Jazz forward Jae Crowder knows what good NBA teams look like, having played recently for Boston and Cleveland.
Crowder cited only geography when asked what those clubs have that the Jazz lack.
“Yeah, they’re playing in the Eastern Conference,” Crowder said Wednesday as the Jazz conducted exit interviews at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus. “It makes a difference.”
Utah is not scheduled to move East, barring seismic shifting, so the Jazz’s challenge of competing with Golden State and Houston remains intact.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey believes the metrics that say the Jazz are somewhere between the third- and sixth-best teams in the NBA. The reality is that Golden State and Houston are “clearly in front of us,” Lindsey said. “To be the last team standing, you’ve got to go through the best teams.”
Yet after the Jazz’s strong finish gave them a 48-34 record and a first-round playoff series victory over Oklahoma City, Lindsey said, “We have a starting point to build from.”
That’s encouraging. Joe Ingles said the Jazz are “steps ahead” of where they were last September, when they were regrouping after the loss of Gordon Hayward and other players.
They technically have advanced by only one game vs. the West’s No. 1 seed, having been swept by Golden State last May and taken Houston to five games this season. Asked what’s separating the Jazz from the top of the West, Ingles said, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a gap.”
There’s certainly some kind of gulf, but it is shrinking. “We were really close,” said veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha, who missed much of the season with a knee injury.
The win over OKC and the reasonably competitive series with Houston “shows that we are an elite team at this point,” Sefolosha said. “The talent level is there, the commitment level is there. … We definitely have a chance to compete with the top teams in this league.”
Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota were said to have improved themselves much more than the Jazz last summer, and the Jazz lasted longer in the playoffs than any of them.
So what’s next? My best suggestion would be to flip the calendar ahead to 2020, when the Jazz will be better and the Warriors and Rockets will be older and theoretically worse.
Yet because the Jazz have fulfilled my summer requests rather well lately, I’ll submit another one. I asked for veteran leadership in 2016, and Lindsey delivered George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. They helped the Jazz go from 40 wins to 51, plus the franchise’s first playoff series victory in seven years.
I wanted a permanent solution to the point guard position in 2017, and here came Ricky Rubio.
This summer’s wish is for another scorer — a bucket-getter, like Johnson, only not a player in his style. The Jazz need a playmaking forward who will take pressure off Donovan Mitchell. The rookie’s emergence and coach Quin Snyder’s system made this team far more capable offensively than I ever imagined, but there’s more to do in an effort to match the Warriors or Rockets.
Mitchell promised that learning from some of his struggles against Houston would keep him from being complacent. This won’t be “a victory-lap summer,” he said.
The rookie’s development overshadows everything else about the Jazz’s 2017-18 season, and happily so. Next comes Rubio’s performance, in spite of — or maybe because of — his absence from the Houston series with a hamstring injury.
The Jazz have used 13 starters at the position for various periods since February 2011, when they traded Deron Williams: Devin Harris, Mo Williams, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson, John Lucas III, Trey Burke, Danté Exum, Raul Neto, Alec Burks, Shelvin Mack, Hill, Rubio and Mitchell.
Rubio summarized his first NBA playoff experience as “the best moment of my career and one of the worst.” Asked what it was like emotionally to watch that series from the bench, Rubio said, “It’s tough to say, but I went through hell.”
Rubio described the feeling as “something burned inside of me” as he believed he “let my teammates down.”
Hill never said anything like that last May after missing the last three games of the Golden State series with a toe injury. That’s what is different about Rubio, who promised to use that disappointment to drive his improvement through the summer, especially now that he knows what the Jazz want from him.
Looking toward the Jazz’s future, Rubio said, “This is just getting started.”