Typically, after an NBA team’s season comes to an end, the next day sees them gather together to clean out their lockers and to take turns answering questions from the media, about what went wrong, what they’ll be working on with their games over the summer, whether the impending free agents of the group want or expect to be back …
This season, of course, has been anything but typical, and with the Utah Jazz’s season having ended in the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., such questions had to be squeezed in with everything else in the minutes immediately following Tuesday night’s Game 7 loss to the Nuggets — a time when players were rightly not at their most forward-thinking.
As an example, in April 2019, a day after concluding an unsightly 4-1 loss to the Rockets, we discovered that Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Dennis Lindsey had deemed it important to target at least one “sniper” for acquisition to bolster the shooting; and that while Ricky Rubio loved his time in Utah, he did not anticipate it continuing. Nothing quite so bold was uttered Tuesday night. And so it is that we go into this offseason knowing a bit less than we typically do.
Which is not to say we didn’t learn anything.
For starters, All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell vocalized what many were thinking — that if not for a season-ending injury to sharpshooting forward Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz believe that things might have played out very differently; like, say, not scoring only 78 points in an elimination game.
“With Bojan coming back — not putting everything on Bojan — but with him coming back, it’s another weapon,” Mitchell said. “This won’t happen again.”
Still, Bogey’s eventual return is a given. As for the things that are not, the third-year guard acknowledged that his evolution into a bona-fide superstar has been driven in part by personal slights and criticisms, which has felt compelled to go out and prove people wrong. His next mission? Now that he’s proven himself to be a top-flight bucket-getter, he’s eager to demonstrate equal prowess on the other end of the court.
He acknowledged the irony of such a goal, considering he came into the league with a defense-first reputation, but also believes it’s imminently possible, noting that what we saw from him against Denver “is me scratching the surface.
“I think [it will] take my game to another level, being able to play both ends of the floor. I feel like that was the reason why I was drafted, to play defense, that was why I was picked,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t picked to do what I’m doing [with the scoring], and I kind of evolved into that. But conditioning, getting my body right for that next level, and continuing just to build chemistry.”
Speaking of which, there was instant chemistry between the Jazz and high-scoring sixth man Jordan Clarkson from the moment he joined the team via trade from Cleveland just prior to Christmas. Though there were questions about a union between coach Quin Snyder’s highly-structured offense and a guy renowned for being a remorseless chucker, the fit proved seamless.
Clarkson almost single-handedly transformed a moribund and underachieving bench unit into at least a competent one — at times anyway. However, when the Jazz traded for him, they knew he was in the last year of his contract, an impending unrestricted free-agent-to-be.
While there is interest on the Jazz’s side in retaining him, and while Clarkson has expressed enjoyment of his time with the team, he was also noncommittal about his first-ever foray into free agency.
“It was definitely a great experience being here with the team, coming in December, me just finding my place here,” he said. “… For me, I can’t tell the future or anything like that, but whatever happens, happens. It’s a business. I know I had a great experience here, great time here, I love my teammates here, so definitely see what happens and, you know, it’s kind of my first time actually going into a free agency, so definitely a whole new experience for me.”
Indeed, whatever reshaping of the roster that is done in the coming months will absolutely have to take chemistry into account. That’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, considering how often Lindsey extols the virtues of players with “Jazz DNA.”
Then again, considering how fractured the team was thought to be in the wake of Mitchell and Gobert’s personal drama relating to their positive COVID-19 diagnoses, having multiple people at season’s end citing chemistry as one of the team’s strengths is not to be overlooked.
“For our team to not give up and keep going after what we’ve been through — the pandemic, Bojan [being sidelined by injury], Mike [Conley] dipping off for a baby — we’ve had a lot going on as a team, and I wouldn’t want to play for another team,” said Joe Ingles.
“We went from being an ‘unsalvageable’ team three months ago to this, and I don’t think anybody outside of us expected that,” Mitchell added.
Gobert said he believed that most teams would have splintered after going through what the Jazz did, and noted that he and Mitchell being able to leave all that behind and come together on the court is “very encouraging for the future.”
Of course, renewed and reinforced chemistry can only take a team so far, even with Bogdanovic’s return. In the coming days, Lindsey and general manager Justin Zanik will be questioned about contract extensions for Mitchell and Gobert, retaining Clarkson, and furthering bolstering the bench production around him. There are myriad improvements yet necessary for the Jazz to become legitimate championship contenders.
Gobert, meanwhile, displayed zero reticence in proclaiming that the players who do return will attack their individual improvement plans with the zealous fanaticism of those determined to reach the top.
“We came up short, but I have no doubt that we’re going to win a championship,” he said. “It might be painful right now, but I guarantee that all of us will come back better — I’m going to come back better — and we’re going to do anything we can that’s in our power to be a better team next year.”