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2021 Jazz post-mortem: the perils of being very good not great

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The Jazz have to find a way to take things to another level

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

After a tremendous regular season where the Jazz secured the one seed in the Western Conference for the first time since Stockton and Malone, the Jazz finished the season losing four straight to the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference semifinals. The path to the Finals looked about as serendipitous as one could hope for: the Lakers eliminated in the first round on the opposite side of the bracket, the Clippers losing Kawhi Leonard for games 5 & 6 with the series tied 2-2, and the Suns facing questions about Chris Paul’s availability; heck, throw in the Brooklyn Nets’ injuries woes and there was period of about 48 hours where I had convinced myself that this was Jazz’s title year. And then I watched Terrence Mann score as many points in the second half of Game 6 as Derrick Favors did in the entirety of the Jazz’s 11-game playoff run. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time over the past 2.5 weeks on ESPN’s trade machine gauging the value of a Georges Niang sign-and-trade (spoiler: it’s not great) or trying to convince yourself that Otto Porter Jr. actually still plays in the NBA or that Justise Winslow just needs a change of scenery.

The Clippers series was an annual reminder that as great as the Jazz are and were in the regular season, there are fundamental flaws in the team’s foundation that become glaring once the playoffs begin. Ask any diehard Jazz fan what keeps them up at night and I promise that right now it will be one of our guards or wings getting beat off the dribble, Rudy helping from the offside corner, and [insert any Clipper player under 6’9”] hitting a corner three as Rudy rushes hopelessly to close out.

We’ve seen a similar story unfold over the past three years in the playoffs: Last year in the bubble we saw the Jazz give up a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets, who then went on to get rocked in 5 by the eventual champion Lakers; the year before we saw the Jazz lose in 5 to the Rockets, who would go on to lead a competitive series against the Warriors until they lost the series clincher with Kevin Durant out with an injury. And on and on it goes. In each of those series, our regular-season defensive strength surrounding Rudy Gobert ended up becoming a liability. And in each of those series, we lacked star power to go punch for punch. In short— we just weren’t good enough.

In the NBA there are three ways to better your team: draft, trade, and sign free agents. Let’s take a look briefly at how the Jazz have employed each of these three strategies in the past five years.

Signing Free Agents

The quickest way to get better—get already good players to come play for you. The Jazz have demonstrated a small amount of success in luring mid-level free agents to Salt Lake City, however, Utah has not—and will likely not for the foreseeable future be a free agent destination—although I’d be ecstatic for my Silicon Slopes bros to prove me wrong. Whereas we’ve experienced moderate success with signing Bojan Bogdanovic or Jordan Clarkson to favorable deals, the Jazz have never in history been able to sign an All-NBA talent. For goodness’ sake, a list of the best five Jazz FA signings is topped by Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur!

In isolation, our free agents signings could be seen as wins—however, in that same five-year other Western Conference teams have added LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Chris Paul via free agency. I’m pointing out the obvious here—free agency has never been nor will ever be a huge lever for the Jazz to improve its top-level talent.

Trade

If you can’t sign them, trade for them! Or something like that. Over the past five years, the Jazz have had a strong trade record where in return for relatively minimal assets, we’ve traded for George Hill and Mike Conley— both of whom started and starred for the Jazz in the term of their contracts—Conley’s contract expired this year which is the reason for the past tense. That being said, the Jazz still were never able to land blockbuster trade assets (e.g. an All-NBA talent)—partly because we never had the blockbuster chips to include.

Hill and Conley were and have been great Jazz-men, however, they also led us to the aforementioned playoff exits and disappointments.

The Draft

In the summer of 2017, Gordon Hayward announced he would be signing with the Boston Celtics, and the Jazz looked prime for a reset and rebuild. Yes, the team had just made the second round of the playoffs, but we’d lost our leader in points and were left with seemingly no potentially dominant offensive players. And then we drafted Donovan Mitchell (don’t come at me, chronology purists!). Mitchell blossomed and bloomed faster than anyone expected and the Jazz have made the playoffs in each of his four seasons since entering the league.

Mitchell’s rise was a boon to Jazz fans who had been scorned by Gordon Hayward’s departure. In each of Mitchell’s first four years in the league, we’ve made the playoffs. However, this success also came to the detriment of building a true playoff contender. Our continued success meant that when we could have, and probably should have, been adding young talent with potential to surround Mitchell, we were instead adding late first-round picks with limited upside.

Over the past five seasons, the Jazz’s effective average first-round draft selection over its four picks has been 22nd. When compared to the rest of the league, that ranks 27th with only San Antonio, Brooklyn, and Houston having a lower average first-round pick selection (Houston has actually selected zero players in the first round over the past five years).

Outside of the Mitchell pick, the Jazz have (excluding draft-day trades) drafted three other players in the first round: Udoka Azubuike, Grayson Allen, and Tony Bradley. Only Azubuike remains on the roster, and Azubuike played in only 15 games last season—but what can you expect from the 27th pick?

If we expand our survey to look at each of the eight teams who made the Conference Finals, things become particularly interesting.

