National consensus is the Utah Jazz fell short of expectations, but there’s still optimism

Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell celebrates the team's win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

If there’s one passage from any one story about the Utah Jazz’s season that wraps it all up, it’s this:

“Utah lost a series it ought to have won, and its big bet this season failed. But the story isn’t completed just yet. There’s still time for success.”

That’s what NBA writer Tom Ziller said about the local team after its disappointing Game 7 defeat to the Denver Nuggets, after leading the series 3-1. And it’s accurate on every count — the season for the Jazz is nationally being regarded as a disappointing one, but one that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Jazz’s chances at winning next year are bunk.

The seven-game battle between the teams was regarded highly. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor called it “epic,” while Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey said it was “one of the greatest playoff battles in NBA history.”

That’s something viewing audiences agreed with too: Game 7 drew 3.4 million viewers on ABC, one of the most-watched games in the NBA’s restart despite taking place between two of the NBA’s smaller markets.

Perhaps that was because of the effort displayed, something The Athletic’s Joe Vardon was most impressed with. Vardon pointed out that the Nuggets and Jazz had been in the bubble for 57 days, and had missed girlfriends, wives, and children during that time. And yet — they wanted to continue.

“This one was ’unlike any other Game 7 in NBA history,’ Denver coach Michael Malone said. Why? Because for the first time ever, it would have been entirely understandable for either of these teams to pack it in to get the hell out of this Disney bubble. And that’s not what happened,” Vardon wrote.

No one forgot the tumultuous path that got the Jazz to Game 7 in the first place. Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 shook up the NBA, and Mitchell’s positive test that followed shook up the Jazz. Reports said that Mitchell and Gobert’s relationship was strained, and there was early evidence toward that on the court. But in Game 7, as Mitchell carried the Jazz into the game and Gobert made huge plays on both ends, there was a shared passion for what the other was doing.

That was reflected in a post-series report from Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, who wrote that “The relationship between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert has been rebuilt. Team sources have described the vibe between the two stars as “great” these last two months. Both seemed to have moved past the drama that unfolded last March. ... The two have never been best friends, but by all accounts, Utah’s two cornerstones are in a good place.”

If they are, then they need help from the rest of the roster. Ziller wrote about Mike Conley’s struggles during the season, and while he was one of Utah’s best players in the series overall, his poor night (2-of-13 shooting) stood out in Game 7.

“Conley looked like a brilliant fit when the Jazz traded two firsts and useful role players for him, a lead guard who could help Donovan Mitchell manage a high-end offense while providing strong locker room leadership and great defense,” Ziller wrote. “Instead, all season, Conley’s presence unintentionally disrupted the Jazz’s best lineups and his poor performance helped sink Utah in the playoffs. He was, it turns out and against all prior evidence to the contrary, a really bad fit with the Jazz.”

Of course, Bojan Bogdanovic’s absence was universally noted and bemoaned as something that could have created a telling advantage for Utah in the series. And there was a desire to see Utah’s management add some talent to the core elsewhere on the roster.

“But the front office has shown some courage and pluck, so the team will be remixed in some fashion going into next season, and Bogdanovic should be back, and this is a definite playoff team at worst and maybe a Tier 2 contender with some breaks or a full season of Mitchell playing like he did through most of this series,” Ziller wrote. “The Jazz remain a work in progress, and despite the loss there’s no reason to believe the finished piece will anything short of lovely.”

That’s something Mannix agreed with as well: “Are the Jazz championship level? Not yet, but internal development alone could get them there. And after the team seemed on the verge of collapse last March, that’s not a bad way to end a season.”

Yes, the Jazz failed to meet expectations this year. But from a national perspective, with Mitchell raising his scoring ceiling, hope springs eternal.

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