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The Utah Jazz Have Broken The Cycle: The Downbeat #1589

The Utah Jazz have escaped the cycle of mediocrity, and not a moment too soon. Plus: why teams tank, #Fangirling, and FanPosts.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best things about being a Jazz fan these days is that the team has a clear trajectory: upward.

For a few years, it looked like Utah might be doomed to a eternal 8th-seed purgatory -- never good enough to really contend, never bad enough to bottom out. This led to situations like the end of the 2011-12 season, when the Jazz's "playoff push" led to five straight wins at the end of the lockout-shortened regular season (earning the Jazz the right to get swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs). Or the meaningless double-overtime "win" over the Timberwolves to end the 2013-14 season, which dropped the Jazz into a coin flip with the Celtics for the fourth pick in the draft.

I don't advocate "tanking," if by tanking you mean "losing on purpose." And I don't mean to dredge up the past. But I do believe developing teams need to consider how they win or lose. And the Jazz have not always been smart about doing so.

The good news is that this season, I feel like the Jazz have been very smart about developing and learning from every game, win or lose. And the team's play has born that out.

I mention all this because on Tuesday, Grantland's Zach Lowe published a lengthy column about the Celtics' seemingly strange decision to push for the playoffs in this season's weak Eastern Conference. Boston's situation isn't identical to the one the Jazz seem to be emerging from, but the comparison is instructive:

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston's trading spree of the last two years as "a masterpiece" in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks coming and oodles of cap space, they've drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They're still not good, but they're not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season's slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. "That's a concern for all 30 teams," Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. "It's the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune."

The good thing for Boston -- the mistake Utah made that they seem to be avoiding -- is they cashed in their veterans while they still had value, and are busy doing the work of identifying which young players have enough potential to build around. If they're winning now, at least they're doing it while giving minutes to players who need to prove (or disprove) themselves.

On the other hand, as Lowe points out, the Celtics don't really have any stars, current or potential:

Boston has a nice collection of talent, and Ainge has historically outperformed his peers picking in the middle and bottom of the first round. It's just hard to find stars there. Ainge is good enough to hit solid singles around no. 15, but singles don't change the course of a franchise. Hitting on Rondo at no. 21 or Rudy Gobert at no. 27 does.

Set aside the issue of the star vacancy, and ask yourself this: Does the current Celtics roster include a guy who could start for the next great Boston team? It probably does, since a league-average player can function as the fifth starter on a loaded contender, but it's unclear if any of Boston's guys project as anything more than that.

This is where the Jazz differ. Utah has Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors -- starting-caliber players for just about any team in the NBA, if not necessarily "stars." And they have Rudy Gobert, who has vaulted into the best-young-NBA-big-man conversation almost overnight. Even jettisoning Enes Kanter was proof that the Jazz were focusing their direction, winnowing the chaff from the wheat.

So while the Celtics push for the playoffs with talent that, by their own admission, will likely not be a part of their long-term plan, the Jazz can take each win or loss as it comes, treat it as a learning experience, and move on, confident in their direction. That's what has made this season fun. True, I've gotten used to winning since the All-Star break, and I now expect the Jazz to be competitive in just about every game they play. But wins and losses and playoff pushes don't really matter. Seeing the Jazz break the cycle of mediocrity -- that's what matters.

Then again, Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo's Ball Don't Lie says the main reason NBA teams tank is because NBA GMs have been stupid:

This is what happens when you let Dwight Howard run your franchise, or David Kahn, or Joe Dumars, or Doug Collins, or James Dolan, or when you basically give up on basketball while trying to sell your team. A goodly chunk of the NBA is in a bad place because the work of some lacking ex-GMs put their teams in bad places. Outfits in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York aren't guaranteed future success with the NBA draft still three months away, but these front offices had to start somewhere.

There are five to a side in basketball, stars matter, and there will always have to be 25-win teams. This is part of the reason why so many of us follow the NBA, and the biggest reason why comparisons to other sports or leagues are anachronistic at best and pointless at worst. The NBA's job right now, as it recovers from the work of so many executives who were stuck in 1991 while working in 2011, is to get smarter.

Not more unhinged. We've tried that already, and it didn't work.

Again, this is the good news for the Jazz: they've got young, strong leadership in place with Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder. And I don't think anyone would accuse either of them of being "stuck in 1991." The Jazz aren't Philadelphia, or Sacramento, or the Knicks, or the Lakers. However much the Jazz may have flirted with tanking in their recent history, it's over for the foreseeable future.

I mean, at least we don't have to react like this. (Click that link. I promise it'll make you happy.)

We have FanPosts this week! Hardwood18 has been watching the college game and wants to talk draftees:

We currently have our best depth at the SF position in Hayward and Hood. It would be ideal if you had 2 players that were ranked top 30 (starting caliber) running the point. Neither of our PG's are in the top 30. Our next best depth lies at PF in Favors and Booker. I feel our main area that needs immediate improvement is at the SG position. Burks has a unique ability to score but isn't a true shooting guard. I think most Jazz fans believe he is best suited as a 6th man spark off the bench. Unless we intend to play Hood at SG alongside Hayward, here are a list of candidates that we should target this summer.

Oregonjazzfan, meanwhile, has some potential trade scenarios for you to consider:

So here are possibilities to get another first round pick. I don't know if either is a good possibility and would like feedback.

Option 1 Brooklyn trades Joe Johnson and Atlanta's pick to the Jazz for cap space, filler contracts, and 2 later second round picks. Why Utah does it: Johnson is overpaid but the contract is only one more year and he might be a good veteran wing. Plus they get the pick. I have never heard any concerns about Johnson's character but would he take a lesser role in Utah and not cause problems in the locker room? Why Brooklyn does it: Massive tax savings. The second rounders are so Brooklyn can hope for a miracle and save face by getting something other than money savings back.

And Mykroberts gives us some observations on team progress, including these thoughts on Dante Exum (more on him in a moment):

Anyone else worried about Exum's offense? Obviously he is too young to panic and I didn't even expect him to be an average PG at this point. It is how he is playing that really bothers me - he is extremely passive and almost never tries moves to break down the defense.

Thanks for the posts, y'all. In gratitude, here is a dog playing Seven Nation Army.

Okay, so, Dante. While his defense has justified his current place in the Jazz starting lineup (to me, anyway; I won't speak for anyone else), there's no question that he needs to show more on the offensive end. Fortunately, as this piece from Aussie hoops site The Pick And Roll observes, Exum may have added a new move to his arsenal:

Throughout this season, Exum has always shown a very consistent game plan, when it comes to shooting. He lurks at the wings and corners for the open three-pointer (54.1% of his shots are catch and shoot), and is usually reluctant to shoot off the dribble. There's usually a good reason to not to shoot off the dribble, and making 1 of every 5 shots taken is a really, really solid reason.

Recently though, he's shown us something new. Something, that might be a real option next season. Behold, the stepback jumper.

Click through for the rest of the analysis, including a couple of game-film GIFs. (Disclaimer: Dante doesn't actually make the shots shown in the examples. But the point is that he gets off good, open looks with the move.)

This is just pretty and I will never get tired of watching it.