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Utah Jazz: Goodbye to a team that saved a franchise and a fanbase

It’s never easy to say goodbye. Looking back at one of the most unique Jazz rosters in franchise history.

It’s never easy to say goodbye. It’s hard to say goodbye to family after a vacation. It’s hard to say goodbye to friends after a fun weekend. It’s hard to say goodbye to coworkers that you’ve been in the office with for years. It’s hard to say goodbye to what is comfortable while entering the unknown. Tonight, Utah Jazz fans could have just said goodbye to an iteration of the Utah Jazz that will always be held in high regard for years to come. Not because they soared to the greatest heights, but from which depths they saved this Utah franchise.

Two years ago after the summer of Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz looked like they were on the upswing. They had just made it to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. They had upset the LA Clippers behind a big series from Joe Johnson and Derrick Favors. They had had their first winning season in years. Gordon Hayward looked like a star. They had their defensive big man of the future. While George Hill wouldn’t be returning, they traded for Ricky Rubio with whom Gordon Hayward wanted to lace it up. The Utah Jazz were aggressive in the NBA Draft trading up for Donovan Mitchell and Tony Bradley.

It appeared Utah had all the momentum to sign Gordon Hayward in the offseason ... until they didn’t. Gordon Hayward was lost in free agency to the Boston Celtics. All the while the Utah Jazz couldn’t secure additional meetings with any other top free agents as they had already made their decisions as Gordon Hayward wavered in indecisiveness. The Utah Jazz would then retreat from free agency for a week. They waited to see what was left. They went bargain shopping in an obvious strategy of not wanting to tie a lot of salary to a Plan Z. That strategy resulted in Royce O’Neale, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, and Jonas Jerebko. They would focus on defense with the hope and prayer that Rodney Hood would become a top tier scorer.

There were promising signs of Donovan Mitchell in summer league, but it’s summer league. No one is making long-term decisions based on a few games in July against rookies and G-Leaguers. Then it seemed as fate decided to step in and save the franchise. Seconds before tip-off of Utah’s first game, Rodney Hood fell ill and Donovan Mitchell was inserted into the starting lineup. He didn’t light it up, but the universe seemed to know something that we all didn’t. Donovan Mitchell was supposed to be out there.

While Utah’s roster was getting pummeled in the early part of the 2017-2018 season and Rudy Gobert was in and out of the lineup due to injuries, the rest of this Utah Jazz roster was growing closer together. They became friends. They frequently popped up on each other’s social media stories, not because they were stuck on a bus together, but because they genuinely liked each other. Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha became Donovan’s mentors. While Ricky Rubio certainly has his limitations in his game, he’s a 99/99 when it comes to passion on the court. During Rudy Gobert’s time out of the lineup, the Utah Jazz began to embody that fire. Donovan Mitchell would then weaponize it from December on.

But the team was still trending toward its low point. They fell 10 games below .500 in January while losing to the Eastern Conference worst Atlanta Hawks on the road. That felt like the nail in the coffin to the Utah Jazz’s season. Injuries, a tough opening stretch, and losing too many good players in the offseason had done them in. Rodney Hood never stepped up to a first option. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert didn’t appear to work together. Joe Johnson’s hot yoga was no longer working like Darth Vader’s rejuvenating black egg. Ricky Rubio looked like a band-aid while Utah waited for Dante Exum to return to full health. It was over.

Then the Detroit Overtime game happened. Utah fought back. Then a win in Toronto last minute. Then Utah just started rolling led by their rookie phenom, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert. They were fueled by Ricky Rubio’s fire and backed up by Joe Ingles trash talk. That recipe combined with the rest of Utah’s island of misfit role players went on a run. Dennis Lindsey even tweaked the recipe a bit as he sent Rodney Hood to Cleveland in exchange for Jae Crowder. Jae Crowder would fully unlock spacing for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Derrick Favors transitioned to SUPER SUB and destroyed bench units. Royce O’Neale would become another diamond in the rough signing a la Joe Ingles.

Utah would go on to upset another cocky star laden team for a second year in a row. The Oklahoma City Thunder led by Russell Westbrook and Paul George had the series turned upside down on them as Donovan Mitchell set records as a rookie in the playoffs. Joe Ingles edited Paul George to a G-rating. Rudy Gobert’s interior defense allowed Utah to frustrate OKC role players. Most of all, not-supposed-to-be-in-Utah Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook even getting a triple double. Utah would eventually fall to the Houston Rockets after stealing one game in Houston, but it didn’t matter. Utah was playing with house money since January. They weren’t supposed to be there.

