The NBA Trade Deadline is known for its insanity. Phones are ringing. Hypotheticals discussed. Offers are made. Deals are declined. Agreements fly in at the 11th hour. But for the second year in a row, that final piece excludes the Utah Jazz. Losers of five straight, the Utah Jazz front office was most likely dragged kicking and screaming into pitch meetings with other NBA General Managers. The Jazz either through stubbornness, lack of a good deal, or feeling too cornered by their recent losing woes to make a good decision, stayed pat with their roster.
This was not supposed to be Utah’s scenario going into the deadline. Prior to the losing streak, the Jazz were winners of 19 games out of 22. They were flying high. They were getting championship contender love. Then the schedule turned difficult, but they were given an opportunity, most of these playoff teams they would be playing would be shorthanded, on the second game of a back to back, or both. Yet they found a way to disappoint and fall on their faces in each of their five games with favorable odds.
Now the Utah Jazz must find a way to turn this ship around without new help on the horizon. The answer—or lack thereof—resides within this current Utah Jazz roster. So what does that mean for this Utah Jazz team?
The Utah Jazz Front Office may already be looking past this year
I want to clarify that I don’t believe the coaching staff and players are. They’re focused on making this season as successful as possible. But the front office may have seen every deal available at the deadline that could improve the Utah Jazz as a Titanic opportunity to sink the team in subsequent years. With the only major impact players either stupid expensive as far as draft compensation is concerned (D’Angelo Russell or Robert Covington) or just saddled with stupid expensive contracts (Chris Paul or Kevin Love), the type of decision Utah would be forced to make at the Trade Deadline would not only be timeline altering for their cap situation but also identity altering. Not the type of deal you make at the 11th hour with only a couple months left in the season.
Which means Utah may once again be a much different looking team in the coming year. Justin Zanik and Dennis Lindsey will use the remaining time to evaluate this team’s fit together. That means every piece. Whether it’s Rudy Gobert to Donovan Mitchell to Mike Conley to Georges Niang, every piece will be scrutinized. That’s the downside of going all in. If it doesn’t work, if you ponied up for the same result, there’s going to be a lot of soul searching.
Making matters more hard is there’s a new type of experiment going on in the NBA right now that is threatening Utah’s identity as a franchise moving forward. The Houston Rockets made a trade in which they put a target on the future of the NBA’s big man squarely in their crosshairs. By jettisoning Clint Capela and bringing back lengthly wing players like Robert Covington and Bruno Caboclo, the Houston Rockets are conducting a grand experiment of league changing consequences. The future of the league’s center position is at stake here. D’Antoni’s influence already eliminated the traditional power forward position. His new experiment could push the league lightyears past that while eliminated traditonal AND modern centers.
The Houston Rockets are running Robert Covington at the 5 and in their first game, beat the Los Angeles Lakers with a team of guards and small forwards. It’s Moreyball pushed to its upper limit. They’re betting that a team focused on twos can’t beat a team focused on threes. They are willing to give up every two imaginable in the pursuit of threes. If successful, they become the leaders in the NBA’s brave new world like the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns behind them. However there’s a bigger consequence and it affects the league and the Utah Jazz even more.
Can the Utah Jazz have a Top 5 defense with Rudy Gobert playing against small lineups?
It leaves the Utah Jazz’s future with Rudy Gobert incredibly cloudy when guarding these extreme small ball lineups. Rudy Gobert during this losing streak has been rendered ineffective by these small lineups. The Houston Rockets first did him dirty then the Denver Nuggets ran a slightly bigger version at Utah. Utah couldn’t keep up. Utah’s starters could play those lineups to a draw, but at some point the bench has to come in.
If Utah wants to take a leap in THIS season and be relevant in the playoffs THIS year, they have to find a counter for those lineups. A way to absolutely punish those small ball lineups in a way they have yet to find in the past. Not only that, they need to provide strong defense in these lineups. Georges Niang can shoot the lights out, but defensively he’s a sieve. Could this losing streak prove to be the catalyst to bring Juwan Howard or Jarrell Brantley into the main rotation as the backup big and counter to a team trying to small ball Utah off the floor? That’s an option as both have shown the ability to hit the open three and be playmakers while providing top shelf defense. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The other option could be an in season adjustment that is severely crazy. That’s to become a switching defense and do less funneling to Rudy Gobert. The Rockets were able to run roughshod over the Jazz because of their reliance on isolation basketball. If there is no pick and roll with a big man, there’s no chance Rudy Gobert becomes a part of the defensive equation. For Gobert to become a problem he must leave his man which begins the defensive rotations. Maybe in past years, Utah was disciplined to make it work, but not this year. Not with this team of terrible perimeter defenders.
The other option is going more to a 3-2 zone. Keep Rudy Gobert center, force teams into the midrange, and hound the perimeter. But if you have Houston with 5 out on the perimeter, that’s still a problem.
Point is, the solution is not easy and in the coming year, the Jazz will have to ask the difficult question—provided the Houston experiment is successful—if Rudy Gobert has a future in a league that is continuing to push traditional rim protectors out the door.
The Mike Conley experiment
If Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell finally gel this season, the Jazz’s ceiling goes up exponentially. But getting on the same page includes the defensive end, too. Right now the problem isn’t that Utah can’t score points—which seems so foreign after watching Utah for the past 5 years—it’s that they can’t defend the perimeter. The second is as equally foreign as the first. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell give Utah a really small backcourt. One key to the small ball experiment happening around the league is a lineup that is pretty close in height from point guard to center. They can switch defensive assignments in perpetuity. What does that mean for a Jazz team that would be scared to have Mike Conley switched on a shooting guard as much as a team’s center?
We had all wondered if Donovan Mitchell was a point guard. We got our answer this year. Unfortunately, the team isn’t built right now to support Mitchell as a point guard. That type of repositioning requires an offseason. For this season, Donovan Mitchell has to get used to being off-ball again as he plays with Conley. Can that happen? Can Utah still protect the perimeter?
The buyout life
There are some intriguing names that could be on the buyout market like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Forwards that can guard multiple positions and one of them can actually shoot the ball. But will they hit the market? Will they even want to sign with Utah when they do? Is Utah in contending status? Even if the Jazz get a buyout candidate, most don’t really impact their teams for the better. There are outliers like Chris Anderson or Boris Diaw, but for the most part, there are far more end of the bench guys collecting a check to be warming a chair during a game than providing meaningful minutes in the stretch run.