The Utah Jazz boast both one of the NBA’s most prodigious young flamethrowers in Donovan Mitchell and arguably the league’s premier rim-protector in Rudy Gobert.
And yet, this remains a team that cannot seem to achieve simultaneous sustained excellence on both offense and defense, with years of double-big lineups producing elite guarding but inadequate firepower, followed by a roster overhaul that embraced small-ball shooting and yielded unmatched weaponry but insufficient deterrence.
Either way, postseason frustration and heartbreak have been the constant result.
In the aftermath of the Jazz’s preseason-closing victory over the Clippers on Thursday, coach Quin Snyder made a comment that was specific to that night’s proclivity toward 3-point prowess, but which could, in all honesty, serve as a larger mission statement of the team’s present status:
“You have to find a balance,” he said.
That pretty well sums it up. Question is, when their games get rolling for real on Wednesday in Portland, will this finally be the season they manage it? Will this finally be the time they take that much-needed next step toward championship contention?
They’re certainly taking a good game:
“Defense has got to be the part that carries us,” Bojan Bogdanovic said.
“[We are] just trying to find an identity, and emphasizing the offensive end,” added Jordan Clarkson.
Still, those seemingly oppositional ideas may well both be true. The team’s offseason machinations looked a promising-if-not-perfect reflection of that idea, anyway.
Most crucially, they retained sixth-man extraordinaire Clarkson, last year’s second-unit microwave whose addition elevated the offense into rarefied air; they reunited with big man Derrick Favors, whose defensive acumen will afford Utah opportunities to sit Gobert without disaster, and whose offensive synergy with Joe Ingles should yield some easy buckets; and they took a flier on perimeter defensive ace Shaq Harrison, who should, if nothing else, provide a consistently tangible skill, as opposed to the tantalizing but ultimately maddening inconsistency of predecessor Emmanuel Mudiay.
THE JAZZ WILL SUCCEED IF ...
They finally find the right mix of offensive explosiveness and defensive stinginess. Also, the depth on this year’s roster must more effectively carry the team through those times when not everyone is available — due to injury, needed rest from the compacted schedule, or short-handedness owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
THE JAZZ WON’T SUCCEED IF ...
Their defense doesn’t take a dramatic step forward. Their lack of size hurt them in the regular season. Their lack of perimeter speed hurt them in the playoffs. Did they sufficiently address the latter? The offense should be among the league’s best again, but can the defense return to form? Also, can this roster withstand an extended absence by any key player? We shall see.
The Jazz have made it clear — another early postseason ouster, no matter the reason, would represent a serious failure. They bring back two All-Stars. Their secondary scorer is healthy again. Their point guard is acclimated. Their high-scoring sixth man returns. They’ve shored up the backup big spot that so often decimated hard-earned advantages last season. This team ought to be better than it was a year ago. It still feels a step or two behind the league’s elite teams, however.
Meanwhile, the return from injury of sharpshooting forward Bogdanovic almost feels like yet another significant addition, while the fully-realized acclimation of Mike Conley has been a frequent talking point in recent weeks.
Does that add up to better balance and an improved team, though? The Jazz believe so, but admit that they’ll have to see the team in action against legitimate opposition in order to make an accurate determination.
“As far as expectations go, water always finds its level, the competition always tells us the truth,” executive vice president Dennis Lindsey noted. “With that said, we’re very comfortable with the group that we’ve put together, and hopefully we’ll make a good account for ourselves.”
In effect, there is an organizational belief that this year’s roster gives Snyder an invaluable combination of continuity, experience, and flexibility.
Inserting Favors into the midst of a group that vaulted to the league’s No. 1 offensive rating, post-Clarkson, acquisition seems to be a primary ingredient in this new recipe for progress.
“With Fav, it just opens up a lot of things. For all I know, with Quin’s crazy mind, we might start different guys each game,” Ingles said. “It might be a matchup thing — like, obviously, the Lakers start big, so maybe Fav starts those games but not [against] other teams that are playing small. I definitely think it gives us more options with Fav.”
Favors, for his part, was quick to interject that others will handle the heavy lifting — he’s just here to shore things up around the margins.
“We’re pretty good [defensively] right now — we still have more work to do,” he said. “Of course, with Rudy out there, we’re a top-five defensive team, but coming off the bench, I want to make sure that we don’t drop off too far.”
Gobert, who prides himself on being one of the league’s elite defenders but who also pines openly for greater offensive opportunity, is naturally embracing the duality of the Jazz’s path forward. On the one hand, he states plainly, “The goal is for us to be the best defensive team in the league.” On the other, he confidently asserts that he “can be better at attacking my man,” and that, “Being able to knock down the midrange is something that I’ve been working on for many years, and I think now it’s time to put it to use.”
Snyder has promised better utilization of the likes of Bogdanovic, Conley, and Clarkson in their second year in his program now that he has a firmer grasp of their strengths and preferences, and pointed specifically to his point guard as a player who can help the team find better balance this time.
While most of the focus on Conley last season revolved around his early shooting struggles followed by his extreme efficiency beyond the arc in the playoffs, his coach has an eye geared toward Conley’s performance on the other side of the ball.
“I want him to be aggressive and instinctive — I think that’s when he’s at his best,” Snyder said. “And one thing that he’s really been committed to, and he was in the bubble and even the time off hasn’t changed that, is defensively. He can have a presence on the ball, and that’s something that really helps our team.”
Conley then continued the falling-dominoes pattern of tying the team’s ultimate fate to the impact of another, noting that he is only the secondary member of his own backcourt, and that the continuing ascension of Mitchell is what will ultimately drive the Jazz’s fortunes.
“Donovan, the year he had last season and then moving into this year, he’s a better leader, he’s a better player, a better person overall, and we’re just excited to see where he continues to grow and continues to progress,” Conley said. “Because the sky’s the limit for him, and we can go as far as he takes us.”
To bring it all full-circle, Mitchell — whose supernova scoring outburst in last year’s postseason got the league buzzing — naturally claimed that “the biggest thing is we’ve got to make sure that defense is something that carries us.”
Still, though, the process only matters to him inasmuch as it generates the associated results. Opening-round playoff eliminations won’t cut it now.
“We blew a 3-1 lead. We lost in the first round. And there’s no time for that. There’s no time for slow starts. We can’t be complacent when we’re up. And we’ve got to start focusing more on the details when we’re down. We’ve got to continue to play the same way throughout,” Mitchell said. “Keeping the same consistency on the defensive end, on the offensive end, focusing on the little details, and not backing down from it. There’s no day where we can have that lapse. … There’s no easing my way into this. We need to come out ready to go because losing in the first round just ain’t it no more.”
In the end, so long as the Jazz take the concrete steps toward their ambition of bringing a Larry O’Brien championship trophy to Utah, nothing else matters.
It’s not about offense vs. defense, big-big lineups vs. small-ball; no, the real balance they seek is squaring the talent on the team with the heights they intend to reach.
JAZZ UNDER QUIN SNYDER
2014-15 • 38-44 (.463); no playoffs
2015-16 • 40-42 (.488); no playoffs
2016-17 • 51-31 (.622); beat Clippers 4-3, lost to Warriors 4-0
2017-18 • 48-34 (.585); beat Thunder 4-2, lost to Rockets 4-1
2018-19 • 50-32 (.610); lost to Rockets 4-1
2019-20 • 44-28 (.611); lost to Nuggets 4-3