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The Jazz Have Hit Their Ceiling. It’s Time to Improvise.

Utah is exiting the playoffs early once again after falling flat to the Kawhi-less Clippers. While the team dominated the regular season, it must accept the reality that its current core just isn’t built for the playoffs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This was supposed to be the Jazz’s season. They looked unbeatable for most of the regular season, with the best record (52-20) and net rating (plus-9.0) in the league. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are both in their primes, and are flanked by established veterans at every position who fit perfectly into their roles. The advanced stats all had them as a title favorite.

Utah’s path to the NBA Finals was seemingly as open as it would ever be. The team didn’t have to beat either LeBron James, who was eliminated in the first round, or Kawhi Leonard, who hurt his knee in the middle of the team’s second-round series against the Clippers.

Even without Mike Conley Jr., who missed the first five games of the series with a hamstring injury before coming back in Game 6 as a shell of himself, the Jazz should have been able to close out the shorthanded Clippers. But they blew their chance in games 5 and 6 with Kawhi on the sideline, losing in the second round for the third time in five seasons. That looks like the ceiling for this group of players.

The Jazz’s primary issue against Los Angeles was that they couldn’t get stops to save their lives. The Jazz had a defensive rating of 127.7 in the series. Kawhi’s absence didn’t even make a difference. The Clippers scored 119 points on 51.2 percent shooting in Game 5 and 131 points on 51.3 percent shooting in Game 6. Defense isn’t as important as it once was in the NBA. But that doesn’t mean a team can let its opponent stroll into an open shot every time down the floor.

The Jazz are normally a great defensive team due to the presence of Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, at the front of the rim. There’s no center who’s better at sealing off the lane and turning it into a no-fly zone. But that didn’t matter against the Clippers because of their small-ball lineups, with five 3-point shooters on the floor, forcing Gobert to extend out on the perimeter and removing the extra layer of protection that he normally provides for everyone else. Los Angeles stuck to its spread-it-out plan even without Kawhi, turning the keys over to Paul George and running everything through him.

It’s not that Gobert can’t move his feet in space. The viral videos of Steph Curry dancing around him in the 2017 playoffs are misleading. He’s a good athlete whose monstrous 7-foot-9 wingspan allows him to impact shots anywhere on the floor. The problem is that he can’t be a one-man defense if he’s stationed near the 3-point line. Utah built its team around the idea that Gobert could cover for the defensive weaknesses of the perimeter players around him. Take him out of the paint and that house of cards collapses.

The Jazz don’t have a lot of two-way players. Royce O’Neale is the closest player they have to a perimeter stopper. But he’s undersized for a wing (6-foot-4 and 225 pounds) and possesses just average athleticism by NBA standards. There was only so much that he could do against George, much less Kawhi. They could both shoot over him and power through him. And no one else could take those assignments. Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic don’t have the speed. Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson don’t have the size. All depend on being able to funnel opponents into Gobert.

Utah never found a counter to Los Angeles going small. That’s where Gobert’s offensive limitations became a problem. He’s an elite roll man who sets great screens and can finish at the rim. But he can’t create his own shot and punish smaller players for guarding him. The Clippers put two 6-foot-8 forwards—Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum—on him for most of the series and switched even smaller players on him in the pick-and-roll. There’s little downside to downsizing against Gobert compared to fellow centers like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

That underlying structural issue is why even a healthy Conley might not have changed the series outcome. He would have helped the Jazz’s offense, giving them another playmaker and scorer to take pressure off Mitchell. But his lack of size (6-foot-1 and 175 pounds) would have made their defensive issues even worse.

Those issues only emerge in the playoffs. The Clippers would never downsize like this to win a random game in March. Ivica Zubac, their normal starting center, averaged 13.2 minutes in the series. They play him more in the regular season because they need him to absorb the physical punishment that comes with the position. Morris and Batum would be ground to a nub if they were banging underneath and playing the 5 for six months. Playing it for two weeks is a different story. All the stats the Jazz had spent the season racking up didn’t mean anything. The Clippers were dominating a different game played by a different set of rules.

