It was the 3rd of July. The Utah Jazz had just impromptu flown Ricky Rubio from Spain to join Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Dennis Lindsey, and the rest of the Jazz’s brass at Gordon Hayward’s California abode to make their pitch to the free agent swingman that Utah would be his best landing spot for the rest of his career. The Jazz wanted to prove that they had built the perfect team for the 7th year swing man.
They showed off their newly acquired pass first point guard, Ricky Rubio, whom Hayward had said he’d love to play with. They pointed to Gobert as their 21st century Mark Eaton who’d cover Hayward’s six on the perimeter for the rest of his career. They pointed to Joe Ingles who had been a good friend, teammate, and three point marksman to Hayward over the past few years. After their presentation, they returned home to Salt Lake City wondering if what they had done was enough.
Once back on the ground in Utah, Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio even made a surprise appearance at the Utah Jazz’s summer league game against the San Antonio Spurs. They had to have felt the tension in the air and with the fans at that summer league. Danny Ainge was there at that game in Utah watching his young summer league roster filled with lottery picks. It had the feel of letting a fox in the henhouse. There was Danny Ainge in Utah as he was actively recruiting away there best player. While fans at that arena were analyzing Danny Ainge’s every smile, every grimace, and casual glance at his phone, there was something special happening on the court in that meaningless exhibition game between Utah and San Antonio.
There’s no way Utah knew at that time, but that meaningless summer league game was going to be the first sign of something special. There’s no way the Utah Jazz could have known that their best recruiting tool was not in that room with Gordon Hayward in Southern California. No, he was playing in a college arena and showing out against a no name San Antonio Spurs’ summer league roster. Donovan Mitchell scored 23 points in that game. He made it look easy. He shot 10 for 17 from the field, pulled down two rebounds, dished out five assists, and added three steals. He was spectacular.
His performance in that game was enough to make Jazz fans forget that the largest free agency decision their franchise had faced since Karl Malone was to be decided the next day for just a short period. Little would Jazz fans know that his heroics would prove to be a miraculous salve on their broken hearts for an entire season.
Then, less than 24 hours later, Gordon Hayward’s indecisive decision would rock Utah and sent aftershocks through the rest of the Jazz’s free agency pursuits. Utah missed out on additional free agents because of Hayward’s pride/indecision/doubt (whichever you believe) when his choice to go to Boston was leaked before he could release his trivial blog post that thanked Utah by only naming one Jazz player who hadn’t been with the team for two years. Donovan Mitchell would have an epic summer league, but due to Hayward’s decision to leave Utah for Boston, it was relegated to a silver lining narrative, not front page worthy.
One has to wonder ... if Gordon Hayward and the Utah Jazz knew just how special Donovan Mitchell could be, would that meeting between Utah and Gordon Hayward have gone differently. Imagine if Utah won the lottery—they basically did by drafting Mitchell—but if they were talking to Hayward right after they drafted the #1 prospect in the NBA Draft, does that change his belief in this Utah team because of draft position?
Looking at this season, it’s hard not to say at times, “What the Jazz could use is another playmaker who has the ability to get points off the dribble, rebound, and make the open—oh god, I’m talking about Gordon Hayward.” The fit of Donovan Mitchell with Gordon Hayward would have been spectacular. But one has to wonder, would it have even have happened? With Hayward, Donovan Mitchell is struggling to get opportunities. Hayward would have a more vocal say if Donovan went hero mode. Would there be tension? Then there’s Mitchell’s charm. He can win anyone over. But how does that coincide with Hayward who keeps to himself and is a bit of a hermit?
What ifs aside, Utah’s brutal offseason hid their prize rookie in plain sight. Donovan Mitchell had an epic summer league, but he wasn’t talked about as much because he wasn’t in Utah’s offseason narrative. Having a star rookie didn’t fit the “Utah’s not good without their best player” narrative. Honestly, it was hard for the most fan of fans to believe it as well. I even predicted 47 wins and 35 losses for this team, but wrote it more of a manifestation of what I wanted out of pure spite for Hayward abandoning the Utah Jazz franchise rather than believing that Utah had a chance to be a playoff team, let alone this kind of buzzsaw.