This season came heightened expectations. Wins that would feel miraculous, felt hollow with the added pressure of being a playoff team. The opening schedule was a lesson in patience for not only the team, but for fans. Media even began writing off Utah’s chances in December—including us—as the weight of expectations was causing cognitive dissonance when trying to reconcile Utah’s record. Donovan Mitchell struggled early with expectations and as defenses had begun to adjust to him. The price of stardom in the NBA comes when defenses begin scraping and clawing to bring you back to the proverbial pack.

Dante Exum would get injured again. Ricky Rubio would regress again from long range and his turnovers rose. Joe Ingles began to look mortal again as his Dod Bod God power deteriorated. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert became the stalwarts of the team on which Utah could rely on. Grayson Allen never looked ready to contribute. Jae Crowder struggled from deep as the season went on. Raul Neto struggled with injuries.

In order to help change the trajectory of the season, Dennis Lindsey and his crew made a push of their own. They pulled the trigger on a trade for Kyle Korver in December that could have saved the season. They went full steam ahead for Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies. It failed while causing some friction in the locker room as rumors of Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, and possibly Dante Exum being on the trade block escaped into the media, but they were trying to hit the nitros on this season.

Utah would bounce out of it after the trade deadline and begin their second annual playoff push. While the year before the run felt fun and exhilarating, the assumption of the playoffs at the beginning of the year made this year’s playoff push feel like a grind.

Utah would make the playoffs as the 5th seed, but land the worst matchup possible in the Houston Rockets. And as we just witnessed, they fought to the the last minute, but it doesn’t feel like this roster got the just reward they deserved. Donovan Mitchell had his playoff moment in Game 4, but ran out of steam in Game 5. The Utah Jazz never give up motto still is this team’s core memory so it fought hard, but lacked the talent to make it over the hill.

If we keep this all in perspective, this roster—save for a couple changes with Rodney Hood and Jonas Jerebko—wasn’t supposed to be here. They would have been the last team people would have pegged for a 5 seed two years in a row, let alone a 2nd round appearance last year.

Even though this team hasn’t soared to the highest of heights like a Western Conference Finals appears like the D-Will/Boozer years or even an NBA Finals team, it’ll be remembered as something completely unique and special. They will be remembered as the team that saved Jazz fans from the terrible fall of losing a star player. They will be looked back as the team that started a new era in Jazz fandom; the Jazz team that made us believe that the most unexpected comebacks were possible, that a rookie could change everything, that a basketball team can inspire good off the court whether that is through promoting cancer research or Autism Awareness, and that the strength of the team is the team.

Key players from the last two years could inevitably be gone next season. Derrick Favors is on a team option and could be a salary cap casualty if a big time free agency wants to sign in Utah. Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent and may not be seen as a starting point guard by other teams for the rest of his career. Raul Neto is on a non-guaranteed contract. Kyle Korver is 38 and could possibly retire. If he doesn’t, he still is only on a partial guaranteed contract for next year which could be dangled during the draft for cap relief. Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh will both be unrestricted free agents next year. That’s possibly six roster spots that will employ someone new next season.

There could be even more changes headed Utah’s way as Utah is prone to acquiring talent right before or after the NBA Draft. They would only have the contracts of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neale, Tony Bradley, and Georges Niang to use in any trade. While Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are 99.99% not going any where, Utah still would need to match salary. That could mean besides losing players in free agency, there could be even more deep cuts ahead to fan favorites which means saying a tearful goodbye to a lot of players who have embodied what it means to be a Jazzman. They deserve to be remembered among the greats in Jazz history.

This leaves us at the moment where we say goodbye. It’s a hard goodbye because a team that was only supposed to be a rebound became a much deeper relationship. It’s hard because everyone on this team is so DAMN likable. It’s hard because it’s been a helluva fun ride.

Goodbye to the group that saved a franchise. Goodbye to a team that gave us one of the most memorable seasons in a lifetime and then followed that up by winning 50 games. Goodbye to a group that was more than the sum of its parts. Goodbye to a team that made us #TakeNote.

Thank you. You will be missed.

For the comment section, feel free to comment with your favorite memory of the last two years. If it’s too long for a comment, hit up a fan post. We’ll be posting a collection of the best memories in a post or highlighting those fan posts for the next few days. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about the upcoming important offseason, but in the meantime, let’s give this team the fond farewell it deserves.