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The Jazz Can’t Run This Back

Utah appears headed for another early playoff exit. It’s time for the franchise to admit its shortcomings and consider trading Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, or even both.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Through the past six seasons, no Western Conference team has won more regular-season games than the Jazz. No team in either conference has a better cumulative point differential. Yet if Utah loses at home on Thursday night, ceding its first-round matchup to a Mavericks team that didn’t have Luka Doncic for the first half of the series but now leads 3-2, a reckoning is coming for that roster.

The fifth-seeded Jazz no longer have any margin for error after dallying all regular season—and now postseason—long. Star guard Donovan Mitchell might be hampered after hurting his hamstring near the end of Game 5’s 25-point blowout loss. And even if Mitchell is in peak form, the Mavericks have looked like the more cohesive and energetic team for the duration of the series.

Before last year, all four of Utah’s playoff defeats under coach Quin Snyder were when the Jazz were the lower seed. They still hurt—especially a blown 3-1 lead to Denver in 2020—but at least came with reasonable excuses. There was no shame in losing to the 2016-17 Warriors. James Harden’s Rockets were a bad stylistic matchup. The blown lead came in the bubble.

Yet the 2020-21 Jazz were supposed to be different, a no. 1 seed with one of the best point differentials in league history. Sure, Mitchell and Mike Conley were both injured—but Kawhi Leonard tore his ACL in Game 4 of their conference semifinal series, and all Utah needed to reach its first conference finals in 14 years was to beat a Clippers team missing its best player. Then Los Angeles won four in a row. And now, with Utah poised to lose another series against a team with an injured star, all the playoff failures are mounting too high to ignore any longer.

A loss in this series would mean the franchise can’t delude itself into thinking this core, at this juncture, can still contend for a title. The problems start on defense—which was, ironically, once the team’s calling card under Snyder, with three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert manning the middle. Yet Gobert is such an impactful defender that Utah overcompensated in the other direction in its transactional approach, trusting Gobert to hold down the fort by himself while emphasizing offense with new additions across the rest of the roster.

The talent infusion worked: The offense improved in each of the past four seasons, from the middle of the pack to the best in the league this season. But at the same time, the defense grew more erratic, falling from a top-two unit in 2017-18 and 2018-19 to the 10th best in 2021-22.

And against playoff opponents prepared to attack a leaky defense for seven games, the Jazz could no longer hold. Both the Clippers last postseason and the Mavericks this postseason ran the same general game plan: Blow past a lax perimeter defender, force Gobert to help at the rim, and kick to an open shooter spreading the floor.

Doncic leads the league in drive rate this postseason, with 36 drives per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum. Jalen Brunson ranks second, with 33 per 100. No other player on any playoff team is higher than 30. And the Mavericks are averaging about 1.2 points per possession when Doncic or Brunson drives. That’s a better scoring rate than the best offense in the NBA.

Since undergoing the offensive makeover, Snyder has never properly adjusted to counter that weakness. But defense isn’t the only culprit; the league’s best offense has failed in this series, too. In the regular season, a league-high 47 percent of Utah’s shots were 3-pointers, and the Jazz made 14.5 triples per game, which ranked second. In five games against Dallas, however, just 37 percent of Utah’s shots have come from beyond the arc, and the team is making only eight 3s per game—fewer than any other team.

If the struggles continue for one more game, what’s next for the franchise? It’s only natural to think that changes are ahead. Snyder is almost certainly gone, to start. The only active head coaches with a longer tenure are Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, and Steve Kerr, who have each won multiple championships. Snyder has never even reached the conference finals.

But for the roster itself, four possible paths present themselves. Which one Utah—and new CEO Danny Ainge—takes could change the tenor of the NBA’s offseason.

1. Stand pat and run it back

Just kidding! If Utah loses in the first round, this course of action would be downright negligent—and mighty unlikely, to boot. Moving on.

2. Trade Gobert

If the Jazz want to shake up their stagnant roster while remaining competitive, the obvious option is to trade one of their two stars, but not both. Gobert is only one season into a five-year, $205 million extension—but even as a flawed center with a big contract entering his 30s, the three-time All-Star should still attract suitors.

Charlotte and Atlanta both finished with top-10 offenses and bottom-10 defenses this season, and Gobert could single-handedly catapult them up the latter leaderboard. Charlotte, in particular, has a dire need for a capable center, while in Atlanta, Gobert and Trae Young would make for a fascinating pairing of players with functionally opposite skill sets. (Clint Capela has one year left on his deal and could be moved to clear space for a better player in Gobert.)

