.