Despite the major setback Utah Jazz suffered last season after making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and exceeding expectations by beating Los Angeles Clippers to make the second round, Jazz have repeated the feat this season.
With rookie of the year contender Donovan Mitchell taking up scoring responsibilities left behind by the departed Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert and Quinn Snyder improving on defense and on the tactical board, Jazz didn’t skip a beat this season.
Many pundits predicted a return to the NBA Draft after losing George Hill and Hayward which turned out wrong. Beating Oklahoma City Thunder in six games to make the playoff semifinals is a feather in the cap but the joy ride looks set to end.
The side has its hands full playing the league’s best team- Houston Rockets- in the semifinal playoff series and after falling 96-110 in Game 1, the writing is on the wall for another exit at this stage.
Fair enough, Utah played without starting Point Guard Ricky Rubio who is sidelined by a hamstring injury likely to reduce his playing time in the series.
A possible sweep could have the Spaniard miss out on the series. Given his improved play in the OKC series, Rubio’s absence affects Utah’s chances of progression negatively; Rubio improved his scoring tally from 13 points in the regular season to 20 points playing directly against Russell Westbrook.
A likely exit looms for Rubio on a personal level if Utah wants to go beyond this stage going forward. Making the semis twice in a row is a very good accomplishment but like Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference, failing to make the conference finals with a talented team is just not enough.
Thanks to the trade for Jae Crowder in midseason, Utah has the right personnel to surround Gobert with three point shooters to aid his quest to dominate space underneath the basket. Joe Ingles and Mitchell are good shooters from all places on the floor but Rubio is not consistently good in the latter category which allows opposing teams to get more bodies closer to Gobert. Rubio heads into the final year of his four year, $55 million deal he signed three seasons ago with Minnesota Timberwolves. Having a productive Guard on a competitive salary is enough reason to get management thinking about a contract extension next season.
Philadelphia Sixers have surprised all by making the playoff semis in the east and are dreaming big already. The team is lining up a full aggressive sales pitch to LeBron James this offseason in an attempt to turn into an instant NBA final contender. Having achieved a Sixers like “Trust the Process” program out West with talent selected in the draft, Utah Jazz is aiming for the same spot in the conference.
Waiting for Rubio’s contract to end at the end of next season before attempting to sign one isn’t ideal as teams with premier Point Guards have locked them up to long term contracts like Golden State Warriors have done with Steph Curry. Others who could be available in free agency like Kemba Walker are likely not to move to Utah leaving Jazz with few options. The best scenario is to trade for an improvement on Rubio whose team is ready to let go in exchange for young players on inexpensive contracts.
Memphis Grizzlies Mike Conley quickly comes to mind as an experienced floor general with a lot of playoff experience who gives Utah four shooters around Gobert. It must be noted Ricky Rubio is playing in his first ever playoffs despite this being his seventh year in the league. The Spaniard’s biggest asset is his passing (7.9) but Conley puts in good numbers in the category by registering a career average 5.7 dimes with 14.3 points; Ricky has 10.8 points career averages. Memphis looks set to go full on rebuilding the team and its biggest assets-Marc Gasol and Conley-will fetch the team a boatload of talent and draft picks while offloading their big salaries off the books.
Conley is to be paid $30 and $32 million for the next two seasons before he can opt out of his deal. Jazz is one of few contending teams with enough room on its salary sheet to absorb Conley’s salary and dish out a collection of draft picks and talented youngsters like Alec Burks and Dante Exum to make the deal possible. Utah has done a great job improving its standards from the previous season but to move up the ladder, the team needs to improve in the NBA‘s most competitive position.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter