No one could have seen this coming a summer ago. The Utah Jazz were in every headline last offseason. No one could have anticipated that the Utah Jazz would turn into the most hyped team in the Association outside of Golden State, Boston, and Philadelphia heading into the 2019 season. After all, it had just been one year since Utah’s future had cratered faster than a sub-prime mortgage in 2007.
In the summer of 2017, the Jazz had just completed an upset of the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1st round. When the offseason hit, they made preparations to retain Gordon Hayward like a bird building a nest for its potential mate: they had traded up in the NBA Draft for Donovan Mitchell, traded away their 2018 1st round pick from Oklahoma City for Ricky Rubio, and re-signed Joe Ingles to a big time deal. Utah had pushed all their chips to the center of the table only to have the Boston Celtics throw down a flush and sign away their All Star Small Forward. But with the uprising of Donovan Mitchell and the rebirth of the Wasatch front defense, the Utah Jazz are in the headlines this summer for all the right reasons.
- Donovan Mitchell became a playoff superstar.
- Rudy Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year.
- Donovan Mitchell voted best rookie by his peers.
- Joe Ingles widely being received as one of the best 3 and D wing players in the league.
- Derrick Favors getting his due and getting paid.
- Donovan Mitchell surprising people at their 4th of July BBQs.
- Donovan Mitchell being featured by NBA2K.
- Rudy Gobert visiting Europe with Joel Embiid.
- Donovan Mitchell climbing the ladder on his shoe deal and getting a commercial.
- Donovan Mitchell being featured by SVP on Sportscenter.
- Ricky Rubio hitting threes consistently—STILL—with the Spain team.
- Royce O’Neale working out with James Harden and Chris Paul.
- Donovan Mitchell working out with James Harden and Chris Paul.
- Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert rocking the UCLA runs with Kevin Durant, Paul George, and other stars.
- Utah Jazz predicted to be the 2nd seed in the Western Conference.
This is a Utah Jazz offseason unlike any other. That’s not a novel thing to write about. This has been said far and wide in and out of the Jazz writing sphere. There are almost a hundred other headlines that feature other Jazz players that have kept them in the news. The Utah Jazz are being hyped like no team before them in recent franchise history memory. Even the 2006-2007 Utah Jazz team that went to the Western Conference Finals didn’t get this type of buzz. The year following Utah’s surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, most writers were selecting the New Orleans Hornets—led by Chris Paul—to challenge the Lakers for supremacy in the West. The Utah Jazz were once again the outsider, the fluke.
That team headlined by Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur didn’t see a sharp increase in fandom. You didn’t see Deron Williams becoming a household name. It was much like Gordon Hayward’s stardom. People respected that Deron Williams was a great player, but when listing the best players in the league his name rarely would roll off the tongue. That 2006-2007 team only sunk below expectations because of injuries to Carlos Boozer. That year was the year of Paul Millsap becoming more than a junkyard dog in the paint and transforming into a starter caliber power forward. That 2006-2007 Utah Jazz team with all of his firepower was overlooked.
Contrast that 2006-2007 team with the coming year. Donovan Mitchell who has somehow become a household name in one calendar year is being put up on a pedestal as one of the young players in the league with the likes of Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Devin Booker. Rudy Gobert is respected as one of the best centers in the league. Joe Ingles is no longer a deep cut NBA trivia name, not after that series with OKC. Ricky Rubio after his showing in the playoffs and the second half of last season is regarded as one of the best point guards in the league. Derrick Favors is seen as the consummate team player. He can step in at Center when Rudy is struggling or he will take a step back for a stretch four to come into the game if the team needs it. Utah’s bench mob of Crowder, Exum, O’Neale, Sefolosha, Burks, Neto and Udoh are seen as one of the best benches in the league. They’re versatile and can adapt to whatever team they face.
This Utah Jazz team is a championship contender in embryo that could be approaching adolescence by the time the NBA schedule eases up for them in February. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Western Conference as they have to run the gauntlet to end the season as Utah gets to ease up and rest before the Thunderdome that is the Western Conference Playoffs.
But with hype can come the fall. As we mentioned with the 2006-2007 Utah Jazz squad. They had high expectations thrust upon them, maybe too high, because of their Western Conference Finals run. Many—rightfully so—didn’t think they could return to such glory. That Utah Jazz team struggled with injuries, Carlos Boozer’s head becoming so large it had trouble fitting in the locker room, surly Deron Williams, Kyrylo Fesenko’s blonde hair, managing expectations for young players like Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap. The fairy tale season of exceeding expectations can soon seem like a distant memory when the bar is raised.
Next season the Utah Jazz will go from slacklining to a high wire act when it comes to expectations. No one would have held Utah accountable if they missed the playoffs by a little or by 40 games last season. This season? Anything less than another Northwest Division Champion banner and it’s a disappoint. That change in expectations is enough to give most people whiplash. Utah’s team will have to fight the ease of being bragged about. Their biggest challenge goes from being external to internal. They are their biggest enemies. Their egos, attitudes, entitlements, and confidence suddenly are their biggest boogeymen.
The Utah Jazz now will enter arenas with a massive target on their back. Take down the best defensive in the league you’re on SportsCenter. Climb the Stifle Tower and you’re getting a viral poster shared around the world on Twitter. Clown Donovan Mitchell on defense and get a highlight. Last season, the Utah Jazz were seen as a “take care of business” opponent; now, they are one of the Titans.
The bandwagon on the Utah Jazz is filling up, but Jazz players must not mistake popularity for success. Their newfound celebrity has nothing to do with what they’ve accomplished, but what people feel that they can accomplish. If they fall on their faces, that rare hard earned bandwagon will disappear faster than Morris Almond’s NBA career.
The hype feels real with this Utah Jazz team, but unfortunately the ones that deserve to enjoy the hype the most—the players and staff of this Utah Jazz organization—should not taste one bit of their own award winning kool-aid. They have to approach this season just the same as last season like an unknown commodity. While the fans enjoy the accolades this team has brought and newfound popularity, the Utah Jazz will have to turn inward on their own self improvement and assigned goals if they are to ever have a chance to surpass the expectations that have rightfully—or unrightfully—been placed upon them.
God speed, Utah.
[CORRECTION: Prior version of this article incorrectly cited the season the Utah Jazz went to the Western Conference finals as 2007-2008. That is incorrect. It was 2006-2007 season and roster. We apologize to everyone except the We Believe Warriors, Tracy McGrady & Yao Ming, and the San Antonio Spurs.]