The potential movement of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will define the 2018 offseason and, if they join forces, possibly vault one team into the thick of championship contention. The other 29 teams will vie for flotsam and jetsam, because inactivity in a bustling league is akin to regression. And yet it seems the Utah Jazz, one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 season, would be content with stasis. All signs point to the team re-signing big man Derrick Favors, currently the longest-tenured Jazz player on the roster; restricted free agent Dante Exum’s body of work is also likely too thin for a team to tender an offer sheet lucrative enough to wrest him away from Utah. The entire contents of the team’s offseason could very well fall into their lap. Whether that’s a boon or a mild disappointment depends on how you view the Jazz’s trajectory.
By the end of the season, Utah had an argument—postseason included— that it was a top-five team in the NBA. The Jazz had a beautiful narrative that started with scorched earth. A torturous 2017 offseason saw a homegrown star in Gordon Hayward and their second-best playmaker in George Hill leave them for nothing. Then a bizarre Ricky Rubio renaissance manifested. Then Donovan Mitchell happened. Rudy Gobert was injured, and then he wasn’t, and then he made an unimpeachable statement as the league’s most dominant defensive presence. Nothing fit quite the way it should have, but Quin Snyder proved to be a perfect adhesive. The Jazz last season were simply playing within their means, deploying an irreplicable defensive scheme and an egalitarian offense that relied both on the wit and discipline of players like Rubio and Joe Ingles, and on the star-making creative impulses of their rookie phenom in Mitchell. After a lukewarm start, the team finished with the fifth-best net rating in the regular season, and were the best defense in the league.
They were elite-adjacent. Their weaknesses against future-forward teams like the Warriors and Rockets put a cap on their upward mobility, and prospects hardly changed in their five-game loss to the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. (Rubio missed the series with a hamstring injury, and while he’d had a great postseason up to that point, it’s hard to imagine him being the difference-maker against the second-best team in the NBA.)
In prosperity, operating a system that cuts against the grain can be an identity to rally around; in tumult, it feels more like a curse. Since 2015, the Gobert-Favors tandem has reflected Utah’s status as a team with old-school conventions; the game hasn’t necessarily passed the Jazz by over those three years, but it has made their rigid, twin-center lineups less and less tenable as a championship-winning strategy. The push and pull of two overlapping talents trying to establish themselves as complementary has gone on for so long it’s a wonder that Favors has endured long enough to see his unrestricted free agency in Salt Lake City. Snyder proved last season that the puzzle pieces of a roster don’t necessarily need to fit to form a bona fide playoff team, but to advance to the next echelon, a much more coherent vision needs to be established. Daryl Morey’s obsession with cracking the modern NBA code got him within one game of the NBA Finals. This summer could be the first step in the Jazz brass opting for a similar vision, retrofitted around the game-changing talents of Gobert—and without Favors.
But it might not be that simple. Where the Rockets have no qualms with being painted as mercenaries, there is warmth in the small-market intimacy of the Jazz. As GM Dennis Lindsey told The Undefeated, “Derrick has to do his due diligence, and so do we,” Lindsey said. “But we think the best option is the incumbent ones and continuity. This team has the heart of the city. The city is attached to them.” It’s a strange moral calculus added to the top of the cost-benefit analysis of offseason decision-making. Can a small-market team risk not playing it safe?
The odds favor Favors staying put regardless. If the Mavericks are indeed keen on trading for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, the most obvious destination for Favors will be eliminated from contention. The Jazz could offer a more appealing combination of money and opportunity than any other team left in the field. At worst, Utah maintains a possible asset in a future trade instead of losing his services for nothing. But re-signing Favors raises the question: What exactly is the endgame for this era of Jazz basketball?
As it stands, the Jazz can hold their own against 90 percent of the league; it’s that final 10 percent in the top tier that remains elusive in a seven-game series, and where Favors’s placelessness becomes glaring. He averaged 32.8 minutes in a first-round series against the Thunder, which would have been a career high if extrapolated over a full season; in the Rockets series, that figure plummeted to 17.9, fewer than Alec Burks and only 3.5 minutes more on average than Exum, who was cleared to play his first five-on-five basketball of the season less than two months prior. Against a five-out small-ball attack, Utah’s twin towers configuration became a liability; midseason acquisition Jae Crowder absorbed all the minutes at the 4 as a floor-spacing small-ball weapon. Their roster construction invited teams to exploit their weak links, which, as we saw all postseason long, is a great way to lose. The Jazz may have positioned themselves as countercultural in a league of superteams and small-ball offenses, but sometimes backward thinking is just backward: Committing to a player, perhaps with a deal above market value, only to keep him off the floor in the most critical juncture of the season doesn’t seem to be in the best interests of either party.
