Two seasons ago, the Jazz falling to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals was the culmination of an unexpectedly successful season, given the dire outcome many had assumed was in store after a certain someone rode some Fourth of July fireworks all the way to Boston.
This past season, falling to the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs represented a disappointing underachievement, considering the front office had brought back nearly the entire roster from the previous campaign, having bet that continuity and internal development would yield additional progress.
And so, sitting at the Western Conference card table this summer, tired of seeing the Rockets hit 20s, and the Warriors (who have appeared in five straight Finals) getting blackjacks, the Jazz decided they weren’t going to stand on 16 anymore. It was time to take a chance and do something bold.
“Three years in a row facing Golden State and Houston [in the playoffs] told us the truth — that we just, for whatever reason, couldn’t keep up with their skill level,” noted executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey.
Utah has made an enormous bet that these new cards it is playing can be a winning hand. Now, with the regular season getting under way this Wednesday, we’re about to see if the gamble can possibly pay off.
Can these Jazz do what no other Jazz team has been able to and actually win an NBA title?
In the immediate aftermath of all the big moves — Mike Conley! Bojan Bogdanovic! Ed Davis! Jeff Green! Emmanuel Mudiay! — to add to foundational pieces Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, there certainly was plenty of optimism about the prospect.
“We all want to win a championship. It’s something I’ve been looking for my whole career,” said Conley. “Now, it seems like it’s the time. … We’ll be there at the end of the year.”
“Seeing Mike, Donovan, and Rudy over there, and seeing the Jazz are contenders every single year makes my decision so easy and so quick,” Bogdanovic agreed, in explaining his decision to choose the Jazz in free agency. “… I’m really, really excited to be a part of this team — this is probably the best team that I have ever been a part of.”
“At this stage of my career, I wanted to play on … a team that has a chance to contend for a title at the end of the year,” Davis added. “That was the main thing for me.”
Even the front office was feeling a little saucy.
“We embrace the expectations, because we’re trying to be the most competitive team we can to pursue a championship,” said general manager Justin Zanik.
There was no shortage of discussion about having upgraded the offensive firepower and versatility, while keeping the defense in position to remain one of the league’s elite.
Furthermore, Lindsey said, Utah had become (however improbably) one of those destination franchises that savvy veterans eager to chase a ring flocked to.
“Luckily, some of the more important pieces that we brought in, the more experienced pieces, are just that — they’re grizzled veterans that have seen a lot of NBA basketball, and they’re all hitting the stage of their career where winning is most important,” Lindsey said. “Not that it wasn’t before for ’em, but when you start reaching your 30s, you start thinking about trying to leave the game with a ring.”
Five preseason games later, the Jazz are just trying to leave that exhibition slate behind with a shred of their defensive reputation intact.
While the aforementioned offensive explosion did, indeed, come to fruition (the Jazz averaged 118.4 points per game, thanks to stellar ball movement, and open lanes on account of the added perimeter threats), the team’s stated goal of remaining a top-level defense is off to a rough start.
In the four games the Jazz played against NBA competition, they yielded 133, 128, 128, and 126 points, respectively.
Still, while there has been much hand-wringing about it, such a disparity was not necessarily unexpected.
“We just gotta figure each other out. Offensively is way easier to figure out than defense,” Mitchell said. “We’re very strict on what we want, on our beliefs on the defensive end.”
Gobert, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, said that he’s “not concerned,” but maintained the importance of continuing to work.
“The preseason record — nobody cares about it, to be honest. The most important thing is the way we play. And I know we [didn’t] play the way we wanna play,” he said. “Maybe everyone thought it was gonna be easy — we signed a few guys … and we think everything’s going to be great. But that’s not how it works.”
Indeed, all those aforementioned affirmations have subsequently been replaced by the familiar refrain, “It’s going to take time.”
“I know firsthand that it takes time when you add a lot of guys to a team,” said Green.
“We just focus on getting better every day,” agreed Mitchell.
“You try not to get too far ahead of yourself,” added Conley. “… Right now, we’re just focused on day to day, and every 24 hours can we do something better than the last 24?”
That said, in spite of the setbacks, there’s no less optimism now — it’s just expressed a bit more cautiously.
“We’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year, ’cause we feel we have a team that’s capable of doing a lot of great things,” Conley offered after a recent practice.
Then again, not everyone is willing to blunt those expectations.
On the team’s media day, Green rattled off a laundry list of reasons why the Jazz were legitimate contenders: “We have depth; we have veterans who’ve won; we have a young talented star in Donovan; guys who are gritty, who are gonna do it all in Joe; we have defensive bigs who are gonna block shots and protect the rim, run the floor in Ed and Rudy; we have a great point guard. We have it all on paper.”
A few days ago, after a particularly abysmal defensive performance, he wasn’t backing down.
When a question to him was prefaced with a reminder that he said he’d picked this team because he saw championship potential, Green quickly interjected: “I stand by that.”
He then went on to compare this Jazz team to the Cavs one he played for a few seasons back that competed for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“We had our ups and downs, but at the end of the season, we got to our main goal. I know that’s what this team is about,” Green said. “We’re gonna fight until we get to where we want to be. And at the end of the day, we want to be in the Finals.”