Donovan Mitchell talked about it, so did Rudy Gobert and assorted other Jazz players. They’re the ones who spoke of contending for — and winning — a championship. It was coming from them, not just from outsiders.
Then the season started.
And reality set in.
That reality has taught the Jazz a few lessons, foremost among them that the climb to the top is an arduous one, something along the lines of summiting Annapurna, or maybe the Eiger. Beating the Pacers, the Kings, the Thunder en route to planting the flag is tough enough, let alone conquering the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers. The Jazz are not yet good enough to be included among the NBA’s elite, and while their struggles haven’t been catastrophic — sitting at 17-11 heading into Saturday’s game with Charlotte — their shortcomings, especially measured against their own expectations, are apparent.
Here are four things the Jazz must do — in some cases, continue to do — to meet those expectations:
1) Exhibit a collective attitude that enables growth.
Due to Mike Conley’s hamstring and a weak bench, Quin Snyder has been forced into asking his players to be flexible, utilizing multiple lineups and combinations on the floor, staggering the minutes of players such as Mitchell and Joe Ingles. He’s moved Ingles and Royce O’Neale in and out of the starting lineup. All three have been mixed in with the second unit to provide stability and scoring. That not only requires focus and versatility, but also a willingness to put the needs of the team first.
After a recent Jazz win, Snyder was asked about that. He said he called O’Neale in to let him know Ingles would start that night, and the coach reported that the wing said, waving his arm: “I’m good. I want to win.”
Said Snyder: “He doesn’t care. Joe doesn’t care. They just want to win. We’re going to start the guys who at any given time make the most sense, and you don’t always finish with the same guys who start.”
Snyder labeled that disposition “the best thing about our team.”
It will have to be one of the best things.
2) Fix the bench.
Many seasons ago, Larry Bird was on the Celtics’ team bus when he looked out the window and saw a street bench with two words and a phone number painted on it: “Bench Available.” He yelled out to anybody who would listen: “Call that number. We need a bench.”
The Jazz need a number to call, too.
How many leads will be frittered away, how many slim deficits will be widened when the second unit is put on the floor before this is rectified? It has been the Jazz’s most pressing problem, one that an optimist might think can be solved via hard work and increased familiarity, but that a realist sees as needing an infusion of talent. That’s a complicated prospect, but one the Jazz will likely have to resort to in order to meet their potential.
Jeff Green is making just 38 percent of his shots, with the third-worst effective field goal percentage on the team. Only Conley and Ed Davis are worse. Emmanuel Mudiay is trying to learn the Jazz offense and improve his own eyes-up skill set at point guard. Heading into Saturday’s game, he had 58 assists and 41 turnovers. Davis isn’t a scorer and Dante Exum is a non-factor. Does Georges Niang have enough to lift this group?
The Jazz — namely, the frontline guys — need help.
3) Conley must heal himself, then heal the team.
The single player the Jazz invested the most in during the offseason has given them the least. First, he had to get acclimated to a new offense, a new role, new plays, new teammates, a new vocabulary, a new home. Now, he has to get healthy. And once he does, then he must repeat the first step, again, somehow disallowing the pressure that comes from the following statement to make his plight worse than it already is:
The Jazz will never reach their potential without a full-functioning Mike Conley. He has to come around for this team to edge toward the top of the Western Conference. It’s undoable without him.
And right now, the Jazz are without him, literally and figuratively. As he waits for his hamstring to heal, he must do what he can as an observer to fuse the Jazz’s role for him, a non-ball-dominant one, a role in which he steadies the team with his veteran presence, and moves the ball in order to set up his mates and himself with quality shots, into body and mind. If he gives, he’ll get, and when he masters that giving and getting, then he’ll shoot much better than 36 percent. Considering he’s a 44-percent career guy, that seems reasonable to expect.
The emphasis on ball movement continues to be among Snyder’s primary aims: “The way our team is constructed, it gives a lot of guys, different guys, the opportunity to attack.”
4) Mitchell has to continue his ascent to star-plus status.
Almost from the start, all the way back to his rookie season, Mitchell has been a fourth-quarter kind of talent, sometimes inefficiently banging and clanking around in earlier periods before handling his proper business with a fury at the end.
In recent games, Mitchell’s effort has been powerful, but more refined than furious.
“We want him to be aggressive, at the right time in the game,” Snyder said.
He’s learning when to exert himself with his sizable physical prowess, sparking, for example, the Jazz’s blown-lead-then-strong finish win over the Magic with that swooping dunk the other night, and when to set up/inspire his teammates to finish along with him. An example of that was the quick-hit pass to Rudy Gobert in the win over Atlanta, an assist he could have transformed into his own dunk, had he desired to do so. Instead, he saw his big man hustling his carcass down the court and rewarded him.
Every elite team has that. Every elite team has to have that. And Mitchell is, in a general sense, now meeting the challenge. It’s difficult because gifted players so often believe they are best-suited to make the biggest plays down the stretch. Sometimes, they can, sometimes, they’re better off helping others do the same. It’s their call. And, more and more, Mitchell is making the right one.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.