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The Utah Jazz in 3 Acts: Can Utah find a third star?

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The Utah Jazz’s rebuild after Gordon Hayward is approaching its third act. Can Utah now get a third star?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Approaching the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline, the Utah Jazz find themselves at a crossroads. Watching the Utah Jazz over the past two years, it might feel like you’re watching a story unfold on a theatre stage. In most popular plays on the stage, you’ll notice they follow a similar structure. This structure is called Three-Act Structure. It’s well-defined and pretty simple to follow the events.

Utah’s First Act

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The first act is one in which you are introduced to the characters and provided exposition. This is the foundation of the story. Then there is an inciting incident. Something happens to the main character’s father that requires the main character go on a journey, someone must be married, a land must be saved, or a ring returned. That incident jumpstarts the narrative and leads the main character down a unique storyline. The main character’s reaction and subsequent decisions based on that inciting incident will drive the story.

During the summer of Gordon Hayward, we got introduced to the cast of characters that would make up most of the first act: Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Joe Johnson, Jae Crowder, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, and Raul Neto.

We also were hit with a twist. While most of us thought that this team’s starting lineup would be Rubio, Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert, the inciting incident turned everything upside down for Utah to start them on their real quest back to relevance.

The exit of Gordon Hayward in free agency flipped everything on its head. Who was the main character? Rodney Hood? Rudy Gobert? Derrick Favors? Ricky Rubio?

Soon we would discover this wasn’t a redemption story, but an underdog story. The rookie Donovan Mitchell would rise up to be the star of this Utah Jazz team with Rudy Gobert at his side. Joe Ingles would play comic relief with Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors providing sage wisdom to lead this ragtag bunch to an upset in the 2nd round of the playoffs. But then ... the glass ceiling hit as Utah ran into the buzzsaw that was the Houston Rockets.

This is sometimes known as the first plot point. It’s like a peg in the story. The hero of the story never resolves their problem on the first try, nor the second. Just like any person tackling a new problem, they’re trying new things to overcome this problem.

Despite a surprising 2017-2018 season, the Jazz miraculously found themselves back to where they started before Gordon Hayward left: a second round of the playoffs caliber team. They are built around defense, but if you’re experiencing deja vu, you’re not alone. That became the first plot point. They overcame Hayward’s exit (the inciting event), but that just kicked off the journey. Now they want more ... but how do they get further?

Welcome To Utah’s Second Act

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

You see, after tasting success in the playoffs, Utah hit their second act. This time relying upon themselves and the pieces left in the wake of Hayward’s exit. Instead of going after new piece’s to start the second act, Utah relied on continuity. This is where irony drips with Utah’s initial plan for continuity.

In the second act of the play, there is something called the “rising action”. If you have seen the movie “Scott Pilgrim vs the World”, the rising action takes place after he fights the first evil ex-boyfriend of Ramona. That series of never-ending battles until he gets to the Boss battle is all the second act. In the movie, he increasingly puts the weight of the task at hand on his own shoulders. He soon realizes as he faces the climax of the story that he tried to do it selfishly and all by himself. He’s not able to defeat the antagonist of the story until he’s gone through a change of heart and reached out for help. He had to change.

It’s common in a three act play for the main character to become isolated and believe that they already have all the pieces needed to succeed and overcome increasingly overwhelming odds ... but they can’t or the play would be over in three acts. They approach the new problem with the same tools, and, in most circumstances, they fall woefully short.

Did the lightbulb turn on? Sound familiar?

Utah’s start to the season mirror’s a second act, almost at a disturbingly creepy scale. They approached the second season with the belief that continuity would solve the problem, but as we know, it didn’t.

Donovan Mitchell was being targeted by defenses in new ways and with more intensity. Rubio regressed at one point to being one of the worst starting point guards in the NBA by December. The Favors and Gobert pairing struggled (and still struggles on some nights) to be a + Net Rating combo. Joe Ingles struggled to carry Utah while Donovan and Ricky were struggling.

Something had to be done. They couldn’t do it by themselves. If this was a three act play, the trade for Kyle Korver would have happened just before intermission. Our heroes had learned that they couldn’t do it by themselves and that attempting to do so was a fool’s errand.

The Utah Jazz are still in the middle of the second act of the this Donovan Mitchell/Joe Ingles/Rudy Gobert core play. Korver has helped them stabilize and right the sinking ship, but the problem that initiated the Second Act still hasn’t been resolved. How does Utah get past the second round of the playoffs?

In the second act of a play, the driving action of the second act is the protagonists of the story not only learning new skills, abilities, etc. to overcome their challenge, but also arriving at a higher sense of who they are and what they can achieve which changes who they are. Sometimes that refiner’s fire forces them to reach out to help. Sometimes, it sends them down in flames as they continue to battle it out with their existing skillset, but now they know they can’t succeed. The first of these is what many consider a happy ending while the latter is a tragedy.

This brings us to the final point in Utah’s story. One that will either be answered at the NBA Trade Deadline or in Free agency this year. Utah is at a crossroads right now, and the choice they make will determine if this story has a happy ending or becomes a cautionary tale.

Utah’s Yet To Be Determined Third Act

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The third act of a play has the resolution of the story and all of its subplots. Let’s go through Utah’s main story right now: Will Utah become an elite NBA team?

That’s Utah’s main story. What are the subplots?

  • Will Utah get homecourt advantage?
  • Will Derrick Favors remain a Jazzman?
  • Will Ricky Rubio re-sign in Utah?
  • Will Donovan Mitchell make an All Star game or All NBA team?
  • Can Joe Ingles continue to be the greatest trash talker of all time?

Those are all subplots that hopefully be answered in Utah’s third act, but right now we’re getting awfully close to the climax of this 3 Act Utah Jazz arc. As the NBA Trade Deadline heats up, Utah is faced with a tough decision. Remember in Act 2, we talked about how the main characters—often foolishly—bet on themselves without asking for outside help? That would be free agency. It’s a big risk. It could pay off handsomely, but if Utah were to strikeout? Their chances of becoming an elite NBA squad with Donovan Mitchell on his rookie deal, Joe Ingles on his team friendly deal, and Rudy Gobert maxed out, significantly fall.

Not saying it couldn’t happen, but if Utah attacks free agency and wins, this is no longer an underdog story, but a heist story. Utah would have gotten away with one of the biggest heists in free agency without anyone ever seeing it coming. That would be some huge Deus Ex Machina if a free agent just landed in their lap.

But if they miss out? Woof. That’s the end of the story. The heroes don’t become an elite team. They become another almost story like the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer Jazz or the Reggie Miller Indiana Pacers.

That’s why the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline might be where Utah’s story gets the help it needs through that final All Star caliber piece like Mike Conley, Kevin Love, or Otto Porter. While Utah will not get to set the terms of the contract and agreement with the player like they would in free agency, they would have the guarantee that the player was here. They would have to sacrifice some big parts of their story to acquire such a player (Rubio, Favors, Exum), but they would have the confidence to know that they were going to approach the climax of the story (the NBA Playoffs) with the very best version of themselves plus additional help.

We’re now in the unknown. With only 12 days remaining before Trade Deadline, rumors are really going to heat up. With Utah facing increased urgency to place a third piece next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert while they have the flexibility to do so, we very well could see this story come to a close this April. If Utah were to acquire a third player, they would instantly become one of the elite teams in the NBA and a force to be reckoned with in the West.

Can they do it? Get your popcorn ready because we could know in as little as 12 days.