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Three reasons to be hopeful and worried about the Utah Jazz

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The Utah Jazz have the potential to be a force in the Western Conference. They also have the ingredients to go supernova.

Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets - Game Five
The return of Derrick Favors may not be a flashy signing, but—like Favors himself—it gets the job done.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz are not a franchise known for being in the headlines. Their brand outside of Utah is found on the third page of the Sports Section listed under “Box Scores.” Last seasons headlines went from Dark Horse Title Contender to Mike Conley looks lost to Rudy Gobert tests positive for COVID19 to Donovan and Rudy refuse to speak to each other to Rudy Gobert trade rumors to the Bubble in which Donovan Mitchell became a big voice for racial equality and Justice for Breonna Taylor to a first round exit with big heroics from Donovan Mitchell. After such a roller coaster of a season that ended with a loss in the first round again, what is there to possibly be hopeful for this season? Here a few reasons to feel hopeful along with some reasons to rightfully worried.

Hopeful #1 - The Utah Jazz are flying under the radar

Saying the Utah Jazz are flying under the radar normally has the same energy as saying a chicken is flying lower to the ground. The Jazz rarely are on the radar. Their brand is under the radar. Their brand was turned upside down last season with the massive trade for Mike Conley, the big signing of Bojan Bogdanovic, and moves that sent away Derrick Favors and brought in Ed Davis and Jeff Green. Suddenly the Utah Jazz went from a team mired in the 5th seed to a Dark Horse Title Contender.

The Jazz certainly did not anticipate that the headlines they’d be making in March of 2020 would be about a virus no one had heard about and how their star center Rudy Gobert shut down the NBA not just on the court but the entire season indefinitely.

This offseason was a complete opposite of last season. Gone was the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell feud talk. Gone were the Gobert trades rumors. Gone were the exceedingly high expectations. Gone is the excitement of brand new faces and capabilities. Stability, continuity, and familiarity have replaced flashy, new, and promising.

Sometimes that can be a bad thing as many who have read this site for a number years know. Seeing the word continuity is likely to bring up some painful memories of the cap strapped final years associated with Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, and Mehmet Okur. But this time it’s different.

The turbulence of last season was not just sports driven, it was pandemic driven, internationally driven, once in a lifetime driven. Rudy Gobert becoming the face of the pandemic for a month is something no PR team has the ability to prepare for and weather. It isn’t something that any business nor organization can usually weather. But the Jazz tread water long enough to get through it. Removing those distractions and getting to focus on basketball again is a bigger deal than most are making it.

Hopeful #2 - Continuity

The Utah Jazz not only had a lot of new pieces last season, but they looked like they had a lot of new pieces last season. Their offense and defense at times looked like a seasoned NBA2K gamer on the first day with the newest game. The controls, gameplay, and enhancements were just different enough to make them look like amateurs for stretches at a time. That didn’t stop Utah from having a top 10 offense last season, but it did prevent them from being a top 10 defensive team (Utah fell to 11th last season). This kept them from staying competitive against top tier teams.

Against top 10 teams, Utah’s offense sputtered to a 12th place ranking in the NBA and their defense fell to 14th. That’s a playoff team, but nothing close to the Dark Horse Championship hype that had been built up for them.

The unfamiliarity with each other meant Utah’s “Blender” on offense worked more like an Oster Classic than a Vitamix. When Utah faced a top 10 defensive team, their offensive rating cratered. Their offense dropped to a 21st ranking. The only other playoff teams who fell further were Toronto, Memphis, and Orlando. All teams that carried a similar pretender status.

When Utah came back from the break—however—things appeared to be different. While it’s hard to parse out stats as the Utah Jazz were definitely not tanking to the 6th seed to play Denver, they appeared to have a more cohesive offense. In the first half of games after the COVID break, their offensive rating stayed consistent. It may have dropped slightly to 112.1 from 112.3, but they were arguably playing playoff caliber teams. Before that offensive rating was dropping to 108.8.

There’s hope that continuity—I shudder at that word—could actually prove beneficial for Utah next season.

Hopeful #3 - Let’s get defensive

The Jazz traded one identity for another last season as they gave up Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Favors and replaced them with Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and the ghosts of Jeff Green, Ed Davis, and Tony Bradley. There were times that the Jazz had to rely upon Georges Niang for defense (sorry, Georges). But the Jazz fixed that in a big way this offseason.

