After being essentially left for dead with the departure of Gordon Hayward at the end of the 2017 season, the Utah Jazz had a remarkable 2018 season.
The Jazz were led by rookie guard Donovan Mitchell to an impressive and unexpected run in the Western Conference. Posting an NBA record 186 3’s by a rookie (surpassing both Damian Lillard and Steph Curry), Mitchell was a huge part of the Jazz core that went from a midseason record of 19-28 to end 48-34 and making the 5th seed in the playoffs.
After taking down the league’s reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz had to face James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
The Jazz stole game 2 in Houston, but looked overwhelmed against Houston and lost the following 3 games and on May 8, 2018, their season came to and end.
Rather than coming home empty handed to disappointed fans, Utah welcomed the Jazz in open arms in celebratory fashion. Superfans met the team at the Salt Lake City International airport in the dead of night to not only welcome the team home, but to thank them for a hell of a season.
Where do we go from here? What next? How can we top what we accomplished last season?
These questions surrounded Jazz fans, players, and Coach Quin Snyder alike. The Jazz elected to take the “run it back approach”, only making one notable change- acquiring Duke Senior Guard, Grayson Allen.
The Jazz were probably the third best team in the West, and after Trevor Ariza left the Rockets and Chris Paul got a year older, it seemed evident Houston would take a step back.
In that case, the Jazz should have another historic season posting big numbers with high defensive stats, right? The Jazz will be top of the West only behind maybe the Golden State Warriors, right?
I certainly thought so, and I’d say the majority of Jazz fans agreed. However, the first two months of the season have not been as promising as envisioned.
The Jazz currently sit in 12th place in the West with a record of 12-13. The team is five games behind the first place Nuggets. The standings are especially rough considering that the Jazz were supposed to be the surprising team to start the season.
So what happened? Why are the Jazz currently sitting with a losing record? Why are the Nuggets playing the way that everyone expected the Jazz to play? What piece of the puzzle went missing during the near silent offseason?
As I have religiously watched 90% of Jazz games this season so far, I have had a few reasons come to mind.
First off, defense. It’s cliche, but defense really does win championships. We see that time and time again in all major sports.
Although the Jazz posted the second highest defensive stats last season and had Rudy Gobert win the Defensive Player of the Year, they are giving up far too many 100+ games and even had a pathetic 50 point loss already in the season.
Personally I think that although the Jazz are trying to keep things similar to last season, the rest of the NBA has figured out how to play against this once solid core defense centered around Rudy Gobert.
Whether it’s laziness, miscommunication, or something else, the Jazz’s defense is the first thing that needs to improve before their record will.
Secondly, and hear me out, Donovan Mitchell. Now don’t get me wrong. Mitchell is a superstar.
The league has already recognized his talent. After the most recent loss to Miami, Dwyane Wade said “I wish I was that good that young. That kid, he’s special.” I echo what Wade said. Donovan IS special. However, I think that far too often, we forget this is only his sophomore season and isn’t the 10 year veteran we sometimes expect him to be.
I like the valiant late game efforts by Donovan, but I think a lot of crucial moments are missed because of rookie decision making and inconsistency. Now with that being said, I have high hopes and expectations for Spida for the remainder of the season and even his career.
If the Jazz are to turn things around, Spida will have to increase his efficiency and make better decisions with the ball.
Now, on a more positive note, the Jazz recently made NBA headlines when Cleveland sent Kyle Korver to Salt Lake City (welcome back Kyle) for one of the Jazz’s best bench players, Alec Burks.
I have mixed feelings towards the whole thing. Being a bit biased (I shot free throws with Kyle back in the day at a Jazz charity event), I am excited to see what the new sharpshooting offense will involve.
Bringing a strong veteran presence and sense of confidence beyond the arc, I think Kyle was not as utilized as he could have been Cleveland. Similar to Jae Crowder coming from Cleveland last season to the Jazz, I truly think Utah is a great fit.
That being said, I am sad to see Burks leave. He would come off the bench night after night and bring a rim penetration that hardly anyone else could do.
Nicknamed ‘Houdini’, Burks did things that other people simply couldn’t do. AB will definitely be missed especially in down to the wire situations.
Burks was also one of Utah’s most inconsistent players however, and the Jazz sorely need three point shooting. The Jazz are shooting 38% on threes this season, and that’s after the nice boost that came from the record setting 20 3PT FG night against San Antonio.
Assuming the shooting percentage increases on the offensive side with the addition of Kyle Korver, I feel the Jazz could still be top of the highly competitive Western Conference.
While the Jazz have some of the best team camaraderie in the entire NBA, it is still evident that they have a long way to go before they are championship contenders. Is it possible? Will it happen? Is this the team that could finally bring a championship home to Utah? I personally believe so.
Maybe not this year, maybe not next. However, I think with a few tweaks here and there, it could definitely happen sooner than later. With the potential division of the Warriors on the Horizon, the league could become wide open once again, and the Jazz could be a contender to fill that hole.