Favors may have hit on some bad luck becoming a free agent in this offseason, but he is absolutely a starting center in the NBA. At 6-foot-10 with a strong body and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Favors has the requisite size to anchor a defense, and enough lateral mobility to track players out on the perimeter. While his recent spate of injuries has sapped some of the vertical explosiveness he had in his earlier years, he can still get up when given space. He may not be the most creative player, but it’s more a pro than con: Having been indoctrinated in the Jazz culture for seven years, he can make quick reads and execute simple passes to the open man, and has shown some flashes of playmaking ability on the short roll. It’s the time of year when all big men are working on their 3-point accuracy, which is often more of an I’ll believe it when I see it proposition, but it is worth noting that 72 percent of Favors’s 94 career 3-pointers were attempted last season alone—he has the touch to get into the 30s, percentage-wise, if he develops the confidence to start shooting them more regularly. He wouldn’t be a particularly sexy option for the Mavericks should they strike out on a Jordan trade, but he’s a no-nonsense big who can do a little bit of everything, which would be perfect for a team being led by two talented but inexperienced guards. The knock on the Favors situation in Utah isn’t about his talent, it’s simply about fit.
It’s interesting to consider in hindsight the rumored deal that would’ve sent Favors to Chicago for Nikola Mirotic (who would later be traded to New Orleans), and how that might’ve changed Utah’s outlook. In theory, Mirotic would’ve been a perfect match for the Jazz’s construction. Mirotic is a confident 3-point shooter who is more comfortable defending on the perimeter than either of the Jazz big men. He put his defensive chops on display in the Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Trail Blazers, hounding either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum on hard traps of Portland’s vaunted pick-and-roll. Mirotic’s job on the Jazz would’ve been further streamlined: push his opponent to areas of the floor where Gobert can most easily obliterate the attack. Though, considering how easily the Warriors were able to cancel out Mirotic in their second-round series with the Pelicans simply by having Andre Iguodala shadow him, perhaps Niko wouldn’t have been enough, either.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, there aren’t many realistic options should they push for a more forward-leaning player. Ideally, Utah would acquire an elite athlete who can defend three positions and show playmaking upside and 3-point range—so, basically, exactly what the rest of the league is looking for. Restricted free agent Aaron Gordon’s skill set is essentially a perfect match, but the Jazz would likely have to renounce all their cap holds and throw everything at him just to come close to Gordon’s contract demands—and there’s also the strong likelihood that the Magic will match any offer that’s sent their way. Jabari Parker is another restricted free agent who could be worth a look, though taking on another recent Duke product with no intentions of playing defense (not to mention the serious injury concerns) might be a tough pill to swallow.
There are no catch-all solutions for a small-market team on the cusp. The front office’s belief in continuity is both a noble gesture toward a loyal fan base and a nod to Occam’s razor. Making the leap into elite territory isn’t easy, and the Jazz might be better off biding their time waiting for an irresistible opportunity to come their way rather than forcing themselves into a new situation just for the sake of newness. But running it back without addressing (or even acknowledging) the significant flaws in a roster can create the unenviable situations that the Raptors, Blazers, and Grizzlies have recently found themselves in. Mitchell may be the team’s eventual superstar, but for as long as Gobert remains their center, the team will have to structure itself around his capabilities, a challenge without a clear solution.
After winning the 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year award earlier this week, Gobert reflected on the Jazz’s position in a league where everyone is simply waiting for the next superteam to be built. “I take so much pride into what we are building right now as a team that, to me, it means more than just go and change to another team or ride somebody’s boat,” Gobert said. “I think what’s happening, what we’re building means more than anything.” The Jazz were a feel-good story last season, and Gobert has voiced his championship aspiration for the squad. But heightened expectations demand forward progress, and it’s hard to see how that momentum can continue if the Jazz hold firm to the team they were yesterday.