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Can the Utah Jazz Be This Year’s Bucks?

The Jazz have had lots of regular-season success followed by postseason flameouts, which sounds an awful lot like the team that just won the championship before last year. What can Utah do to reach the same heights as Milwaukee?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When it ends, it ends quickly. You grind so hard for so long, sanding down every rough edge and seeking out every minute advantage. And it works: You win more games than anybody else during the marathon regular season, and head into the playoffs with the no. 1 overall seed. And then, for one reason or another, it doesn’t work anymore. It just stops, and so do you; all that’s left is to try to figure out why, in hopes that, next time around, you might finally delay that end until the end.

The Bucks owned the NBA’s best record for two straight seasons, thanks to a suffocating defense, a “let it fly” offense, and the transcendent play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who became just the 12th player ever named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in back-to-back seasons. But their machine broke down in the playoffs—first when Kawhi Leonard outdueled Antetokounmpo in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, and then when Jimmy Butler’s Heat blitzed the Bucks in 2020’s second round, sending the franchise and its cornerstone in search of something to believe in. They found it last season, surviving scares against the Nets and Hawks before blasting out of an 0-2 hole to beat the Suns and win the NBA championship.

It was a victory born of perseverance, yes, but also of the ability to regroup, retool, and refine. The Bucks took a long, hard, fresh look at themselves after another playoff defeat and made pointed corrections: first, the all-in trade to replace Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday; then, tweaking their tactics and investing the time to develop counters. They adjusted their offensive spacing to make it harder for opponents to build a wall against Antetokounmpo’s battering-ram drives. They ramped up the amount of time Giannis spent setting screens in the pick-and-roll. They more frequently switched screens on defense (especially after the midseason arrival of P.J. Tucker) to have an answer for pull-up-happy offenses that could roast drop coverage.

There were growing pains; Milwaukee finished third in the East, after two straight no. 1 seeds. But using the regular season as a laboratory and figuring out other ways to play paid off handsomely when it mattered most. “This is the hard way to do it,” Antetokounmpo said after defeating Phoenix. “And this is the way to do it, and we did it. We fucking did it.”

Now that Milwaukee has reached the mountaintop, another ascendant team that’s been stopped short—one that Antetokounmpo said last February reminded him of the 2019-20 Bucks—enters the 2021-22 NBA season hoping it’s their turn to reach the summit.

The Jazz own the NBA’s third-highest regular-season winning percentage over the past three seasons, behind only the Bucks and Nuggets. Quin Snyder’s club went a league-best 52-20 last season, with the highest net rating of any team since Kevin Durant’s first season in Golden State, and the 17th-largest average margin of victory ever—just a few spots south of the 2019-20 Bucks.

Like Milwaukee, the Jazz have built a perennially elite defense around decimating rim protection, with Rudy Gobert leading the way to a top-three finish in points allowed per possession in four of the past five seasons. Like Milwaukee, the Jazz have built an elite attack, rising from 16th to third in offensive efficiency in four years’ time thanks to how Gobert’s gravity and the development of Donovan Mitchell help create open long-range shots; the ‘20-’21 Jazz took more 3-pointers per game than any non-Harden Rockets team in history, and they made more than any team ever.

And, like Milwaukee, Utah’s pristine regular-season machine has short-circuited in the playoffs.

In five straight postseason trips, the Jazz have yet to advance past the second round. They’ve had tough injury luck along the way: George Hill missing most of the second round against the Warriors in 2017, Ricky Rubio missing all of the second round against the Rockets in 2018, Bojan Bogdanovic missing the Disney World restart in 2020, and Mitchell and Mike Conley being limited against the Clippers in June. But they’ve also authored consecutive collapses—a blown 3-1 lead against the Nuggets in the bubble, and a squandered 2-0 advantage over the Clippers, capped by a closeout loss in a Game 6 that they led by 21 points in the third quarter—that left them maddeningly shy of their championship aspirations.

“No team evolves at the same pace,” general manager Justin Zanik told reporters after the season. “The blueprint of trying to go from good to great is hard and complicated.”