The frustrating thing for Utah is that it had the opposite problem a few years ago. The team didn’t have the firepower to keep up with James Harden and Chris Paul when it lost to Houston in 2018 and 2019. Mitchell was still developing, while more defensive-minded players like Jae Crowder, Ricky Rubio, and Dante Exum didn’t provide enough floor spacing for him to operate. Things bottomed out in the 2019 series when the Jazz shot 26.3 percent from 3 as a team.

So the Jazz re-invented themselves on the fly. Mitchell elevated himself into an elite scorer, while the front office traded for Conley and Clarkson and signed Bogdanovic in free agency. The result was the offensive juggernaut that we saw dominate this season. It was a clever strategy that played to the strengths of their best players. What Utah realized was that Gobert’s presence meant the team didn’t need to have a bunch of stoppers. A lot of his value came from the way his defensive dominance could make up for the rest of the roster. But that leverage play could go only so far.

That’s the issue that Gobert had against the Clippers. It’s not that he was bad. He averaged 12.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game on 69.4 percent shooting and held his own on defense. He just wasn’t making anyone better. Gobert couldn’t protect his teammates on defense or create open shots for them in the pick-and-roll because the Clippers were switching screens. It’s unfair to say that he was run off the floor, which often happens to traditional big men in the playoffs. But he didn’t provide $40 million worth of value, either.

There are no easy answers for the Jazz. They have swung between having too many limited offensive players in their supporting cast to having too many limited defensive players without finding a happy medium. But there’s a good reason for that. Two-way wings like Kawhi and George are the most valuable players in the league. A title team needs scoring, 3-point shooting, playmaking, and defense on the perimeter. Utah has spent the past few seasons making trade-offs between those skills because so few players can check all of those boxes.

That isn’t to say that what the Jazz have achieved should be overlooked. Completely overhauling the roster while staying among the top teams in the NBA is incredibly difficult. Gobert and Derrick Favors (who left once but has since returned) are their only players left from the team that lost to Golden State in 2017.

The one mistake the front office made was not prioritizing 3-and-D wings in the draft. The 2020 draft was the perfect example. They drafted Udoka Azubuike, a gargantuan center from Kansas, at no. 27, when the player they really needed went one spot later in Jaden McDaniels, a 3-and-D forward from Washington. It’s hard to blame them for passing on McDaniels, who looked like one of the biggest steals in the draft as a rookie with the Wolves, when the rest of the league did too. But the process behind the pick didn’t make sense. There’s no reason to draft centers to back up Gobert. Those are the most replaceable players in the NBA. Every pick they have should be used to throw darts at finding two-way wings like McDaniels.

The Jazz are unlikely to find those types of players anywhere else. Other teams aren’t giving up 3-and-D wings in trades, and they don’t become available in free agency often. The list of potential targets in 2021 is sparse. The best available wing is Norman Powell, and Utah doesn’t have the cap space to pursue him. They could chase someone like Kelly Oubre Jr. with the midlevel exception, but his substantial struggles from the 3-point line in Golden State are the only reason they could afford him. Cheaper veterans like Wesley Matthews and Tony Snell wouldn’t really move the needle.

It will be hard to make a big splash in free agency given how much money they already have invested in their current core. There’s no way to know how new owner Ryan Smith, as well as an ownership group that now includes Dwyane Wade, will react to such a painful loss. They just spent $450 million on extensions for Mitchell, Gobert, and Clarkson, and Conley, who made $34 million this season, will be a free agent this summer. That’s a lot of money for a team that appeared to hit its ceiling in a season in which everything went right.

The Jazz also have to ask themselves about the success of players like Crowder and Jeff Green after they have left in recent seasons. Both have thrived as 3-and-D players on other teams after struggling under Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who has one of the most complex offensive systems in the NBA. It’s hard to argue with his regular-season results, but he has to make sure that his system isn’t preventing the types of players the Jazz need to break through their current ceiling from succeeding. That goes double for any young wings they draft. Coaches tend to prioritize immediate success over long-term organizational goals. But this season is proof that maximizing short-term efficiency will get the Jazz only so far.

The good news for Utah is Mitchell’s contract gives the team time to figure it out. His five-year extension kicks in next season. They can reinvent themselves one or two more times before they have to worry about him leaving in free agency. But any re-inventions won’t mean anything if they don’t include two-way wings. The leap from good to great is the hardest to make in the NBA. The Jazz thought they had made the jump this season, but they were just running in place.