What has to be different for the Jazz to win a title this year?
New Jazz head decision-maker Justin Zanik was asked that on Monday, as the Jazz’s season came to its official beginning on Media Day. And his answer was simple:
“If we’re healthy, we’re good. Really good.”
The Jazz didn’t have health during the playoffs last season. Mike Conley missed most of the second-round series against the Clippers due to a flare-up after a hamstring issue — one that Conley said was back to 100% just a week and a half after the Jazz’s season ended.
But more dramatic was a public dispute between the team’s medical staff, led by team vice president of performance health care Mike Elliott, and star guard Donovan Mitchell, about whether or not the player would suit up for Game 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies. Mitchell had sat the final month of the regular season after injuring his ankle against the Indiana Pacers, but publicly and privately maintained he’d be back by the playoffs.
The team held Mitchell out for that playoff opener, which frustrated him. The Jazz lost that game as well, putting further pressure on the decision, and they ultimately reversed course by starting him for Game 2.
In the end, it seemed Elliott and the team’s training staff was right to be concerned about the injury: while Mitchell put up stratospheric stats in the playoffs, it was clear he wasn’t quite moving right on the floor. And later, Mitchell tweaked the ankle, causing him obvious pain and defensive problems against the Los Angeles Clippers — problems that would contribute to the Jazz’s unsatisfying demise.
Elliott, the team announced Monday, is now out of the organization. A news release said he “decided to pursue other opportunities.” Eric Waters remains the team’s head athletic trainer, while former Salt Lake City Stars head trainer Jamal Cort has been promoted to be the team’s director of rehabilitation. Kristin Farrell is a new hire at the assistant athletic trainer position, after spending five years with the Memphis Grizzlies in a similar role. Barnett Frank remains the team’s director of performance science, while Isaiah Wright is still the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
“With the training staff, there wasn’t any impetus to change it because of any events last year. Look, injuries happen. With return to play, there’s always, you know, a bit of a debate and negotiation between players and doctors and health performance people. That that has nothing to do with it,” Zanik said. “Mike decided he wanted to pursue some other opportunities. This season was a grind for everyone. I don’t want to speak for him about what those personal things were. But our job here with the Jazz is to continue to put a world-class health care and performance program in place for our players.”
Mitchell, meanwhile, noted that most of the members of the team’s training staff for the 2021-22 season are those who have been around previously. Furthermore, things have been “great and seamless” so far as his personal training staff works with the Jazz’s, Mitchell said.
Perhaps some lessons were learned. The star guard noted that how the ankle injury played out — and its playoff ramifications on the Jazz — gave him a different perspective on the idea of sitting out than he had previously.
“It’s not in my DNA. That’s not my personality,” Mitchell said. “But it’s understanding that the goal is to be playing until June — whatever it takes to get there.”
In that quest, Mitchell used the offseason to get back to 100%. First, after the Jazz’s loss, he took three weeks completely off — no rehab, no basketball, just rest. That phase, he said, rejuvenated his passion for basketball.
Then he re-started his rehab process, skipping the Olympics to give himself the time to do so. And in August and September, Mitchell, along with teammates Royce O’Neale and Eric Paschall, have been in Miami doing offseason workouts with his chosen trainers: Chris Brickley and David Alexander. Those workouts might not be just like they were when he entered the NBA, but they’re still pretty vigorous.
“When we started off, (Mitchell) was one of those guys you had to lock out of the gym. His first year or two in the league, those offseasons were ridiculous. He was the only player I worked with that would start at 5 a.m. We’d go at 5 a.m. and go again at 2 p.m,” Brickley told BasketballNews.com. “And they were the most strenuous workouts. The guy pushes like no other. He’s still really young, but he’s had some injuries this past season, so it’s important to get his body right.”
Yes, Mitchell noted that his goals for his season go beyond just being healthy. He wants to show improvement, on both ends of the ball.
“I think there’s another level I can get to. I’ve said that every year, but I think that is the truth. For me, obviously, it’s being able to be more efficient. When you think of efficiency, it’s about shooting percentage typically, but for me it’s, turnovers, it’s defense,” Mitchell said. “I can do it on the offensive end, but picking it up defensively as well, I think will be huge.”
Brickley said that the pair worked on his finishing from all areas on the court.
“He’s kind of figured out how he gets his baskets in the league. He’s figured out his niche. So what we do is work on his strengths, but we also want to improve his three-point shot off-the-dribble and off-the-catch,” Brickley said. “He already has a few go-to moves, but we want to add a few more. And being able to finish around the rim, with floaters and runners, is such a big part of his game, so we want to perfect those also.”
Those he’s close to have been impressed with Mitchell’s work this offseason. And his workouts — and, of course, his health — have teammates excited about what Mitchell can do this season.
“He really had a lot of things going into the offseason that were bulletin board material,” Conley said. “All offseason he’s been training. He’s been locked in. And I know he’s excited to get back to work and show the world what he can do.”