The Phoenix Suns were title contenders. They were the NBA’s best team this season. They won eight more games than anybody else. They were dominant in close games. They seemed to have all of the offensive and defensive answers all season long.
And they just got sent home by the Dallas Mavericks — just like the Utah Jazz. So ... are the Jazz closer to being the NBA’s best team than we thought they were?
It’s a point of view Jazz head coach Quin Snyder might agree with.
“I thought that our record didn’t necessarily reflect what we could do in the playoffs. I felt like we were this close,” Snyder said, snapping his fingers, “to just having a spark and kicking it in and finding that unity or that kind of extra secret sauce, and taking off.”
As Snyder spoke with reporters last week, in the wake of the team’s first-round exit, he also pointed to numerous statistics that showed just how unlucky the Jazz were in their first-round series — essentially, boiling down to the Jazz missing their open shots while the Mavericks hit theirs. This truly does make sense: shotmaking can have a big degree of randomness to it. Shotmaking is also the defining aspect of whether or not teams win games in basketball. Snyder’s argument is logically sound.
Even as I watched Luka Doncic carve up the vaunted Suns, the same way he and the Mavs carved up the Jazz, it still felt clear to me the biggest issues with this Jazz team are not random.
It is not random when Donovan Mitchell takes numerous bad shots, of his own accord, at the end of games. It is not random when he simply doesn’t show defensive effort, instead letting Mavericks drive and score right by him.
It is not random when Rudy Gobert averages just 5.5 shots per game in the playoffs, due to a combination of his own lack of ability to score one-on-one and his teammates’ inability and/or unwillingness to find him. It is not random that the Mavericks were able to pull him out of the paint during the series, limiting him to just 1 block per game after averaging 2.1 during the regular season.
It is not random that Mike Conley, a 34-year-old player, had the worst playoffs of his career — not just from a shotmaking perspective, but also a playmaking and defensive perspective as well. It is not random that a 35-year-old Rudy Gay had already declined so much that the coach thought it was best he didn’t play a minute in the series — and that he was probably right.
It is not random that the team’s supposed-best perimeter defender, Royce O’Neale, proved capable of defending nobody of note. It is not random that the man team executives believed could supplant or reduce O’Neale’s minutes, Danuel House Jr., an NBA free agent three months ago, also left something to be desired.
It is not random that a team built to prioritize offense over defense at all positions but one turns out to be a poor defensive unit, when exploiting individual defenders becomes more highly emphasized. It is not random that a team built to prioritize skill over athleticism at nearly every turn has proven to be repeatedly physically outclassed.
Frankly, it’s not random that the team sniped at each other to media both traditional and social — and then had “unity” issues, as Conley put it, in the playoffs.
And yet — maybe this makes me a gullible idiot — but you know what Despite all that, you could get me on board if this were the first disappointing Jazz team of this era.
The Jazz do have moments when they look like world-beaters, when Mitchell goes supernova or Gobert shuts down the world. They have moments when their offensive orchestra is overwhelming, when the play design, playmaking, and shooting looks like enough to beat anybody.
But after you get a 2-1 series deficit to the Mavericks without Luka Doncic, and lose two consecutive games to the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, and lose a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, I become more skeptical. Add to that all of the problems the Jazz had before then with the 5-out Rockets and 5-out Warriors, and, well, the sample size is actually quite large at this point.
Even if you ignore the past, it’s difficult to imagine how the future gets stronger without taking steps back. The Jazz have no draft picks this offseason; their 2024 first-round pick is likely gone as well after the Derrick Favors trade. The Jazz are over the cap, so they’ll essentially have only the mid-level exception to be able to add contributing pieces in the free agent market. Worse, Hassan Whiteside and House are free agents this summer, and the Jazz don’t have Bird rights to be able to resign them — that spare MLE may have to go to keeping players they already have here.
Gobert turns 30 in a month — his contract will become more onerous for the Jazz moving forward. Jordan Clarkson turns 30 in June as well. Conley’s clearly already taken multiple steps back. How much longer can Bojan Bogdanovic hang on at 33 years old? If we’re being objective, Gay’s already more likely to be washed than not.
Mitchell’s now transitioned from young to young-ish: he will be 26 by the time next season begins. Players don’t typically make huge leaps from here, and Mitchell finished just 34th in the league in Win Shares last season. If he does, it will require a big mental adjustment for the young star to contribute more consistent and smarter effort on both ends of the floor. And the Jazz’s other youth — Trent Forrest, Jared Butler, Udoka Azubuike — look somewhat short of starter-caliber.
If you believe Snyder, that the Jazz were just a snap of the fingers from a significant run, then they’ll need to stay at least at that level moving forward. Unfortunately, it’s hard to look objectively at the situation and believe that significant improvement next season is likely. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
That’s where I keep coming back to when I think of this Jazz season. Yes, to me, the Mavericks’ second-round success makes this year’s Jazz first-round playoff series failure feel better. Misery loves company, and the Jazz and Suns are both home earlier than they wanted.
Adding in the context of where the Jazz stand, though? The Suns’ loss, which happened for their own reasons, doesn’t minimize the Jazz’s issues. The temporary schadenfreude can’t erase the writing on the Jazz’s wall.
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