At first glance, this Utah Jazz season doesn’t seem like much of a regression from their surprising, initial post–Gordon Hayward campaign. In fact, they won two more regular-season games in 2018-19 (50) than in last season. But the surest sign that things did come back down to earth can be found in Round 1 of the playoffs: The Jazz took out a more talented Thunder team in six games in 2018; this season, they were eliminated in five games after losing 100-93 to a buzz saw of a Rockets team on Wednesday. Utah came into the 2018-19 season carrying expectations, which inevitably put a magnifying glass on the team. And now that the Jazz have been eliminated, their future outlook is being examined even more closely. At least they’ll always have this play:
JAZZ FAKE TIMEOUT PLAY!!!— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) April 23, 2019
Great decoy by Rubio & Jazz for the easy layup. pic.twitter.com/rjXQN7A9GT
Now they have a slew of questions to answer going forward. Here are three of the biggest ones as they head into the offseason:
Who will be their “big” free-agent acquisition?
Utah is heading into the offseason with a projected $17 million in cap space and could get to max space by renouncing all its free agents and waiving Derrick Favors’s non-guaranteed contract. Favors looked to be a trade piece earlier in the season, but instead the Jazz held onto him. He was helpful in the playoffs, but is that enough to sacrifice extra cap space? The Jazz need help on the offensive end. They had the second-best defense in the league this season and won most of their games because of their Rudy Gobert–centered scheme: The big man would sit in the middle on defense and stifle opponents. But when it came time to face the best teams, and the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, a strong defense wasn’t enough to mitigate the Jazz’s lack of offensive firepower. That’s what they need to prioritize in free agency.
So, who could they realistically get? Utah has never been a hot free-agent destination, even when the team had Hayward. But the money—and to an extent, a chance to play alongside a rising star in Donovan Mitchell—should talk. If Khris Middleton decides to leave Giannis and Milwaukee (unlikely, but possible) the Jazz would be a good spot for him, and he’d be a perfect scoring option next to Mitchell. So would Tobias Harris, who could be even better, given that he can create his own shot. But he seems like a pipe dream, too, since Philly will likely retain him. The non-point-guard options—including Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb—drop off after that and largely elicit more of a shrug emoji than tangible excitement.
What should they do with Ricky Rubio?
The Rubio question is polarizing. On the one hand, he is a talented guard who has the ability to dazzle. On the other, he is often an offensive liability and would be better served as a sixth man, à la Lou Williams, though with playmaking and defense as his strong suits instead of scoring. That the Jazz have had to rely on him to carry them through bad Mitchell games is telling, and it’s not a sustainable option if they want to compete in the postseason. Utah needs a point guard who can slide in seamlessly next to Mitchell and also has the ability to play off the ball and score consistently when Mitchell takes matters into his own hands. Of course, that wish list may be unrealistic, unless the Jazz can free up enough money to go after someone like Kemba Walker or maybe even D’Angelo Russell, though even with enough money, both would be tough to land.
If the Jazz do keep Rubio, who will be a free agent this summer, there will be some positives—he knows the system and is still valuable. But they would have to improve their wing scoring in other ways to keep them from getting exposed in the playoffs again. Utah needs more bullets in its chamber and more options for Quin Snyder to play with. Mitchell, a second-year player, cannot carry the burden on his own. Speaking of Mitchell …
What’s the next step for Donovan Mitchell?
Mitchell has proved a lot through his first two seasons in the league, but there’s room for improvement. His shot selection isn’t always ideal (though one could argue that he’s needed to average 20 shots a game given what the team’s other offensive options are), and he can be erratic, just as you would expect most 22-year-olds to be. It’s easy to say that Mitchell just needs help, but he already has the right coach and system; now he needs to turn his raw talent into a refined product—one that should result in an All-Star-level campaign sooner rather than later.
After a strong second half of the season (he averaged 26.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 46 percent shooting after the All-Star break), it was Mitchell’s poor shooting that ended up costing the Jazz in their 104-101 Game 3 loss to the Rockets, even after Harden missed his first 15 shots. And in Game 5, he bricked shot after shot down the stretch, finishing a terrible 4-of-22 from the field. The former Louisville guard came onto the scene loudly, but now he needs to find consistency to enter the superstar conversation. (To wit: Mitchell helped the Jazz win Game 4 and stave off elimination by putting up 19 points in the fourth quarter.) There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to, just like there’s no reason Utah couldn’t become a true contender next season.