SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are good. That's not good enough.
That's the basic situation that Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey faces after his team's 2017-18 season came to a close. Besides making the playoffs and winning in the first round, the Jazz also had the third-highest margin of victory of any team in the Western Conference.
When healthy, the Jazz had the league's best defense by a large margin and went on a 29-6 run to end the season that catapulted them to the NBA's second tier.
But Houston showed in a five-game series that the gap between Utah and the elite is still sizable. After a Game 2 defeat, Houston adapted to the Jazz and throttled every bit of Utah's attack, including two blowout wins in Salt Lake City.
"The dilemma is that Golden State and Houston are clearly in front of us, and in order to be the last team standing, you have to go through the best teams," Lindsey said. "We've got a lot of work to do. But we have a starting point to build from."
So what can the Jazz do to catch up to that level? Here's a roadmap.
The good news is the Jazz core isn't done growing yet. Of the Jazz's core group of players, only Joe Ingles is above 27, and even he (at 30 years old) has improved every season that he's been in the NBA.
Clearly, Donovan Mitchell has the highest ceiling on the team, doing things in his first playoff run at 21 that only a few players in the league could dream of. But while Mitchell's scoring carried the Jazz, his efficiency can improve in a big way.
If Mitchell can make a few more of his shots, avoid turnovers, and (critically) get himself some easy points by getting to the free-throw line more often, he can be a top-five player in the NBA.
There's a track record, too, for players with Mitchell's level of rookie success to make those kinds of jumps in their second and third years. It's not necessarily going to be easy, and Mitchell is always going to be limited by his 6-foot-3 height. But if he continues to improve at the trajectory that he did within his rookie season, watch out.
Rudy Gobert is 25 and is already the league's best defensive player. But it's possible to imagine him being a step more secure with the ball and getting a little bit stronger with his finishing outside of dunking range. It's not that Gobert needs a post move or a jump shot, he just needs something to do if a smaller opponent beats him to the rim after he catches the ball on a roll. Steven Adams might provide a useful model here, though as Lindsey points out, their bodies are very different.
One other player, in particular, has the potential to be a franchise-changer for the Jazz: Dante Exum. Exum, the No. 5 pick in 2014, hasn't shown to be a starting-caliber NBA player yet, partially due to injuries and partially because he hasn't been all that effective when he's on the floor.
Exum showed big flashes in 2017-18 but needs to show that he can get to the rim even when the defense is ready for it. The pull-up shot will need to be a threat, somehow.
Getting a third star
Mitchell and Gobert constitute a very good core, but even with optimistic ideas about how both will improve, are they enough to win a championship? Fearsome twosomes haven't typically been enough to win the title unless one of the two is the undoubtedly best player in the NBA: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, etc.
The Jazz probably need to make it a big three by adding a third star-level player. That player's most important role would be to take a level of scoring burden off of Mitchell, who clearly needed a break at times this postseason. But that player would also need to fit the Jazz's identity: good basketball IQ, solid enough defensively and not a big enough ego to upset Utah's unique locker room.
Among the list of 2018 All-Stars who fit that description:
- It's easy to imagine Kevin Love as a fit next to Gobert, as Love's shooting threat opens space for Gobert's dives to the rim and vice versa. His defense is limited, but it may be solid enough. Love also has said that Park City is his favorite place in the U.S. Cleveland may shop Love for long-term pieces if LeBron James leaves this summer, or Love has a player option after the 2018-19 season if he'd like to become a free agent then.
- Kyle Lowry was a free agent possibility for the Jazz in the summer of 2017, talking with Utah's front office before deciding to stay in Toronto while the Jazz chased Gordon Hayward. He's also 32 years old and hasn't exactly stepped his game up in the playoffs in the past. If Toronto is looking to make changes, he might be available.
- Paul George fits the criteria and has a relationship with Mitchell that was established before Mitchell's rookie season. He is a free agent in 2018, but it would be very difficult for the Jazz to open up the cap space to sign him to his max contract. He seems likely to go to Los Angeles.
- Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard are all going to be free agents in 2019 when the Jazz will be able to open up much more cap space than 2018. Thompson seems very likely to stay in Golden State, and Leonard seems likely to go to L.A. if he leaves San Antonio. Butler and Walker, though, could find themselves frustrated by their teams and be true free agents for Lindsey to recruit.
There are other attainable pieces that might get to that All-Star level: the Wizards are going to have to dump one of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter at some point; Khris Middleton is a free agent in 2019; and I guess Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon have that potential.
The Jazz do have some salary ballast that they can use in a trade for these players, but from a value point of view, they might have to give up draft picks or talented youth to acquire those players.
Use the draft
But if they give up draft picks in a trade, they can't use them in June on draft day. That's where Lindsey has done his best work. He turned the No. 24 pick and a fringe prospect in Trey Lyles last year into Mitchell, and turned a second round pick and some cash into Rudy Gobert. Even Rodney Hood gave the Jazz value at No. 23.
The Jazz will need more of that late-round magic in the future, as that's where it seems they'll be drafting for the next few years. The Jazz think they can get a solid NBA player at No. 21 this year, for example, though they might also move the pick if a chance opens up.
If I were Lindsey, I'm also drafting a high-upside piece at No. 21, someone who has the tools that the vaunted Jazz player development staff can mold. Not every athletic player is going to turn into Mitchell, nor every long big man into Gobert, but the Jazz seem to have success at turning tools into production at a rate greater than most NBA teams.
Here's what's most exciting: after the summer of 2017, it was hard to imagine a championship-path forward for the Jazz. But thanks to the shocking emergence of the rookie Mitchell, fans can reasonably dream of reaching those lofty heights. It's just going to take a few more steps.
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