Both in terms of number of first-round picks and in average pick selection, the Jazz rank near the bottom. The teams at the top: Philadelphia—still trusting the process; Atlanta—a team that looks primed for sustained success as their young players continue to develop, and Phoenix—a team that’s representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

Of the teams at the bottom of both picks and average pick selection: the Clippers—who had two All-NBA stars join them in 2019, the Bucks—who have a two-time MVP, and the Nets who had two All-NBA stars also join them in 2019 and who added James Harden via trade this season, and the Jazz—who had an ascendant offensive superstar and a 3-time defensive player of the year, but who lacked the proverbial “juice” to get over the hump.

When I look back on the playoff failures of seasons past, and, what I expect, will be further disappointments in years to come, this will be the hill that I die on: the Jazz’s inability to bottom out and get better through the draft in and around Donovan’s first years in the league ultimately resulted in us not being good enough to win a title.

The Importance of the Process

The Hinkie-era 76ers took a lot of heat for adhering to the “Process” losing an incredible 253 games over a four-season span. However, the results speak for themselves: two number 1 picks in back-to-back years, two number 3 picks in back-to-back years and two number 10 picks over a five-year span. Yes, the 76ers have yet to make the Finals, but let’s assume that Ben Simmons didn’t regress offensively and that rather than taking Markelle Fultz they took Jayson Tatum in 2017. Or let’s assume that instead of taking Jahlil Okafor a year after taking Joel Embiid, they took a guard like Devin Booker. If any of those scenarios go differently, we could be talking about the 76ers on a dynastic run.

The point is that bottoming out in the draft in subsequent years benefits teams—especially those in smaller markets—in three distinct ways: (1) the potential of landing a superstar, (2) getting talented upward-trending players on a discount relative to their value, and (3) building a team with players on roughly the same schedule developmentally.

Let’s start with point 1: While it may be true that the expected return on a number 1 overall draft pick is Matt Barnes, it’s also true that there is variance in the value of draft picks and that for all the Anthony Bennetts, there are also the Anthony Davises.

Draft Pick Trade Value Chart - 2017 Version - Kevin Pelton

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton analyzed the expected value of a draft pick relative to number 1 picks. Unsurprisingly, the line trends downward, with the most precipitous decline being between picks 1 and 5. However, what is also interesting to note is the expected value between picks 10 and 22 (where the Jazz are on average selecting) is about 2x.

So were the Jazz to have selected higher in the draft, there’s not only potential that we would have gotten more stars to complement Donovan and Rudy, but also a higher probability that we would have just had rotational players to surround them.

On to point 2: The rookie scale on contracts is very favourable to teams as young players mature and grow. The average NBA salary in the 2021-2022 season was just over $10m; the rookie scale for a first-year player starting in 2021 started at $8.1m for the first pick in the draft and descended with draft selection. Even though the salaries increase year on year, so does the players' value and contribution—perhaps even more so than the salary increase.

https://basketball.realgm.com/nba/info/rookie_scale/2021

This discrepancy between young players on their first contracts compared to veteran players becomes especially apparent when looking at the Jazz’s payroll over the next few years. With Donovan entering his max contract years, we are loaded with older players on veteran contracts and are limited in our flexibility to sign additional players who may help boost our contending odds.

Jazz Payroll

And finally, point 3: By drafting players in subsequent years they’re able to grow and develop together and peak at the same time. This has been one of the Jazz’s most glaring difficulties as we’ve struggled through the playoffs over the past ten years. When we’ve made significant trades (i.e. for Michael Conley), we are generally catching a player who is the back-end of his prime—and that’s being generous—whereas Donovan and Rudy are beginning and in the middle of their own. But on the flip side, if we were to now miraculously end up with a top draft pick either by trading assets or having a bad injury year, that player would be on a different developmental timeline as our other stars.

Conclusion (if you’ve made it this far, congratulations!)

In short: the Jazz have failed at failing. For the better part of the past twenty years, we have rarely bottomed out, and when we have, we generally quickly return to relevance as a perpetual four to six seed with rare exception. This in turn has limited our high-end upside and put us in the prime position as the team that is always the bridesmaid but never the bride.

And in response to the Jazz optimists who may be saying: “Why are you so down? We were the best team in the West this year. Conley barely played in the Clippers series, and Mitchell was hurt. Wait till next year when we have a clean bill of health and one more year of chemistry. We’ll be back.” The problem is this year was the Jazz’s best window of opportunity. The Lakers were injured and knocked out on the opposite side of the bracket, the Clippers lost Kawhi in game 4 of a tied 2-2 series, and the East was ravaged with injury. Next year, the Warriors will be back, the Lakers will be healthy, the Suns will be just as good, and other young and promising teams like Memphis and New Orleans will be developing and getting better.

Maybe the departure of Dennis Lindsey solves some of those problems facing the Jazz—it probably doesn’t. The tradeable asset chest is wanting—ironically again because we’ve been too good to have good young players to trade or desirable future draft picks. Our only hope is that we somehow nail the 30th pick or get a steal in free agency.

But as of now, it looks like for the next couple of years the Jazz are going to be just another good, but not great, team.