The 2020-21 Utah Jazz wielded a sledgehammer.
And what a glorious sledgehammer they had. Their attack featured three All-Stars — Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They put terrific shooters around them — Bojan Bogdanovic, Georges Niang and Joe Ingles. Jordan Clarkson brought some shock and awe to proceedings, and Royce O’Neale and Derrick Favors brought rebounding, culture, and, when at their best, solid defense.
It can’t be emphasized enough, the extent to which the Jazz smashed opponents with impressive force during the season. At one point, they came one loss away from a 21-game winning streak. Later, they scored 154 points in one game, more than any Jazz team has ever scored. (They won that game against the Sacramento Kings by 49 points, also the largest margin of victory in team history.) Not only did the Jazz finish with the best record in the league, they finished with by far the biggest margin of victory in the league — one comparable to what the Golden State Warriors achieved in their heyday.
They were just blowing teams out. They were Gallagher to watermelons.
There was an impressive beauty to the Jazz’s shock-and-awe approach, too. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said they were where the Warriors were “three or four years ago” — on the cusp of being one of the elite teams the NBA has ever seen. Celtics coach Brad Stevens compared them to the championship San Antonio Spurs, so confident they were in moving the ball and finding the open man.
It’s a shame this wasn’t happening in front of capacity crowds at Vivint Arena, but those who saw it in person can attest: It was something special.
But even while this was happening, skeptics abounded about the Jazz being able to succeed in the playoffs. Some said that the Jazz simply lacked the superstar to compete with the best teams — a criticism that has proved unfounded, as the LeBron James-led Lakers and Kevin Durant-led Nets have fallen by the wayside in the early rounds.
Some, though, had a more nuanced criticism: The Jazz lacked the versatility to compete in the playoffs.
You see, the regular season is about establishing a consistent identity, and excelling at it.
The playoffs are Rock, Paper, Scissors. No matter how adept you are, teams are going to be able to provide an answer for you. Then, it’s about finding a counter to that answer — making adjustments, staying one step in front.
The Jazz, with their beautiful sledgehammer, brought their Rock. But the Clippers came into the second-round series capable of shapeshifting, thanks to their deep roster of useful players. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are versatile in their own right, but if coach Ty Lue needs size, he could play Ivica Zubac. Need shooting? Marcus Morris and Luke Kennard. Need ball pressure? Patrick Beverley. Need playmaking? Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers, correctly, identified the strategy that would beat Utah’s Rock — flat, spacious Paper. The Clippers played five players who they felt confident could switch on any of the Jazz’s scorers on the defensive end. On the offensive end, they would simply avoid Rudy Gobert by taking their shots from outside the paint, keeping five players outside the 3-point line most of the time. They completely and totally enveloped what the Jazz were good at, on both ends of the floor.
They won four straight games, sinking the sledgehammer. Yes, the Jazz had injury issues with Conley, Mitchell, and even Gobert by the end, but the Clippers were missing their superstar in the final two games, and the Jazz still just got run over.
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder received a lot of the blame for not being able to adjust to the Clippers’ approach, and certainly, Snyder wasn’t perfect, especially in the second half of an elimination Game 6. But in an article from way back in January, Ringer writer Kevin O’Connor wrote this about the Jazz:
“That goes back to Utah’s lack of versatility. The Jazz don’t have the frontcourt players to switch screens, removing an important defensive counter from their playbook. Gobert is more effective in the paint. So are Favors and Udoka Azubuike, the no. 27 pick in this year’s draft. The Jazz doubled down on what they do well when building their roster instead of trying to do as many different things as possible, making them vulnerable to the wrong types of matchups in the playoffs.”
He was prophetic — all Snyder had at his disposal was Rock. Favors was largely played off the court against the Clippers, providing no defensive answer. Azubuike was the team’s fourth center even when healthy — just too big, too slow, too unskilled. The Jazz absolutely could have used Desmond Bane or Jaden McDaniels against the Clippers, two versatile wing players of the type their opponent had in droves, and also the two players who were the obvious selections when the Jazz were on the clock.
O’Connor didn’t yet know about the Jazz’s trade deadline acquisition of Matt Thomas. The team used a second-round pick to acquire Thomas, who simply provided more of what the team already had: shooting, but no defense. Jazz president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey doubled down on his team’s identity, then tripled down, then quadrupled down.
Lindsey was asked about this approach the day after his team was eliminated, in the team’s annual end of season media availabilities. Did he wish that he would have added more versatility to the roster?
“Two-way players are very, very important to NBA clubs,” Lindsey said. “That’s why they come at really high premiums.”
“It’s part of the team building process,” general manager Justin Zanik added. “I appreciate you asking the question.”
But the Clippers just proved otherwise: Reggie Jackson, who scored 22 points and had 10 assists against the Jazz in just the second half of Game 6, was signed to a minimum deal after being waived by the Pistons. Nicolas Batum — one of Gobert’s closest friends — was signed to a minimum contract after being waived by the Hornets. Terance Mann was a second round pick just two years ago; he went two picks before Jarrell Brantley.
Sure, L.A.’s more of a glamour market than Utah, but the Jazz’s biannual exception went unused, the mid-level exception was used on Favors, and the Jazz’s pick assets were used on Azubuike and Thomas. The Jazz had opportunities to add these players — or other players like them, like Phoenix’s Torrey Craig, who was traded for cash at the deadline.
Lindsey has done a ton right with this roster: acquiring and keeping Mitchell and Gobert, finding Ingles and O’Neale off the scrap heap, trading for Clarkson … they’re all GM mantelpiece moves. But with the ingredients in place for a contending team, he should have done more to address a Plan B, to add versatility where it was clearly lacking.
Now, the Jazz come into an offseason with more limited choices than they’d prefer. They have the 30th pick in the draft at their disposal, and a smaller mid-level exception than they had last year, due to being over the luxury tax as extensions to Mitchell and Gobert kick in. That same tax may cost them the ability to retain Conley, unless new owner Ryan Smith is willing to pay multiples of that salary as penalties to the league. Coming out of this summer with a better roster than last season is possible, but certainly isn’t guaranteed — it will require adept management.
To have success next season, the Jazz will have to bring more versatility than they did in 2020-21. They’ll have to have Paper and Scissors at their disposal — even if it somewhat lessens the strength of their Rock.