Utah drafted Udoka Azubuike in what many saw was a reach. We may want to remind people that most thought—myself included—Rudy Gobert was a reach as well back in 2013. He was a one man top defensive team by himself at Kansas. The Jazz also brought the gang back together by signing Derrick Favors back. He wanted to be back, he knows the system, and is ready to spell R-U-D-Y when Rudy Gobert is on the bench.

There’s no pretty way to say the Jazz’s defense was terrible last season. The only way to say it is sucked. It just flat out sucked. Like trying to land a plane with both its engines out, the Jazz’s minutes without Rudy Gobert on the court last season ended in disaster more often than not. When the bench was better it was hard to tell if it was actually the bench working or if Utah was preying upon the dregs of the NBA.

When Rudy was on the court last season, the Jazz allowed 107.4 points per 100 possessions. When he was off of it, they allowed 115.6 points per 100 possessions. That meant that Rudy Gobert had to be on the court more, not great for career longevity of a seven footer. Rudy played the most minutes of his career last season averaging 34.3 minutes per game. But that doesn’t do it justice. In almost every game he played, the median was closer to 36 minutes at 35.2 minutes per game. He played more than 36 minutes in a game 28 times during last season, not including the playoffs.

Derrick Favors is key to the Utah Jazz getting the most from Rudy Gobert. He keeps Rudy healthy and rested. He also brings down the number of times Gobert has to be rushed back to the court as the bench bleeds points away. Last season with the Pelicans, Favors improved the Pellies’ defense by 6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. That’s as he was playing against top tier opposing teams’ starters. Now he’ll be coming off the bench for 20-25 minutes a night. Gobert will be able to return to 30-31 minutes a game and the Jazz will be better for it.

Worried #1 - Rudy Gobert’s contract talks

Negotiating a third contract with a star player in the NBA is always difficult. Most players don’t stay with the same team for most of their career. It’s difficult for a large market team. It’s a high wire act for a small market franchise. Rudy Gobert and Utah have until December 21st to come to an agreement on an extension. The impasse in talks is Rudy Gobert earned his eligibility for a Supermax deal. Utah doesn’t want to give it. It doesn’t work out well for franchises and that’s when it is for guards and wings. It’s even scarier for teams with a star big man as big men in the NBA tend to have a faster decline after the age of 30.

Jazz fans are right to worry about these negotiations. The last time Utah couldn’t get their player to sign an extension before the season, they left in free agency in the season thereafter. Tony Jones of the Athletic says we shouldn’t get carried away with thinking if Utah and Gobert can’t find middle ground that Utah will trade him away.

I agree with that. Utah is a small market that is wanting to start behaving like a large market. They have a large market minded new owner, lots more cash, and they can give Gobert the most amount of money. I don’t see Utah pursuing a trade unless it got Deron Williams-Jerry Sloan levels of ugly between the Jazz and Gobert if talks fail. It’s not in Utah’s DNA to do that. I understand where they’re coming from.

But it’d be wrong to run an entire season placating to Rudy why he should stay as they did with Gordon Hayward. If Utah didn’t strike gold with Donovan Mitchell in the same offseason that Hayward left, Utah would have been a lottery team from 2017 to the present. It would have been a full rebuild. They got lucky. To assume that lightning would strike twice if they play the odds with Rudy for a full season is naive.

That’s not to say moving on from Rudy Gobert would be easy. It wouldn’t. It would be devastating. As devastating as the Hayward loss was thought to become. The Jazz would lose their identity. Their roster which is currently built around Gobert’s defense would have to be restructured from the ground up around Donovan. It would be open season on the trade market for Utah’s veterans like Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Favors, and Joe Ingles. It would be a nightmare.

But so would losing Rudy Gobert for nothing. Utah would not gain cap space like they did when Hayward left. They’d still be over the salary cap. They would be old. They would be without an identity. They would look like the post-Shaq Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade doing all the heavy lifting. It would be an 8th seed clawing its way from being a 12th seed all season long.

Trading Rudy Gobert would at least give Utah some water wings as they tread stormy waters with only Donovan Mitchell as their lifeboat to a new era in Jazz basketball. Rudy Gobert can’t be blind to what happened to Utah when Hayward left. He must know that if he balks at the offer and plays hardball for as much money as possible, he starts on the Hayward path. Jazz fans don’t have the patience for a sequel. A new owner may not either. Especially one that is expecting a playoff team and isn’t ready for one of his stars to leave the team for peanuts.

