The NBA world works fast and teams are continuously making moves to improve. And if you are not constantly tweaking and adjusting your roster then you willl fall behind the curve.
One of the worst places a team can be — other than the bottom of the league — is in a reset phase, where they have seen enough of their current talent and do not believe they can win anymore.
How does a team advance and get closer to a title? This is not quite the treadmill of mediocrity, but there is a feeling of stagnation — a team does not want to abandon what they have and what little success they have but they know they are not advancing toward the ultimate goal.
The Utah Jazz are a prime example of a team having seen enough. Specifically with their two star players in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
The Utah Jazz were unable to get revenge for falling short of their title dreams a year ago. And now the franchise feels at a crossroad perhaps hitting its ceiling. What does a team do in that situation?
In the 2020 bubble, the Utah Jazz were the 6-seed and went up 3-1 in the first round against the Denver Nuggets. But they began to implode and eventually lost the series in seven games.
They used that as a jumping-off point. They were putting what they hoped were the pieces together for a title run.
In the shortened 2021 season, the Jazz won the most games in the NBA and finished with a 52-20 record. Doubted all year long by the media, they looked to prove the world wrong.
Utah had its chance to win the title as the top seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz’s window was wide open.
But they blew a 2-0 lead in the second round against a banged-up LA Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard. Once again, they felt like they came up short of their potential. This was their chance and they lost it.
Entering this past season the Jazz were expecting more from their highly paid stars who had been inconsistent in the playoffs. They were hoping to finally move further in the Western Conference playoffs.
But after taking a step back finishing as the 5-seed and losing in the first round for the third time in five years, Utah is now considering moving either Mitchell or Gobert. The team is at a clear crossroads.
The Jazz have a special player in Mitchell. But the supporting cast has not been enough to lift them further. Gobert is one of the best defensive players in the league but struggles in the playoffs when teams pick apart the team’s weaknesses. Even Mitchell has questions about how he can make his teammates better.
There is change in Utah. Coach Quin Snyder resigned after eight seasons, saying he could not help the team further. And there is the sense the Jazz may trade one or both of their stars as they focus on their future.
The major issue with the duo is that neither of these stars has a game built for the playoffs. Or at least they do not play like they do.
Gobert cannot provide any offense down low when he is needed most. Mitchell is routinely exposed defensively along with his poor offensive efficiency.
In the regular season, Gobert averaged 15.6 points per game on a league-leading 71.3-percent shooting from the field. But in the first-round series against the Mavericks, Gobert averaged 12 points on 63.6-percent shooting and 5.5 field goal attempts per game.
While still shooting at an efficient clip, it is another year where he drops off a bit during the playoffs.
Defenses tighten up in the postseason and Gobert does not get the easy baskets he is accustomed to in the regular season. If it was only that his points dropped come postseason time and he still shot at a high clip then, it wouldn’t be that big of a big deal.
But Gobert’s main problem is that ALL he can do offensively is finish the easy drop off passes he gets from Mitchell or throw up a putback shot after an offensive rebound. This causes him to get phased out of games making him a non-factor.
In Game 2 against the Dallas Mavericks, Gobert finished 2 for 5 and had eight points in 37 minutes.
And he becomes virtually unplayable down the stretch of games due to his inability to shoot free throws efficiently. He is a career 63.8-percent free throw shooter in the regular season and is a career 60.4-percent free-throw shooter in the playoffs.
Now again, if it was only that Gobert’s offensive numbers dropped then that would be fine because at least he can make an impact on defensive.
But when Gobert has to step out of the paint to guard somebody like Maxi Kleber, the Jazz’s defense can be broken down by dribble penetration. And despite being a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, there is only so much he can do.
Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic need to be better defensively on the perimeter.
But specifically Mitchell as the team’s leading scorer and superstar player.
Against the Mavs, he was a defensive liability and was routinely targeted.
In the first three games of the series, when guarded by Mitchell, Mavs players shot 11 percentage points better from the field than they had all season. They shot 9 for 16 against him in Game 2 and 9 for 14 against him in Game 3.
Even Gobert, who averages 2.2 blocks per game, cannot save Mitchell’s lackluster defense.
But it is not just Mitchell’s defensive game. He struggles with his offensive efficiency down the stretch of close games, making for a deathly poison killing any recipe for winning.
In the regular season in the last five minutes of games within five points, he shot 33-percent from the field, 18-percent from three, and 61-percent from the free-throw line. Those numbers held up in the playoffs.
For the entire series against Dallas, he shot 39.8-percent from the field and 20.8-percent from beyond the arc. Surprisingly that shooting mark from the field was not the lowest in his career in a playoff series.
In the 2018 semis against the Houston Rockets, Mitchell shot 36-percent. In the 2019 first round series against the same team, he shot 32-percent. The Jazz won just two combined games in those series.
He has a high usage percentage and took about 21 shots per game in the Dallas series this year. If Utah keeps Mitchell, he will need to be more efficient in the future for the team to compete in the playoffs.
Everything is not all bad for Utah. The Jazz still have something to build on and Mitchell is a big part of that. Utah had the number one ranked offense this year with a rating of 116.7 points per 100 possessions.
But when Mitchell is shooting all over the place, the offense stalls and the easy buckets needed for Gobert to make an impact down low stop.
Couple that with terrible perimeter defense leaving Gobert out to dry, and you get multiple disappointing finishes to the season. Not to mention your coach resigns.
Now the Jazz are left with a few options:
Either split up Gobert’s contract among multiple players and build around Mitchell, hoping he can improve his shooting in the postseason. Or trade Mitchell for a player just as young that is a better fit with Gobert and the team they already have.
OR… trade both and embrace the new look Jazz with a new coach and new jerseys.
Whatever Utah ends up doing, it is clear they have reached their ceiling with the current group they have. After five years, the Jazz have not gotten further than the second round, and their two best players do not fit well enough to progress any further.
From the Orlando Magic’s perspective, the Utah Jazz have what they would call a rich people problem. Mitchell and Gobert are currently better than anybody on Orlando’s roster — and it is why there is some rumbling that Orlando could put together a package to make Mitchell the team’s centerpiece.
But the Magic, and every other team in the NBA, should be reminded of what running the same team back too many times can bring you.
It can bring you to this spot, a place of frustration. Snyder is a top coach in the league and him leaving a team with two all-stars just does not happen.
The Jazz should’ve done something sooner. But when there was a noticeable pattern of reasons for failure, they ignored it and largely brought back the same team.
They hoped things would get smoothed over that going through the grind again would lead to improvement. Instead, it was just grating.
For a team like the Magic, this should remind them that they are building a TEAM. Players who fit and play well in the playoffs together will always go further than those who do not.
Obviously, the Magic should take who they believe is the best player come draft day. But how they build around that player and who they decide to keep is equally as important.