This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
Actually, amend that …
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.
“End” feels like the more appropriate word, considering the broader implications of the Utah Jazz’s latest postseason ouster.
But when Bojan Bogdanovic’s final shot of Thursday night’s Game 6 against Dallas came up a bit short, it served as an apropos microcosm of the Jazz’s season as a whole. What began with championship aspirations ended with yet another underwhelming playoff run.
“Ultimately, when the ball was rolled out, there were times this season when we didn’t show that we were a team that had championship aspirations,” said Donovan Mitchell.
And now … what, exactly?
There are heavy questions lingering over the team and the organization, which must be answered in the coming days and weeks and months.
Among the big-picture queries: Is this a franchise that missed its title-contention window on account of ill-timed injuries? Is it a team whose core has run its course? Has this particular assemblage of talent gone as far as it can?
Given that this iteration of the Jazz has never advanced beyond the second round, and given all the peripheral drama that has enveloped the roster this year, it’s natural to believe that substantive change must lie ahead.
Jordan Clarkson, asked postgame what he would like to carry over from this season to next?
“Honestly, nothing,” he replied after a few seconds of consideration. “Two years of hurt and losing — we’ve got to clear our minds of this, come back to the drawing board, and figure it out.”
Exactly how much should be and will be re-drawn remains to be seen.
But after a campaign that oftentimes felt like a joyless, tedious slog, it’s difficult to envision once again rolling with the primary core and trying to augment around the edges.
There has been near-constant discussion of locker room tension and generally bad chemistry — driven by a frosty relationship between the franchise cornerstones, not-so-veiled shots among players taken in the media, sometimes even shots taken at the media. There have been ever-present questions of star players’ futures, the head coach’s future, perhaps even the general manager’s future, now that a new CEO with final decision-making say was imported midseason.
“We’re a team that’s built on unity, and at times, we lost that,” acknowledged Mike Conley. “… We kind of fight ourselves on who we want to be and what we’re trying to do out there on a nightly basis.”
And all of this is before we even get to the perpetual trend of double-digit leads transforming into losses — or rather, the external narrative perpetrated by the media, fake news so off-base as to warrant a 19-minute pregame rant from Quin Snyder.
This team feels in need of a cleanse. But how deep will it go?
Let’s get granular.
First off, the biggie: Will both (or either) Mitchell and Rudy Gobert be back? Can they continue to co-exist? Do they want to? Does the front office want them to?
It’s hardly a secret that Salt Lake City is one of the smaller markets in the NBA, and theoretically, having a pair of relatively young, perennial All-Stars under contract for multiple more seasons should put the organization in an enviable position.
Do the Jazz feel like they’re in an enviable position right now?
Both are highly talented players, though perhaps not elite ones, which arguably imposes something of a glass ceiling on the team’s aspirations, given the sheer salary committed to the pair. Are they or can they become exceptional enough to elevate this team? It doesn’t appear likely at the moment. Their awkward interpersonal relationship makes their continued association not untenable, per se, but limiting.
Furthermore, a consideration of whether either or both should be moved must necessarily include as part of the equation their respective commitment to staying put. Gobert, when asked postgame Friday, said that his goal always has been and currently remains winning a championship in Utah, though he conceded that his future may not be in his own hands.
Mitchell, meanwhile, gave somewhat conflicting replies. When initially asked if he wants to be in Utah, the guard immediately answered, “Yeah.” When subsequently asked if he could definitively refute national media speculation that he could try to force a trade elsewhere, he replied, in part, “Right now, I’m not really looking at that. … I’ll think about it in a week and go from there, but right now, I’m not really thinking about any of that.”
Beyond moving one or both stars, Utah’s pathway to substantive change appears limited. General manager Justin Zanik (and subsequently CEO Danny Ainge) gambled that Gobert’s singular defensive brilliance paired with a collection of offensive firepower would prove the right formula. Clearly the recipe was off.
However, the team’s lack of point-of-attack perimeter defenders, long and switchable wings, et cetera, et cetera, is not easily remedied through either free agency or the draft. The team currently holds zero draft picks this season (the result of finally paying off the Conley trade, plus the cost of prior transactions). And its overstuffed salary cap situation ensures the team cannot be a major player in free agency.
Not that the Jazz’s previous marquee summer additions have been particularly helpful, as Derrick Favors required pairing with a future first to get his salary off the books, while Rudy Gay went from surefire small-ball solution to DNP-CD in every game of the Mavericks series.
Gobert, asked if this particular group had reached the extent of its capabilities, did not give a ringing endorsement of keeping the band together.
“I don’t know. We had a lot of talent last year and this year. This year we faced a little more adversity earlier in the season. I feel like we can be so much better than we’ve been, and that’s what’s really frustrating,” he said. “When you look at some of the talent in this room, and also the way that we can play, when you look back, it’s frustrating. You try to ask yourself why, why we can’t just be consistent.”
Of course, the lack of consistency could well extend to whomever is coaching whichever players happen to be here next year.
Snyder reportedly had an extension offer on the table from the franchise that he declined to sign. And he’s been linked to coaching jobs with several other franchises through multiple media reports.
It was long-assumed that Snyder’s potential return for another season with the Jazz would be up to him, but after the team’s uninspiring playoff performance, it’s not yet known whether that remains the case.
Snyder began his postgame remarks Thursday with an unprompted acknowledgment of appreciation: “I’m incredibly proud of this team, the way that we competed tonight. Obviously, the result speaks for itself, but it’s just been a pleasure coaching this group.”
When later asked if it was possible to begin looking ahead yet, he answered, “Sitting here 20 or 30 minutes after the game, you’re not looking forward. You’re feeling the moment.”
In the moments immediately following the game, no one wanted to look too far ahead.
They were more focused on the immediate past, and how it all went so horribly wrong.
“There were a lot of hurdles for us that we didn’t overcome,” said Mitchell. “Championship teams overcome adversity, and we weren’t able to do that — whether it was mentally, physically. And that’s on us.”
“You can’t make excuses. You can’t say COVID, you can’t say guys were in and out of the lineup — all that stuff, every team went through,” added Conley. “So for us, we wanted to be that team that made so many strides a season ago. But each year is different, each team is different. … We needed to be better in so many different aspects of adjusting, and raising our level in different parts of the season.”
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