The Mavericks and Raptors would also be interested if Gobert was made available, according to reports. And rumors of Gobert to the Warriors won’t go away, even if it strains financial credulity to imagine Golden State adding his salary when Draymond Green and Jordan Poole are both due for extensions soon.

But would this half-step be worth it for Utah? Every key player on the roster is under contract for next season, but if Gobert leaves, this defense would likely crater. It’s not a perfect comparison, but Utah allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions with Gobert off the court this year, according to Cleaning the Glass—a shade worse than the Hawks’ 26th-ranked defense.

Atlanta couldn’t challenge for a championship with such a porous defense; heck, even the Nets, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, lost in a first-round sweep in part because of a weak defense. Utah doesn’t have Brooklyn’s offensive talent, and it would be even worse on defense without Gobert. At least for 2022-23, a Gobert trade alone wouldn’t set Utah up for any more success—which would then raise questions about Mitchell’s desire to stay on a middling team long term. (Or maybe he’d be thrilled to finally play without Gobert, no matter what Snyder says in his pregame rants.)

3. Trade Mitchell

Similar logic applies to just trading Mitchell, as well. If the Jazz want to break up their two stars, Mitchell—a 25-year-old lead ball handler with All-NBA potential—would theoretically return a greater haul. He’d immediately be the top target for any star-seeking franchise this summer. But then what would happen to Utah’s offense, especially with Conley turning 35 next season?

This might not be a popular opinion, but in the short term, a Mitchell trade might counterintuitively make more sense than a Gobert trade. Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Bojan Bogdanovic could replace Mitchell’s scoring better than anyone could replace Gobert’s defense. But that team wouldn’t compete for a title, either—and it would be much worse in the long term, because besides Mitchell, the Jazz don’t have much of a future.

Such is the natural cycle of most contending teams that trade draft picks to upgrade present-day production and select near the bottom of the first round when they do keep their picks. But Utah’s draft efforts have proved especially impotent since 2017, when it added Mitchell via the draft and Royce O’Neale as an undrafted free agent.

The Jazz have kept only four draftees out of the past four drafts, opting to trade all the rest before they played a single game. No member of that quartet has panned out for the team, either, meaning it hasn’t added any young talent to its core since Mitchell half a decade ago. (Udoka Azubuike came one pick before Jaden McDaniels and three before Desmond Bane. Ouch.)

Jazz Draft Picks Since Donovan Mitchell

Year Pick Player Outcome
Year Pick Player Outcome
2018 21 Grayson Allen Traded to Memphis after one season
2019 53 Justin Wright-Foreman Played 4 career games
2020 27 Udoka Azubuike Averaged 3.0 points per game in 32 career games
2021 40 Jared Butler Averaged 3.8 points per game in 42 games

Going forward, Utah doesn’t have tremendous draft capital, either. The team is already sending its first-round pick to Memphis this summer as part of the Conley deal, and it owes a protected first-rounder to Oklahoma City in 2024.

4. Trade both Mitchell and Gobert and blow it up

If trading only Gobert or Mitchell doesn’t sound enticing, then Utah’s best option might be a complete teardown and to trade both stars. At that point, they might as well continue the fire sale and deal their other useful veterans, too.

The Jazz haven’t typically adopted a tanking position; they’ve won at least 30 games in 38 of the past 40 seasons. But this roster has no easy way out. The 2003-04 Pistons remain a historical anomaly as a championship team without a true MVP candidate, and neither Mitchell nor Gobert, nor any other player on this team, fits that bill. Gobert is too limited on offense, despite his singular defensive talents; Mitchell isn’t as natural a creator for his teammates as other backcourt stars, while the Mavericks have fully exposed his defensive deficiencies.

Without another step forward from Mitchell or some lottery luck down the road, it’s hard to fathom the Jazz looking any more competitive next season than they have through the past six years—when, as has been made painfully clear spring after spring, they’re just not quite competitive enough.

Out of eight Utah players averaging double-digit minutes in these playoffs, Mitchell is the only one younger than 28. The three oldest teams this season were the Lakers (average age of 30.2), Jazz (29.3), and Nets (29.1), all of whom face existential questions this offseason. Older teams are usually better than younger teams—but they have a harder time when they fall short of expectations, because what’s next but to start over?

The Jazz might be forced to find out what’s over that cliff if they lose one more game against Dallas. The Mavericks had to bottom out before they found their next path back to contention, in the form of a draft trade for Doncic. Utah could require that sort of rebuild now, and it stares down a long offseason of impossible predicaments in the meantime.