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Best Case, Worst Case: Utah Jazz

The no. 7 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has an outside shot at the NBA Finals—if its best player can hang with the best teams in the playoffs

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard lookat the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 7

Last Season: 48-34

Notable Additions: Grayson Allen (draft)

Notable Subtractions: Jonas Jerebko (free agency)

Vegas Over/Under: 48.5

Team MVP: Rudy Gobert

Best Case: The Jazz get the no. 1 seed out West, which pushes the Warriors and Rockets into the other side of the bracket. Utah sneaks into the NBA Finals and wins a championship.

Utah didn’t need to do much this offseason. Its best two players are 22 (Donovan Mitchell) and 26 (Rudy Gobert), and it has only one starter (Joe Ingles) on the wrong side of 30. Finding a star like Mitchell with the no. 13 overall pick changed the trajectory of the franchise. Instead of falling off after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency, the Jazz plugged in Mitchell and didn’t miss a step. After taking a few months to figure out the team, Utah closed the season on a 29-6 run and upset Oklahoma City in the first round.

Mitchell and the Jazz are a perfect marriage of player and team. At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete whose ability to shoot 3s off the dribble creates floor spacing for a starting lineup with two traditional big men (Gobert and Derrick Favors) and a poor-shooting point guard (Ricky Rubio). All of their pieces work well together. Mitchell opens up the floor for Rubio and Gobert to operate in the pick-and-roll, and, with Rubio running the offense and Gobert anchoring the defense, the young star can focus on scoring.

Gobert, not Mitchell, was Utah’s most valuable player last season. At 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds with a historically long 7-foot-9 wingspan, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year creates a no-fly zone at the front of the rim, allowing teammates to funnel penetration into his outstretched arms. It’s not just defense, either. Gobert’s ability to roll to the rim and finish in traffic (he was in the 87th percentile of roll men in the NBA last season) collapses the defense and creates open 3s and driving lanes for his teammates.

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder cycled through several versions of his team before finding one that clicked in mid-February, and he should have an even deeper roster to experiment with this season. Utah has waves of long and athletic players at every position. It’s in the sweet spot where its best players have experience playing together, but still have something to prove in the regular season. The Jazz don’t have as much talent as the Warriors and the Rockets, but they are more motivated to make a push for the no. 1 overall seed, which is crucial for them to make a backdoor run at the NBA Finals.

Worst Case: Gobert has no answers for small-ball lineups in the playoffs, and the Jazz once again collapse against elite competition.

Gobert is the perfect regular-season center, when most teams drop their big men back on pick-and-rolls, instead of switching screens like the best teams do in the playoffs. No elite player is impacted more by that change than Gobert. He doesn’t have the foot speed to stay with the best perimeter players behind the 3-point line, and he doesn’t have the offensive game to create his own shot against smaller players in one-on-one situations. There’s no way for him to roll to the rim when the defense switches to keep a body on him.

Despite going from a backcourt of Hayward and George Hill in 2017 to Mitchell and Rubio in 2018, Utah’s playoff performance was almost exactly the same. It knocked off teams with more traditional centers in the first round: the Clippers (DeAndre Jordan) and the Thunder (Steven Adams). And then it got run off the floor in the second round by Golden State and Houston, respectively, both of whom spread the floor with 3-point shooters and attacked Gobert in space.

Even if the Jazz don’t face either of the two Western Conference juggernauts in the first two rounds of the playoffs, they will still probably have to deal with at least one small-ball team that will pose serious matchup problems for them. What happens if they play New Orleans with Anthony Davis at the 5 and Nikola Mirotic at the 4? Or the Lakers with LeBron James at the 5 and Kyle Kuzma at the 4? Gobert will have to find an answer to those lineups to stay on the floor.

He can either work on his lateral mobility so that he can switch screens on defense, or become more of a shot creator so that he can punish switches on offense. He’s still young enough to hope that he’s not done growing as a player. After all, few predicted that Gobert, the no. 27 overall pick in the 2013 draft, would even be this good. If he doesn’t improve against small-ball lineups, though, the Jazz may have to bench their best player and overhaul the way they play at the most important point of the season.

TL; DR: Gobert giveth, and Gobert taketh away. Can a team whose best player is a shot-blocking, rim-running 5 win a championship in 2019?