Game Time

Perfectly Poised

The Utah Jazz finally have what it takes to bring Utah its first NBA title

By Mikey Saltas

It was a year ago June 13 when the Utah Jazz faithful spent a restless night awaiting Gordon Hayward’s decision. Would the All-Star free agent re-sign with Utah Jazz, the team that drafted him in 2010, or would big markets like Miami or Boston scoop him up? Hayward had plenty of reasons to stick with the Jazz—namely a five-year, $177 m illion contract (one year and $46 million total more than any other team could offer). He was also the face of the organization and had led the Jazz to the second round of the 2017 playoffs. His cohorts— especially Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles— were locked in with new, multi-year contract extensions. A promising wing by the name of Donovan Mitchell from Louisville was heading to Utah. Those four could become the foundation of a really great team.

The following day, Utah Jazz fans let out a collective moan upon learning that Hayward would join fellow All- Star Kyrie Irving to play for the Boston Celtics. The positive momentum the Jazz had gained over the past several years developing the team around Hayward’s stellar game and making the playoffs for the first time since 2012 suddenly felt like an air ball.

Yet, less than a year later, those same fans have bounced back and are nearly euphoric as the Utah Jazz and garnered a high playoff seed in 2018.

A Star in the Making

After losing Hayward to the Celtics in free agency, nobody could fault the Jazz for mustering a sub-40 win season in the ultra-competitive Western Conference in the 2017-18 season. At 19-28 in mid-January, including some early dreadful losses, it looked like the Jazz were bound for that outcome.

It has been anything but dreadful since January—due to a scorching offense and historically stout defensive play—when Utah started winning. The Utah Jazz rolled into the All-Star break riding an 11-game win streak, beating top tier teams such as the Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (twice). Much of the team’s success is credited to rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Mitchell has thrust himself to Rookie of the Year conversations in his first professional season—in the Jazz’s mid-season win streak, Mitchell led his team in scoring, the first rookie to do so since Wilt Chamberlain. Drawing comparisons to Dwayne Wade, Mitchell leads all rookies with 20 points per game, as well as most 30-point games by rookies. At just 6-foot-3, he impressed the world with acrobatic slams and won the NBA dunk contest.

Mitchell torched the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 2 for 41 points, the first rookie to surpass 40 points in a game since Blake Griffin in 2011. For comparison: The only other active NBA players to accomplish that feat in their rookie year are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry and Eric Gordon.

Mitchell had another 40-point game on Feb. 3, this time against the Phoenix Suns, joining Allen Iverson and Griffin as the only rookies to have multiple 40-point games since Michael Jordan in the 1984-85 season.

You get the picture: He’s elite.
The charismatic Mitchell is helping Jazz fans forget about that dreary night a year ago when Hayward bolted. The guard’s rise to stardom even made solid contributor, Rodney Hood, expendable—Hood was traded before the deadline to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward Jae Crowder. In less than one season (and at 21 years old, no less), Mitchell has effectively replaced Hayward as a leader on the court and the face of the franchise.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

Mitchell alone won’t bring the Utah Jazz a title. The Jazz has one of the top centers in the league signed until the 2021 season. Rudy Gobert, the 7-foot-1 Frenchman called the “Stifle Tower,” has sat out much of the 2017-18 season due to an injury. When he is on the court, he’s well worth his $25 million salary, due to his shot blocking and protection of the paint.

In 2020, one of the most efficient three-point shooters in the league, Joe Ingles, is set to make just under $12 million. This season, Ingles is shooting 45 percent from three-point range. Jae Crowder will be in the final year of his $7.8-million contract. Crowder had a down year with the Cavaliers before joining the Jazz, but his bruising and thrashing play style is already paying dividends in the slow-paced offense run by Head Coach Quin Snyder.

Mitchell, Gobert, Ingles, Crowder and surprise undrafted talent Royce O’Neale are set to earn just under $52 million in the 2019-20 season. Ingles will be 32 years old. Everyone else? Under age 27. By 2020, the NBA salary cap is expected to rise to $109 million. That leaves ample room for the Utah Jazz to retain other key players such as point guard Ricky Rubio ($14-million salary) and Derrick Favors ($12-million salary).

Or, the draw of young talent might be enough for General Manager Dennis Lindsey to convince another superstar (or two) to come to Salt Lake City. Kemba Walker, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Mirotić, Kevin Love and Jabari Parker are notable unrestricted free agents in the next two off seasons. Even in the golden years of Stockton to Malone, the Jazz were not known for outsourcing top talent, and today’s crop of Mitchell, Gobert, Ingles and O’Neale were all relative unknowns before being developed in Salt Lake City.

Carlos Boozer, from back in 2004, remains the marquee signing of a free agent not originally drafted by the Jazz. However, as small-market organizations—such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Oklahoma City—with multiple superstars have proven, talent begets talent, no matter the city.

But what about the current dynasties in the NBA? In 2020, Father Time’s biggest adversary, LeBron James, will turn 36. Golden State’s trio of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green will be over 30 years old and have salaries that will, astoundingly, eat up the majority of the expected $109 million salary cap. Same with Houston’s James Harden, who is set to
make over $40 million per year, and Chris Paul, who will make around $30 million.

In 2020, the Jazz core will be in their prime and won’t yet be able to demand max contracts. The pressure is on Lindsey over the next two years to add a star in their prime to complement, or perhaps even supersede, Mitchell and Gobert. It’s time to dish out the big bucks for a new “big three” in Salt Lake City. The Jazz are this close to having a title contending team.

Just as they were in the late ’90s, Jazz faithfuls are itching for another run at the title. Fortunately, the era of mediocrity is over. The new era of Utah Jazz basketball has begun.