It’s been a week since the Utah Jazz season ended in Houston. After seven days worth of thinking about the 2018-19 season, there’s a lot on my mind. The way the season ended, how it ended, why it ended, etc. What were the best things about this past season? What were the worst? What could have gone better? What went better than expected? It takes time to digest a full season’s worth of questions and reactions, but more there’s one thing more than anything else that is stuck in my mind: how do the Utah Jazz get to the next level?
It’s clear that the Jazz have been, and are, a good, above-average NBA team. Over the past three seasons they have racked up 149 wins, which is 6th most in the league. Only the Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, Celtics and Spurs have more wins over that span. They’ve been a top team defensively over the past three seasons, always residing towards the top of NBA defensive rating metrics, as well as being in the top 10 in net rating. They’ve made the playoffs 3/3 of the last three years, advancing through the first round in two out of the three postseasons while beating some pretty star-studded teams. They have won or been in the running for several personal NBA accolades over that stretch including Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year. It’s pretty safe to say that the Jazz over the past three years have been pretty dang successful.
With all of that being said, it’s 100 percent clear what the overall goal and dream of this Utah Jazz franchise is; bring a championship to Salt Lake City. Gail Miller has said it. Rudy Gobert has said it. Donovan Mitchell has said it. Ever since Stockton and Malone fell to the mighty sword of Michael Jordan twice in the late 90’s, there’s nothing more that the collective people of Utah and Jazz fans everywhere want, than to avenge those losses and hoist the trophy on a parade float through the streets of Salt Lake City.
Since those heartbreaking losses in the NBA Finals, the Jazz have really only been close to contention twice in a 20-year span. The Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer era saw a team that won 50+ games in three out of four years, including reaching the Western Conference finals in 2007. Losing to the Spurs in five games was as far as that team would go.
After that team was blown up by ego and pride, the Jazz fell into their first losing trance since the franchise moved to Utah, missing the playoffs five out of six years. The Jazz have now returned to their winning ways. With one of the most dynamic young stars in Donovan Mitchell, and probable back-to-back DPOY Rudy Gobert, the Jazz are closer to contention than they have been in the last decade.
But how close are they? Their last three playoff eliminations have come in 0-4, 1-4, 1-4 sets at the hands of the two best teams in the NBA over a three-year span. That, to me, shows the harsh reality of how close the Utah Jazz really are to contending with the top dogs.
So how do they get there? How do they get to that next level? They are close, but it seems like it’s still so far away. Looking at things under the simple scope, there’s really only two ways that your team gets better. Either your current players get better, or you get new players. It’s pretty simple. Looking at the first option, whom on the current Jazz roster can get better in such a way that it improves the team and their odds at contention? The first guy this falls on is going to be Donovan Mitchell. Fair or not, the Jazz are going to ride on his shoulders as long as he is here. That’s just how it is with star players, the types of guys that franchise are built around. If Donovan Mitchell came out next season and averaged 28 points per game and improved his efficiency, the odds that the Jazz would be better-suited for contention are immediately increased. The same applies for Rudy Gobert. So much will depend on these two as the cornerstones of this team. But like we saw so much throughout the year, these guys need help. So what other role players can be better next season? Can the Jazz get enough out of guys like Royce O’Neale, Georges Niang, Jae Crowder, etc to really take them to the next level? The lack of a third guy is really what hurt the Jazz during the season, and it was magnified during the Rockets series. The Jazz did not get any improvement out of Joe Ingles or Ricky Rubio, which made things difficult because both of these two mean so much to the success of the team.
The other option at getting to the next level: getting new players. There has been a lot of talk already in the past week about free-agency and trades. Guys names that keep coming up in conversations seem to include Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, and more. These are all obviously pretty high-profile targets, but it’s probably going to take one of these guys, or someone similar, to take the Jazz to the next level.
Dennis Lindsey has a lot on his plate going into this off-season. He’s the one that will ultimately decide if the Jazz trust their current players development, or seek reinforcements through free agency or trades. It’s going to hurt like crazy to see this core group of Jazz players get broken up. If it does happen, it’s going to be hard to swallow. But it’s hopefully in sacrifice of something better and some increased hope at bringing that championship to Utah. The next coming months are going to be some of the most important months of Dennis Lindsey’s tenure as GM, and we will truly see if the Jazz can indeed, take it to the next level.