The beat won't quit: Jazz have bright outlook for the future

Adrian Dy on May 12, 2018 11:48 AM
The beat won't quit: Jazz have bright outlook for the future
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 5: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz dunks the ball during the game against the LA Clippers on April 5, 2018 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

For now the musicians have wrapped up their performance; their instruments are back in their cases as silence lingers on the stage.

But boy, what a gig it was.

The Utah Jazz performed above and beyond virtually everyone's expectations this season. They posted a 48-34 record in the regular season, good for the fifth seed, and went on to upset the fourth-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder in round one in six games. They followed that up by stealing a win on the road in the Western Conference semiifinals, against the top squad in the league, the Houston Rockets, though they were eventually beaten in five games.

That's not bad considering they were 51-31 last season, also fifth in the conference, and they wound up bettering last year's outcome: an upset over the fourth seed (they defeated the LA Clippers in seven games), before losing to superior opposition in the next round (the eventual champions, the Golden State Warriors, in a sweep).

What made the results so shocking though, was that they did it without star forward Gordon Hayward, who opted to sign before the season started, with the Boston Celtics.

"Honestly, I was hoping for at least the eighth seed after the Hayward departure," Jazz die-hard fan and former CNN PH sports contributor Paolo del Rosario, told me. In such a scenario, del Rosario imagined the team relying heavily on a defense anchored by Rudy Gobert, aided perhaps by some disappointing play from some of the other lower tier West squads. In addition to Gobert, del Rosario expected the bulk of the production to come from the backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood.

"So would I have believed you if you told me [at the start of the season] that we would make the Western Conference semifinals...and improve on last year's record in the postseason? I would have politely asked you not to patronize my fandom for the Jazz, before unfollowing you on your social media accounts," he added, semi-seriously.

We know now that the Jazz began the season on the wrong foot, going 19-28 ("It was like watching a salmon trying to escape a bear's claws while swimming upriver," recalls del Rosario. "They knew what they needed to do, but just couldn't do it."). However, Gobert's return from injury, and more importantly, the pieces clicking into place for 2018 13th overall pick Donovan Mitchell, sent Utah zooming up the conference standings. The red-hot Jazz became the team you did not want to play in round one.

"Losing Trey Lyles was unfortunate. I liked him as a player and thought that if he could get it going that he could be a real threat for the Jazz," del Rosario recalled, describing his initial feelings towards the trade to move up to snag Mitchell (Utah sent Denver Lyles, a stretch-forward, and the 24th pick).

Still, del Rosario got some good vibes from watching Mitchell play, alongside back-up point guard Dante Exum, who was returning from injury, during Summer League action. "My favorite play in the Utah summer league was when Mitchell picked off a lazy pass to start a fast break, saved the ball from exiting the sideline with a ridiculous behind the back pass to Exum, who duly went up in the air...for a powerful two-handed flush that probably became the first of many tonics to help cure Gordon Hayward induced depression.

"Then Exum got injured and I thought that Mitchell would be less dangerous without who I thought would be his running partner throughout the season."

Like many analysts, del Rosario was content for Mitchell to provide some off-the-bench scoring for the Jazz. The former Louisville Cardinal gave just that, and plenty more.

After averaging just 9.3 points in 22.1 minutes in October, Mitchell's numbers sky-rocketed to 22.5 points in 36.3 minutes, post All-Star break. From dynamite reserve, he became the team's lead playmaker, and was duly recognized for his efforts as he took home Rookie of the Month prizes from December to March. Oh, and he finished the regular season with a rookie record 187 made triples too.  

"Donovan Mitchell is a star, and I would say that a realistic ceiling could be a career that mirrors Dwyane Wade's," says del Rosario. "But if I am completely jumping on the Mitchell hype train, then I think he could be a perennial scoring champ and MVP contender on a team that wins in the West."

After completing the regular season with a 20.5-point average, Mitchell proceeded to up his game, tallying 28.5 an outing to help oust the OKC Thunder. His points and his shooting took dips against the Rockets, though part of that was the defense really focusing in on him, forcing him to create for his teammates. His markers dipped to 19.4 per game, but his assists rose to 6.0 a night, a solid enough trade-off in just his first postseason experience.

With Mitchell on a rookie contract, coupled with players like Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Royce O'Neal locked into long-term deals, the Jazz have a core that should make them competitive for plenty more seasons to come. That said, they do have a couple of question marks heading into this offseason.

For starters, the Jazz will likely look to evaluate their point guard position, with Rubio having one more year on his deal before becoming a free agent, and Exum set to become a restricted free agent. Both players missed all and part, respectively, of the West semis due to injury, and it's quite possible that the Jazz would have taken one more game from the Rockets had they been healthy.

"Ricky Rubio was playing the best basketball of his career and Dante Exum was finally starting to look like an NBA lottery pick after all these years," notes del Rosario. "Utah has built a reputation for improving players regardless of age, and I think that they can help Rubio become closer to what we all envisioned when he was selected ahead of Steph Curry in the draft if he stays for an extended period."

As for Exum, injuries and bad luck have really held him back during his Utah stint, but del Rosario wouldn't mind seeing him stay for another year, possibly by settling for his qualifying offer, in order to become an unrestricted free agent afterwards.

The team's other concern is at power forward, as long-time Jazz player Derrick Favors will be on the market as an UFA. "Derrick Favors is an interesting player, because this year looked like a transition year for him. He's jacking up more triples, is more mobile on defense, and is tailoring his game to the more modern style of play," said del Rosario. "I am all for keeping Favors, but it can't come at a price of the Jazz' financial flexibility moving forward."

Beyond their own free agents though, Del Rosario also added that the team might look at finding ways to "generate offense more naturally," pointing out, "Donovan Mitchell leading the team in scoring as a rookie is amazing, but a bit worrying for the team."

For Jazz fans all over the world, this has to rank right up there in terms of memorable seasons. When you enter the season expecting a grit 'n grind squad, and suddenly get one of the most exciting to watch rookies in recent memory, that's just how things go. When asked to recall some of his favorite highlights from this season, del Rosario lists several Mitchell moments: his put-back dunk over Lonzo Ball, dropping 41 on the Pelicans, going toe-to-toe against Russell Westbrook in game six of the Playoffs (and in non-Mitchell highlights, Joe Ingles on fire, and frustrating the heck out of Paul George). But with the Jazz now out of the running, all that's left in this season is to see  whether or not Mitchell is named RotY, later in June. If he wins it, it'd be an apt curtain call to a spectacular season.

That said, this band isn't going anywhere. Think of it as a brief intermission, before the performers return to their instruments and strike up the chords anew.

After a bit of a dry spell in Salt Lake City, the Jazz are back to playing and making beautiful music together.

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