All the more so when you’re trying to build a championship team in a non-glamour market that rarely draws marquee free agents. And when the thing you need most—wings who can defend on the perimeter, knock down 3-point shots, and create off the bounce—are perhaps the most valuable and difficult-to-find players in the sport. And when existing salary commitments—more than $103 million this season for Gobert, Mitchell, Conley, and Bogdanovic, plus $25 million more for Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson and runner-up Joe Ingles—leave you over the cap and deep in the luxury tax, with precious little financial flexibility for talent upgrades.

But complicated isn’t impossible, and when you’re as close to the brass ring as the Jazz believe they are—as close as they’ve been since the waning days of Stockton-to-Malone—you damn the torpedoes and go for it.

“Only one team wins the championship every year,” Gobert told reporters during Jazz training camp. “So, every other team, they have to look at what they didn’t do and figure out what they can do the next season. ... We have a goal of winning a championship. But, until we do, we have things that we need to improve.”

As it did for Milwaukee, that meant using the offseason to bring in problem-solving personnel, and it means using the regular season to develop familiarity and comfort with playing different styles by the postseason.

Even with Kawhi Leonard’s season-ending knee injury in Game 4, the Clippers unceremoniously drummed Utah out of the postseason. Tyronn Lue downsized, mothballing centers—Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 49 minutes in the first two games of the series, and then played 45 over the final four—in favor of five-out lineups in which nobody was taller than 6-foot-8, but everybody was a credible threat to shoot 3s and make plays off the dribble.

Those lineups forced the Jazz out of their comfort zone—and forced Gobert out of the paint to guard the likes of Nicolas Batum and Terance Mann in the corners. The small-ball shift annihilated Utah, as L.A. scored a scorching 133.9 points per 100 possessions over the final four games of Round 2 on what had been the league’s no. 1 defense throughout the regular season.

But while the play you’re most likely remembering as emblematic of those minutes involves Mann driving past Gobert from the corner for a very loud dunk, a lot of the damage—especially in L.A.’s series-clinching Game 6 comeback—came as a result of Utah’s perimeter defenders being wholly unable to keep Paul George or Reggie Jackson out of the paint. That forced Gobert to sag in to protect the rim, which left Batum and Mann wide open for spot-up 3s, catch-and-go drives, and chances to crash the offensive glass and tip-dunk on the nape of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year’s neck:

Healthy versions of Mitchell and Conley—ones who hadn’t seen their mobility hampered by a balky ankle and hamstring, respectively—might have been better equipped to hold up at the point of attack, shutting down some of that dribble penetration and limiting some of those wide-open looks. Getting through the regular season and into April, May, and June fully intact is of paramount importance for the Jazz. (Asked on media day to identify the keys to Utah making a Finals run, Zanik mentioned “health” twice.) With that in mind—and with five members of Utah’s rotation age 32 or older, and Gobert, Bogdanovic (who’s dealing with a shoulder injury), and Joe Ingles all coming off of international duty this summer—it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Snyder throttle back on his top guys’ minutes this season.

The Jazz have tried to preserve Conley by resting him during back-to-backs over the past two seasons; maybe the 34-year-old Ingles joins him from time to time with an eye on the big picture, even if it means sacrificing a win or two here and there. It could also crack the door open for some of Utah’s younger deep bench players—like rookie combo guard Jared Butler and third-year swingman Miye Oni—to show their defensive wares, earn their coach’s trust, and establish themselves as options to throw at opposing ball-handlers for short bursts when it counts. (Tony Jones of The Athletic reports that Utah’s coaches “have raved” during training camp about, among other things, “how [Butler has] been stout defensively.”)

While getting its best players to the playoffs healthy and at full strength tops Utah’s list of priorities for the upcoming season, the Jazz also came away from the Clippers loss knowing they needed to be able to play smaller, too. Enter Rudy Gay—well, eventually, since he’ll miss the entire preseason recovering from heel surgery—to provide the small-ball option missing from last season’s roster. (Former Warriors forward and Mitchell pal Eric Paschall could fill the same niche, though the jury’s out on how much he can play the 5.)

At this stage of his career, Gay’s neither an offensive centerpiece nor a lockdown defender. What he is, though, is big, awfully spry for a 35-year-old five years removed from an Achilles rupture, and versatile on both ends of the floor. He’s become a viable long-range shooter, knocking down 36.5 percent of his 3-point attempts over the past five seasons, with most of them coming above the break. He knows how to move the ball, can work either end of the pick-and-roll, and helps out on the defensive glass, pulling down more than 20 percent of opponents’ misses in each of the last three seasons.

