SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Ingles walked down the stairs of the airplane as his two young children joyfully ran to meet him. Upon reaching the ground, Ingles dropped his bag, crouched down and wrapped his arms around his kids. A reunion nearly two months in the making.
The Utah Jazz arrived back in Salt Lake City Wednesday, officially marking the end to a trying season. There were some definite challenges for the 2019-20 Jazz season. They were the NBA’s Patient Zero, their stars were reportedly at an impasse, their players took a stand for social justice, and the season ended by losing a 3-1 lead in a series while being isolated from the rest of world.
"Right now, I think everybody is emotionally spent," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. "We’re going to try to deal with this loss. I have a lot of gratitude for the opportunity that we’ve had here. Whatever is going to go on going forward, that’s not something right now that I’ve given thought to. I’m sure that’ll happen at some point, but right now I’m just proud to have had the opportunity to coach this team. It’s been a unique group. The way that the game went (on Tuesday), and as hard-fought as it was, it was emblematic of what this year was like."
It was a season that began with cautious championship aspirations. The Jazz had bet big on the acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley — sacrificing a team that was built on defensive toughness for one that had more offensive threats. It ended in the same result: a first-round loss. But it also ended with a sense of pride and, maybe surprising to some, with optimism for the future.
Who’s coming back?
Donovan Mitchell had a pretty simple answer when asked how the Jazz can take the next step.
"One, we get Bojan back," he said.
The reshaping of the roster was never seen as a one-year project. So despite how the year ended — a loss that Conley and Snyder both referred to as among the toughest they’ve experienced — the Jazz are planning on bringing their core back for another run.
There were enough "what ifs?" about the season and the first-round series loss to Denver that it’d be hard to pass judgment on this version of the Jazz: What if Conley didn’t miss the first game? What if Bogdanovic wasn’t hurt? What if the Jazz tried Conley on Jamal Murray before Game 7? On that note, what if Murray — an 18-point-per-game scorer — didn’t turn into Steph Curry for most of the series? What if the series wasn’t played in a bubble? It goes on and on.
Conley is expected to pick up his $34.5 million option for next season, and Bogdanovic, Ingles, Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Royce O’Neale will all still be under contract, too. Those are six of the seven most important Jazz players.
Tony Bradley, Georges Niang, Miye Oni, Juwan Morgan, Rayjon Tucker and Nigel Williams-Goss all have non-guaranteed deals for next season.
No. 1: Donovan Mitchell extension
When free agency begins in October, Mitchell will be eligible to sign a max contract rookie extension (25% of the salary cap) — a contract that would kick in at the start of the 2021-22 season. It’s a no-brainer decision for the Jazz. Mitchell is an All-Star, he scored over 50 points twice in a playoff series, and is the face of the franchise — but there are things to consider when it comes to the timing.
Actually just one big one: If the Jazz wait until next season to extended Mitchell, they’ll have more cap space for the 2021 free agency class.
Without an extension, Mitchell will have a $15.9 million cap hold in 2021, which is about $11 million less than what his max salary is projected to be. That would allow the Jazz to use that $11 million for free agents and then extend Mitchell. Sounds like a great plan, right? It is until it’s not.
The Jazz weren’t free from off-court drama this year; what if there is more of the same next season? Sure, Mitchell would be a restricted free agent in 2021 and the Jazz would be able to match any offer, but that could lead to them losing Mitchell in the long run (think Gordon Hayward).
The benefits created by waiting don’t outweigh the potential cons.
No. 2: Rudy Gobert extension
The Jazz can offer Gobert a five-year supermax deal worth north of $220 million (35% of the cap). Will they? Probably not. Should they? Probably not.
These supermax deals were designed as a way to keep players in their original markets, but they mostly just handcuff teams (Washington with John Wall, for example) while supermax worthy players — Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, etc. — left in free agency or demanded a trade.
Gobert is a key to the Jazz success and one of the best defenders in the league, but do the Jazz really want to play him north of $50 million when he’s on the other side of 30? Gobert, to his credit, seemed to be at least willing to take a discount.
"I plan on winning a championship in Utah," Gobert said earlier this summer. "I don’t even think about the extension and the money, I think about being healthy physically, mentally, and just go out there and try to win."
Even with the supermax likely off the table, it’s still expected for the Jazz to try and get an extension done with their All-Star center — and one that will be for a very high dollar amount. Utah could play with the contract enough (start him at the max and then decrease the salary each year, offer bonuses and incentives, etc.) to make sure Gobert feels appreciated, and so the Jazz can continue to build their roster around him.
No. 3: Re-sign Jordan Clarkson
Clarkson saved Utah’s bench this season, and Snyder has praised him since he arrived in December. The sixth man seems to have enjoyed playing in Utah, so all things point to a long-term match.
Clarkson averaged 15.6 points and shot 48.2% from the field and 36.6% from 3 in 34 games with the Jazz this season. The Jazz hold Clarkson’s Bird rights, meaning the Jazz can go over the cap to sign him.
No. 4: Finding depth
In the Game 7 loss, Utah’s six best players available played all but 12 minutes (95% of the game). Due to the nature of Game 7s, that wasn’t unexpected, but it highlighted Utah’s problem throughout the season: a lack of depth.
Ed Davis and Jeff Green were brought in to give Utah a punch off the bench, but by the end of December Davis wasn’t getting playing time and Green had been waived. When Morgan, a little-used rookie, is your eighth-best player in a playoff series, you need more depth.
Utah has three ways to help solve this problem: the No. 23 pick in the draft, the full mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception. Those should help the Jazz at least land a rotation piece — and maybe more.