The Utah Jazz’s 2017-18 season was an 82-game testament to having a solid infrastructure. They lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill in free agency but acquired Ricky Rubio and re-signed Joe Ingles, both of whom became key pieces in Quin Snyder’s system this season. They also acquired the draft’s hidden jewel in Donovan Mitchell, who became the team’s most reliable offensive option in his rookie season. That triad, along with Rudy Gobert—the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year—was good enough for 48 wins, the 5-seed in the West, and a first-round series victory over the star-studded Thunder. A minor miracle considering they started the season with a 19-28 record.
Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey turned a season primed for regression into arguably the most promising Jazz season in recent memory. They might not have been able to overcome the high-powered Houston Rockets, who beat the Jazz 112-102 in Game 5 to win the series, but Utah’s surprising campaign pointed a way forward and, most importantly, presented a potential superstar the team can build around.
Gobert and Mitchell are locked in as cornerstones of the Jazz’s future, and the team is already in the West’s second tier, strong enough to compete against any team in the league other than the NBA’s absolute elite. How Utah builds around its young stars will determine its true ceiling. The Jazz need surefire third and fourth wheels to round out their prized pairing, and the decisions they make this offseason will determine what they can do to move up a tier going forward.
What Should They Do With Derrick Favors?
Favors was a strange barometer for the Jazz’s success this season. Utah was 15-5 when he scored more than 15 points in a game and 13-6 when he grabbed double-digit boards. For the first part of the season, Favors and Gobert were like oil and water, and it dragged the Jazz down and out of the playoff picture. But as the season progressed and Gobert fully recovered from his injuries, the two figured it out: The Jazz outscored opponents at a rate of 7.2 points per 100 possessions when the two shared the court.
Favors is an unrestricted free agent who made $11.75 million this season and will likely command a raise on the market. He’s expressed a desire to come back to the Jazz, but will the team want to bring him back at a bigger price tag? Jae Crowder had taken most of Favors’s crunch-time minutes as well as the starting-4 job by the end of the Rockets series, and his ability to space the floor makes more sense next to the traditional Gobert. (Crowder is also much cheaper, making a combined $15 million over the next two seasons.) Favors might have been slightly more effective than Gobert against the Rockets’ small-ball attack, but this isn’t a him-or-me proposition. The Jazz made that decision long ago.
Ultimately, Favors might not be the right type of player to invest in for a Jazz team that now needs to shift its team-building strategy to cater to Mitchell and Gobert, especially now that they’ve given the latter a four-year, $102 million deal knowing he still has a ways to go before he becomes a competent defender on the perimeter, which is a requirement against elite teams. Favors is the last remaining piece from the Deron Williams trade, and his departure would signal the true end of that dark early-2010s era. In this case, roster flexibility might be far more valuable than continuity.
How Will They Handle Next Season’s Expiring Contracts?
Ricky Rubio is a fascinating figure for the Jazz: As important and impactful as he’s been for them, especially late in the season, he’s almost certainly not the best fit in the backcourt alongside Mitchell going forward. The Spaniard had a renaissance in Utah this season, putting together his highest-scoring and most-efficient shooting season of his seven-year career. But these were career bests relative to Rubio’s past scoring numbers, which were some of the worst ever. Rubio is still not a reliable-enough shooter to play off of the ball, and he still needs the ball in his hands to take advantage of his genius-level vision. Mitchell can work off the ball, but long-term, the Jazz should expect their offense to run through their young star, not Rubio (even if the two have developed an adorable bromance). Another solid scoring season from Rubio would be great for the Jazz but would also make him more expensive to keep around next summer, if that’s the plan.
Alec Burks is also headed into a contract year, and though he played only 64 games this season, it was his healthiest since the 2013-14 season. He’s making $10.6 million and averaging 16.5 minutes per game, which is not ideal, and doesn’t bode well for his next deal. His impressive Game 2 against the Rockets was promising, and the Jazz might look to showcase his talents in order to swing a deal with a team in need of an athletic shot-creator off the bench.
Will the Jazz Be Forced to Make a Decision on the Dante Exum Experience?
Exum has been a mixed bag since he was drafted in 2014, with moments of growth interrupted by injuries year after year. The Aussie’s defense against James Harden in the Rockets series was a revelation and reminded a lot of people why he was so highly touted as a teenager. Exum is still only 22 and will be a restricted free agent this offseason. He has all the tools to be an impact player, and there is surely a contingent of Jazz fans hoping for a future that involves a starting backcourt of Mitchell and Exum. The question is whether another team will spoil the Jazz’s likely plan of extending a qualifying offer by handing Exum an offer sheet of its own. There isn’t a lot of cap space floating around this offseason, but it takes only one team and one executive to make the gamble. There is still plenty to love about Exum’s long-term potential, and that might be enough to make the Jazz pay. That could be the toughest decision they’ll face this summer.