Big issue 1: The Jazz are a very good team. They’ve won 50, 48 and 51 games in the last three years and earned two trips to the conference semis. That’s a solid mark and nothing to toss aside, especially with stars Donovan Mitchell (who is 22) and Rudy Gobert (26) as the foundation pieces.
Mitchell and Gobert can get better. But the Jazz are not likely to get beyond their 50-ish win, second-round plateau without adding another star-caliber offensive piece and better shooting. There will be opportunities to do so this summer.
There is a tradeoff here, though. To create the cap space to make a push for a third star, the Jazz would have to cut loose some of the popular players who have helped get the team to this point. Derrick Favors, Kyle Korver and Royce O’Neale have team options that can be renounced. Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent, as is Raul Neto.
In some cases, it’s time to move on. But for a guy like Favors, it would be a bittersweet departure, as he has been with the Jazz for nine years. While he never quite lived up to early expectations, he has been a likable guy, a solid producer and a team player. Utah finally must admit, though, that Favors and Gobert are both centers who can’t play together.
Rubio’s Jazz career has been so-so — he didn’t back up last year’s decent shooting numbers this year — but he’s done what was asked of him, defended hard and won’t be easy to replace. A complementary point guard for Mitchell would be more of a combo guard than Rubio is, someone who can shoot, create shots, defend and play off the ball.
O’Neale was excellent in the postseason, and with an option of just $1.6 million, Utah will surely make room for him. He’ll probably be too expensive when his deal runs up in 2020, but of all the decisions the Jazz have ahead of them in the near-term, he is an easy one.
Ideally, the Jazz would find a way to bring in a top-level free agent and an upgrade over Rubio via trade. Neither task will be easy, but if the Jazz are to develop into a contender, this will have to be a summer in which some risky decisions are made.
Big issue 2: Can the Jazz figure out the key to their slow starts? The schedule had something to do with things last year, but they were just 18-20 on Jan. 1. Even with a tough slate, that was a poor start. They went 32-12 after that.
The previous season, Utah was terrible in the first four months, going 19-28. The Jazz finished as the hottest team in the league, 29-6 in their final 35.
One key to moving forward in the playoffs will be eliminating the slow starts and finding ways to grind out early wins when they’re not clicking. By year’s end, Utah was only four games behind Denver for the No. 2 seed in the West. Imagine how things might be different had the Jazz had the No. 2 seed in the conference.
A handful or wins during the early part of the year was the difference.
Free-agent outlook: Favors and Rubio are likely gone, and Korver could well retire. That’ll leave the Jazz with space to fill but some challenges in filling it.
The trade market offers the best offseason upgrade over Rubio. The Jazz talked with Memphis about Mike Conley near the trade deadline and could get back into the Conley sweepstakes in the coming weeks. Or they could target a point man like D’Angelo Russell in restricted free agency, though deals for Russell are likely to be matched by Brooklyn.
The dream addition would be Sixers forward Tobias Harris, a shooter who can score from all over the floor, provide space for Mitchell and play multiple positions. But Harris is a good bet to stay with the Sixers.
More realistic might be a good two-way point guard like Malcolm Brogdon and a signable scoring free agent like Bojan Bogdanovic, moves that would surely underwhelm and disappoint the Jazz faithful, but could address issues and keep some cap flexibility open going forward.
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The young folks: Tony Bradley is slated to be the only player on the Jazz next year younger than Mitchell, who will turn 23 in September. Yet for the early portion of the year, even as Mitchell averaged 23.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds, many around the league wondered whether Mitchell had gotten better at all year-over-year.
His numbers were not significantly better, and until early January, it did look as though Mitchell regressed. But over the last 42 games, he transformed: 26.9 points, 4.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 44.8 percent shooting and (most important) 41.4 percent 3-point shooting. Compared to his first 40 games, Mitchell posted elite production over the last three-and-a-half months of the season.
While it was notable that he got his 3-point shot squared away, most helpful was that Mitchell attacked the rim more. Mitchell took 4.6 shots per game in the restricted area before Jan. 4 but raised that to 5.9 from Jan. 5 on — and improved his conversion on those shots from 56.2 percent to 60.9 percent. He also boosted his free-throw rate from 3.9 attempts per game to 6.1.
The result was the numbers jump. Mitchell seemed determined after the five-game loss to Houston in the first round of the playoffs not to let his early-season numbers backslide again and should be plenty motivated this summer by his 4-for-22 performance in Game 5, which included five turnovers and 0-for-9 3-point shooting.
Expect him to come back stronger, physically and mentally, next season. Whatever the Jazz do in free agency, Mitchell’s Year 3 adjustments will be most important.
Wait till next year: The Jazz can improve next season, but it will involve removing 40 percent of the starting five in Rubio and Favors and replacing them with better-fitting talent. Rubio and Favors are likely to move on and help their next teams, but Rubio is not a great fit with Mitchell, and the Jazz have been trying to jam square pegs Favors and Gobert into round holes for too long.
Those spots need to change. The Jazz will tinker with the bench, too, and more shooting is a required.
If Utah gets the right combination of smart decisions and simple good luck, with Mitchell and Gobert getting better in the offseason, this will be a team ripe for 60 wins and a trip to the conference finals.
A little bum luck and a poor decision could ruin everything, leaving Utah without Rubio or Favors and without adequate replacements. It’s a risk the franchise must take, though.