Then the regular season got here. Donovan Mitchell’s opening month was atrocious. Atrocious when comparing it to his normal output, but not atrocious in terms of a rookie. The Utah Jazz didn’t have a scorer. During their opening month of the season they struggled to manufacture points. Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert all tried their hand at it, all failed. Then in November, like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, Donovan Mitchell took over. He went from having a good night for a rookie to two good nights for a rookie to holy **** what a stretch of games this rookie has had to DONOVAN FREAKING MITCHELL. In the course of a month, Donovan Mitchell became the face of the franchise, the leading scorer, and the leader on this team. He became Utah.
That didn’t translate into wins, though.
Utah was struggling through injuries whether it was to Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, or Raul Neto. Utah’s brutal December was just about to get rolling. Utah had the most difficult schedule for any NBA team in any month with their run through December and they completed it without Rudy Gobert with a rookie leading their team while shorthanded at point guard and at the wing. By the end of the December, they were a dead team walking. They entered the new year seemingly on a one way collision course with the NBA lottery. By the time they had lost to the Atlanta Hawks, they were 9 games under .500 and it seemed like the appropriate point to throw in the towel.
The NBA Trade Deadline was approaching and it looked like a good enough time as any to blow up the team and build around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. The Utah Jazz were closer to the #1 pick in the NBA Draft than they were the 8th seed in the NBA Playoffs. Then this Utah team got a gift of something it hadn’t had in years: health.
Rudy Gobert came back from injury. With a rejuvenated Rudy Gobert, a rookie who had just been through the NBA’s refiner’s fire of December, and a point guard in Rubio who just can’t quit, the Utah Jazz began their march up the standings. It started with a last stand against Detroit in overtime. Then they beat the Raptors in Toronto relying on the outside shooting of Ricky Rubio. Rudy Gobert began his defensive of the year campaign by absolutely putting in a defensive effort worth of Mark Eaton’s adoption papers. They spun off 11 straight wins before the All-Star game. Their hot streak even forced Dennis Lindsey to alter his trade deadline plans to find a player who could contribute to their newfound success now rather than later. Rodney Hood was flipped for Jae Crowder. Joe Johnson was released to make room for Jae Crowder’s minutes.
Donovan Mitchell showed out at the dunk contest and became a household name and a Dunk Contest star. The Utah Jazz then busted out the post all-star break buzzsawing through their easier schedule—unless you were the Portland Trail Blazers or the Atlanta Hawks. Utah miraculously rose up in the standings to the 5th seed after being as close as you can to dead on the operating table. The Utah Jazz found key contributors in Royce O’Neale, Jonas Jerebko, and Thabo Sefolosha. Even though Thabo went down with an injury, Utah’s next man up mentality kept their streak going. With the help of Quin Snyder, Ricky Rubio even had the biggest transformation of them all: from pass first point guard to scoring guard, averaging 40% from three point land.
Once in the playoffs, the Utah Jazz showed how dangerous a team can be that’s playing with house money. Utah was never supposed to make it this far. They were supposed to have been dead after Hayward. They were very much alive. They were supposed to be done after the injuries. They weren’t. They were supposed to give up after December and January when they were nine games under .500. They didn’t. They were supposed to bring along a rookie slowly. They didn’t. They were supposed to lose to a much more star laden team. They didn’t.
The Utah Jazz are not supposed to be here. That should strike fear into the Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz don’t care about your plans, your destiny, your storylines and narratives. They don’t care that they can usher in decreased viewers, lower ratings, and less excitement for your national games. They don’t care that they don’t have All Stars. They don’t care that your team has an MVP, a former MVP, or a former Coach of the Year. Decorum is thrown out the window when you show up to a party that you were not invited to.
Any other team would have fallen apart at the trials Utah has faced this year—losing a superstar, losing their top four scorers, missing in free agency, relying on a rookie, falling behind in a season, injuries—but not Utah. Utah has climbed the impossible climb out of their trials. The Utah Jazz are the scariest team left in the playoffs right now for one simple reason: they’ve accomplished the impossible feat of returning to the playoffs after quite possibly the most brutal offseason and season of any team in recent memory. When a team has defeated their own NBA mortality and thrived like Utah has, they not only don’t fear the impossible, they don’t know what impossible even looks like.