It has become apparent what remains of the Jazz’s 2018 season is not a quick run to the playoffs, not a short path to competitive excellence, not a smooth glide with a tweak or two toward immediate success.
Instead, it is a hard climb back up a mountain, covering ground that already had been won, and then was lost, and now must be won again.
All that had been asked of Jazz fans leading up to last season — understanding and trust and patience — must be asked of them one more time.
It’s up to individual fans to decide for themselves how they will deal with that do-over, that request, how tolerant they can be of a league that requires much from team management, allowing as the NBA does player freedom to screw over the best-laid plans of managers and coaches in order to pursue their own careers wherever, however they choose.
The Jazz’s current difficulties — they are 18-26 — started on July 4, when Gordon Hayward decided to bolt for Boston, leaving a team lurching that had ramped up over the course of several years to 51 wins and a first-round advancement in the playoffs.
You can blame Hayward, the centerpiece in the Jazz’s rebuild, for that. And you can blame Jazz management for not perceiving that that departure was coming. Hayward stabbed the Jazz, and all the people inside the club — coaches, in particular — who helped him improve, straight in the back. Other stars, such as Paul George, have let their team know they intended to move on, allowing them to make a move to get something for their impending loss.
Hayward did not do that, leaving the Jazz cold.
The player around whom so much had been hung simply disappeared, ducking out down a back alley into the arms of his college coach. It was his decision and he made it, much to the detriment of his former team. It wasn’t just a matter of disloyalty, it was a matter of blowing out one of the pillars holding the entire thing in place. And with subsequent injuries to Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were left with their walls cracking.
General manager Dennis Lindsey attempted to bolster the loss, bringing in what he could — Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.
In retrospect, as mentioned, he should have read the Hayward tea leaves better. And the Jazz are paying for it now.
On the other hand, Lindsey and his staff were visionary enough to have moved up in the 2017 draft to get Donovan Mitchell. Not only is Mitchell the absolute steal of a strong draft, he is the Jazz’s hope for what comes next.
In the absence of Gobert, it is the rookie who has taken the lead role for the Jazz.
As other veterans have struggled, Mitchell has jumped behind the wheel with gusto and thrived. He’s goofed like all rookies do, not quite ready to make all the right plays at all the right times to guide the Jazz to more wins than losses.
That’s a matter of time, not talent.
Meanwhile, as Mitchell is taking more and more control, again, without Gobert, those other available pieces have ebbed more than they’ve flowed.
Derrick Favors is a walking trade-in-waiting. He is in the last year of his deal, and it seems certain that the Jazz will not pay him, not just because that would be too much to shell out for the center position, Gobert already having received a $100-plus-million contract, but also because Favors cannot effectively work at the four in tandem with Gobert at the five.
Favors is unhappy with his current circumstance.
Rodney Hood has not had a horrible year statistics-wise, but he has been wildly inconsistent, having games in which he could not miss and games in which a blind man could have shot more efficiently. Given the expectations placed upon him in Hayward’s absence, he has not lived up to that bar. When he slapped the phone out of that fan’s hand after being thrown out of the game against the Wizards, his frustration in that moment was not momentary. His reaction to hearing boos at home the other night demonstrated even more how adversity has gotten to him.
Rubio cannot hit the perimeter shot, so that is what every opponent in the league gives him. Even though he is a gifted passer, he’s also entirely too casual with the ball, looking at times not as though he’s playing in an NBA game, rather that he’s down at the local 24 Hour Fitness, on a Saturday morning run with the fellas.
Joe Johnson appears to be a veteran who is not playing the role he wants to play — a key offensive force coming off the bench for a contending team or a team rising toward contention. The latter is what the Jazz were last season. It’s not what they are now.
The other Jazz players are spare parts, rolling bits and pieces in a junk drawer pulled out and tilted toward one corner, for the Jazz to sort through and determine who can be valuable to them moving forward and who cannot.
The most significant part of what’s left of the season is the development and connectivity between Mitchell and Gobert. Everything else revolves around them and that. They are the mainstays. How good they can be will determine, in large measure, how good the Jazz can be.
It’s a terrific place to start again, actually.
Don’t know how many teams around the league have a pair of players 25 and under who are better, more promising, than GoMitch. Whatever is beneficial for them is beneficial for the Jazz’s future. Adding one more shooter in a trade, and one potential star with a relatively high lottery pick in another strong draft, along with determining which of those role players are most useful, all under the direction of Quin Snyder, will shorten the climb.
Keep that in mind as the record skids and sinks and hope for a better tomorrow rises in the months ahead.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.