Worried #2 - Continuity

A team can get too comfortable. Comfortable in their floor. Comfortable in their ceiling. Sometimes getting know a team’s limits and understanding them can hold a team back from finding another gear. The hope with Utah this season will be that the failure to break through the 1st and 2nd round will fuel them to take it to another level. It could also build complacency.

Remember how Utah struggled in their second season with Ricky Rubio, Donovan, Joe Ingles, Favors, and Gobert? It wasn’t until Utah REALLY shook it up. They traded for Kyle Korver early in December. The team had problems and they weren’t solving themselves. If Utah had their way they would have traded Rubio to Memphis for Conley a few months earlier. That continuity ended in a 1st round exit and up and down play an entire season.

In truth, Utah hasn’t had a consistent season in the Donovan-Rudy era. The first year they needed a miraculous second half of the season run to get to the playoffs. The second they were up and down all season which included another second half season run, Ricky Rubio getting defensive about trade talks, and quick playoff exit by Houston. Last season was a circus.

If Utah was to actually play consistently all season this season would be a first for the Don-Rudy era. Hopefully continuity can break the cycle. It could also continue it. Utah will hope that Favors’ return is the right amount of familiarity mixed with novelty that will keep Utah moving forward rather than complacent.

Worried #3 - COVID-19

It’s wild to think how much ire was put toward Rudy Gobert when he tested positive for COVID-19 back in March. The amount of scientific journals I’ve poured over since that time first to just understand how to write about it responsibly in the weeks that followed then as a passion project for my own community is crazy to think about. We know so much more about it since March, yet the very situation the NBA and numerous other professional leagues cancelled their seasons in order to prevent is upon us.

The United States recorded almost 3,000 deaths in a day yesterday. More people died yesterday to COVID than in the 9/11 attacks. Utah has recorded 917 deaths since this pandemic started. The state to the north of them that contains a good portion of their fanbase and frequents the Salt Lake City community, Idaho, passed the 1,000 deaths mark yesterday.

Cases are out of control, misinformation about it is rampant, and deaths are spiraling. Hospitals are out of capacity in many places, nurses are burned out, doctors are running scarce, and the United States is headed toward a winter of immeasurable suffering.

The world needs sports as a diversion for all this suffering, but that diversion cannot serve as lipstick on a COVID-laced pig that is destroying our communities’ most vulnerable populations. Not to mention the risk COVID is to the league’s older employees whether those are arena workers, coaches, staffs, front office executives, secretaries, or volunteers.

The Utah Jazz announced layoffs on its business side of operations and had two players unable to practice as they are out with COVID-19. The NBA must not become the band on the Titanic playing just as it’s sinking. Just as they stood up for racial issues and performed a strike which did immeasurable good for voting rights and racial equality during the playoffs, they may need to exert their will again to force certain communities, cities, and states to get with the program and enact mask mandates, shutdown indoor dining facilities, shutdown gyms, and—yes—even shutdown the NBA as an example for a period.

Why? Because there are things bigger than basketball. There are folks who need hospitals. There are children who need to be in school more than we need to eat inside at an In-N-Out. There are grandparents and parents who need to make it through the winter so they can have another Christmas more than we need to watch a Christmas game with our grandparents.

Is it the NBA’s fault that the nation is like this? No. Is it the NBA’s responsibility to lead a nation in the pandemic? Hell no. But can the NBA present a responsible message and get people to listen? Hell to the yes.

Right now, we are in a situation that Dr. Fauci and countless other experts said was their worst case scenario for the winter. We have essentially performed a speed run of the 1918 Flu Pandemic while ignoring modern medicine.

I want the NBA. I want basketball. But I want uninterrupted enjoyment of basketball. I don’t want a roster of only 5 Jazz players going against the Lakers at full strength in January because of a COVID outbreak in the Jazz locker room. I know the NBA needs a cash infusion. I know the Jazz desperately needed one or they wouldn’t have sold a team in the middle of a pandemic. But a season in which COVID is raging at levels not heretofore seen since 1918 or the Black Plague, there’d be disruptions to not just Utah’s chemistry and success, but everyone’s.

We already had one season with an asterisk. The NBA can postpone for three months and avoid an asterisk with the second one. If the NBA does so, their sacrifice and example could very well save a few thousand lives in their home cities. If the Utah Jazz were to lead the charge, they could not only save hundreds of lives in their communities, but hundreds of their own fans lives. I would love to see it.