It wasn’t supposed to go this way. This essay was going to make a case for why the Utah Jazz could finally win a championship this season. But when it was all written out, the facts just didn’t line up. Can the Utah Jazz do it? Can they win it all? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Especially with the Warriors, Bucks, Nets, Suns, and 76ers, each possessing better rosters and deeper benches. What makes it scarier for Jazz fans is it seems the future of young star Donavan Mitchell hangs in the balance. Mitchell signed a five-year, $195 million extension with Utah in 2020. But signing that extension has become almost a prerequisite to any star eventually demanding a trade. It allows them to get the bag and run. So what needs to happen for Mitchell to stay? It almost seems like the Jazz have what it takes to win it all. Or at least get pretty damn close.
Why not? They are at least two tiers below the odds-on favorites Nets and Warriors to win it all, but they possess a stifling defense, superstar first-option, and a brilliant young coach. All the ingredients needed to make it happen. So what’s missing?
That’s where the confounding paradox of Rudy Gobert comes in. On paper, Gobert should be the second option on the Jazz. He’s certainly getting paid to be one on a five-year, $205 million extension. Yet, Gobert’s 16 ppg and 15 rpg aren’t enough in the eyes of NBA analysts to certify second-star status. He just doesn’t have the offensive game to torch teams on his own. Like most modern bigs, he needs a lead guard to initiate his offense. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the footwork or shooting touch to do it himself.
And those deficiencies might be the reason the Jazz fall short.
Everything else is there. Coach Quin Snyder is one of the best basketball minds around. He holds a .588 win percentage as a head coach with the Jazz, and his team routinely plays with passion and precision on both sides of the court. They rarely make mistakes, and the entire team plays with a high motor at all times. Snyder has gotten the most out of every player he’s coached, specifically Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson, who won Sixth Man of the Year last season. He’s even been behind Mike Conley Jr.’s rejuvenation as a secondary ball-handler.
Besides the aforementioned Clarkson and Conley, the rotation boasts three-and-D guy Royce O’Neale, sharpshooter, Bojan Bogdanovic, veteran role player Rudy Gay, and backup big Hassan Whiteside. Unfortunately, none of those names strike fear in the minds of opposing coaches. And perhaps that’s the problem. Collectively they are a group of solid veterans and two-way players. But the Jazz are the only contending team lacking a true secondary scorer — someone who can average 25 on their own in a playoff series.
We’ve seen one-man teams win championships before in 2011 with the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks and in 2019 with the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors. But as good as Mitchell is, he’s not at the level of those two 75th Anniversary-named players. Mitchell will need help come playoff time. Who will step up? Conley and Gay are way past their primes as secondary and tertiary options. Clarkson is good but not consistently great. He’s best served coming off the bench against opposing teams’ secondary units. That leaves Gobert, who neither has the skill set nor apparent motivation to be more than a rim-running lob threat.
If the Jazz can not be better than the sum of their parts, their roster will not outlast the deeper, more talented teams of Golden State and Phoenix. And if the Jazz fail to make it to the Western Conference finals, what happens to Mitchell? Does he begin to look elsewhere to fulfill a deep playoff run? The franchise is financially committed to this current bunch for the foreseeable future. It’s currently too good to improve through the lottery and not big enough of a market to attract major free agents. Even if they were, who would come? And at what cost? And would it even be enough? These are the questions the Jazz front office, coach Snyder, and Mitchell will ponder during and after the playoffs.
Unless Gobert develops much-improved footwork or a hook shot, the scoring load will once again fall on Mitchell to rise to the occasion. We’ve seen it once before, like when he went supernova in the Bubble against the Denver Nuggets, averaging 36 ppg on 53 percent shooting from the field, 52 percent from three, and 95 percent from the line in a seven-game slugfest. But that ended up with a first-round exit because the guy he was dueling with, the Nuggets Jamal Murray, also had Nicola Jokić on his team.
And can he? The Jazz are easier to gameplan for in a seven-game series when it’s obvious everything will run through Mitchell. Unless they get lucky and play another one-man team like the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, it might be another early exit. It’s a shame, the Jazz have every necessary element a team needs to win it all. Snyder is a top 10 coach. Gobert is a Defensive Player of the Year. Mitchell is a true first-option superstar. And the rest of the Jazz are championship-caliber role players.
But what separates contenders from pretenders is usually having or lacking a top 10 player in the NBA. And what separates a contender from a champion is having a Robin to a Batman. If no one from the Jazz roster steps up to the role this postseason, the Jazz are in fear of losing their Batman as well.