At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Gay gives the Jazz a big, physical defensive option against big-wing playmakers—his most frequent defensive matchups last season included Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Pascal Siakam—which could be really useful for a team that’s been overly reliant on the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Royce O’Neale against those sorts of opponents. And he does it while still being fleet enough of foot to hold up down the positional spectrum in a pinch. According to The BBall Index’s lineup data, Gay spent nearly 40 percent of his floor time guarding opposing power forwards last season, about a third of it guarding wings, and more than 13 percent each on point guards and centers.

That level of defensive versatility could make Gay a very good small-ball 5 in switching lineups, should Snyder decide it’s time for the Jazz to develop a change-up. Gay has primarily played the 4 over the past several seasons, largely as a member of typically excellent second units in San Antonio. But the 15-year veteran has started to slide up a position of late, playing 8 percent of his minutes at center two seasons ago and 9 percent last season, according to Cleaning the Glass; the Spurs held up effectively when he did so, defending at above-league-average efficiency and outscoring opponents by a healthy margin.

Another potential benefit of playing Gay at the 5: He’s well equipped to make an opponent pay for trying to stick a smaller wing or guard on him at the offensive end. You wouldn’t want to build your offense around throwing the ball to Gay on the block, but he’s scored 0.9 points per possession or better on post-ups in five of the last six seasons, and he provides a serviceable option to get a bucket down there when the defense is trying to muck things up:

(For what it’s worth: Gobert’s not exactly a back-to-the-basket scorer, and he doesn’t need to become Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic for the Jazz to win a title. But using his size smartly and aggressively—hunting chances to duck in and seal smaller defenders under the basket, looking for opportunities to get deep touches, and going up strong to either finish at the rim or draw the foul—is something he can do, and that he did with more regularity for France this summer on the way to a silver medal at the Summer Olympics. Showing more of that sort of bully-ball in his game would make it less tenable for opponents to downsize against Utah with impunity.)

There are issues. Chief among them: Underpinning all the adjustments, the Bucks had Giannis—the kind of two-way thunderbolt who could bend the game to his will, average 30-13-5 on 57 percent shooting for a full postseason, go toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant and score 40 to win a Game 7 on the road, author two instantly iconic plays to ice Finals games, and hang 50 to win the title. Utah doesn’t have that player; it tries to approximate him in aggregate. Mitchell has looked phenomenal offensively over his past two postseasons, averaging 34 points and five assists while shooting 46 percent from deep on more than 10 attempts per game, and Gobert can be the league’s most dominant interior presence. But they’ll both need to level up in a big way—amplifying their strengths to anchor Utah on their respective ends of the court, and mitigating their weaknesses on the other—if they hope to be able to combine for something comparable to what the Giannises, Durants, LeBrons, and Kawhis provide under the brightest lights.

That’s not all. While Milwaukee raised its ceiling by swapping Bledsoe for Holiday, who was their second- or third-best player last year, much of the hope in Salt Lake City stems from the stylistic benefits of a new eighth man who’s more likely to be a “useful piece [than a] game-changing addition.” (Though, in fairness, you could argue that Utah’s version of the Jrue boost would be having Mitchell and Conley at 100 percent.) Utah’s roster construction also still requires two 6-foot-1 guards responsible for shouldering a ton of offensive responsibility to step up as tip-of-the-spear defenders. It’s possible that a clean bill of health for the stars and the introduction of Gay won’t be enough to make the Jazz this year’s Bucks, and that, by season’s end, new Jazz owner Ryan Smith decides that the one of the NBA’s most expensive rosters has run its course, and that changes are required for Utah to take the next step.

Those are massive stakes, putting a ton of pressure on everyone in a Utah uniform. “We have to make this push,” Mitchell said on media day. “That’s no secret.”

To push forward, though, Snyder and Co. need to risk a step back, exploring and using all the raw materials at their disposal to try to make the Jazz matchup-proof come the playoffs. If they can’t, and if the disappointments of the past can’t spur them toward a new path in the present, then one of the best teams of the last few years might not have much of a future; when it ends, it ends quickly.

“We really feel like we have the opportunity to do something special,” Gobert told reporters. “But we also know that the window doesn’t stay open for long.”