As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 24th edition focuses on the Utah Jazz.
Donovan Mitchell, Rookie of the Year's GOAT Runner-Up. Landing a true star in the draft is something a franchise can hope for maybe once a decade. Finding one outside of the top 10 is something they're lucky to do once in a generation. But that's what the Jazz did in 2017, acquiring Donovan Mitchell with the 13th pick. The Louisville combo guard would average 21-4-4 in his first season and hit more big shots than most teams would even ask a rookie to take. His continued success in the playoffs, in which he raised his scoring to over 24 points a game, proved his critical role in the team's future. Nearly any other year this decade, Mitchell would be the runaway Rookie of the Year, but in 2017-18, with Ben Simmons' historic season for the 52-win Sixers, he'll likely have to settle for being the strongest runner-up in recent history.
Remember Derrick Favors? The Jazz's longest-tenured player had a 2016-17 to forget, missing 32 games and seeing his scoring and shooting drop dramatically. But Favors rebounded well this season, averaging 12 and seven on career-high 56 percent shooting, and proving a frontline of he and Rudy Gobert can be imposing on defense without being unsustainably cramped on offense. "Without Favs, we wouldn’t be at this point," said Mitchell after the Game 2 victory over the Thunder.
Where'd Royce O'Neale come from? He wasn't Utah's most impactful rookie this season, but 24-year-old Royce O'Neale, a EuroLeague fixture for two years before getting picked up in the offseason, developed unexpectedly as a rotation cog, getting regular minutes as a wing reserve. He didn't put up tremendous offensive numbers but played strong defense and good team ball, with his spike in minutes largely coinciding with the team's early-2018 surge up the Western Conference standings. He also had perhaps the only play worth remembering for Jazz fans during their two home games against the Rockets in the West semifinals:
21-2. The two-month run from late January to late March saw the Jazz go from a 19-28 lottery team on the verge of a complete rebuild to a 40-30 team fighting for home-court advantage in the West. Health, a growing team identity, and a relatively soft schedule all helped, but the team still racked up impressive victories against the Spurs, Pelicans, Blazers, and Pacers on the road while stringing together 11- and nine-game win streaks. Gobert's return to elite defense was a big reason for the streaking. "I don't like to make my own case, but there's nobody that impacts the game defensively like I do in the whole world," he said after the team's 21st win in 23 games. "I watch other games and I don't see anyone."
Surviving without Gordon Hayward. When Utah's former franchise player left for Boston in the offseason, many thought it was the end of the Jazz's long path back to competitiveness. But it turns out there was a pretty strong core in place even without leading scorer Hayward, and with Mitchell as first option, the Jazz were able not only to maintain but actually improve upon last year's performance. They beat the Thunder in six in the first round and took a game off the Rockets in the second; last year, they were swept by Golden State. It's not where the team ultimately sees itself, but it shows its much closer to getting there than most predicted preseason.
Ricky Rubio's injury. The polarizing point guard had a mostly productive season in his first NBA campaign outside Minnesota, averaging career highs in scoring (13.1 PPG) and effective field goal percentage (47.6 percent), and playing typically tough, rangy defense at the point of attack. Rubio showed off the latter against Oklahoma City, but a hamstring injury suffered in Game 6 knocked him out for the second-round series against Houston. Considering how much of the Rockets' offense goes through their two point guards, it's hard to imagine Rubio's defensive presence wouldn't have made a considerable difference.
Dante Exum's injury. The forever-alluring Dante Exum was robbed of a chance to show his potential value to the retooling Jazz this year by a shoulder ailment that cost him four months. He posted the best numbers of his brief career upon returning, averaging eight and three on 48 percent shooting and proving a plus presence on both sides of the ball in 14 games. His usefulness continued into the playoffs, although he was again hindered by a hamstring injury suffered in Game 4 of the second round that kept him out of the elimination game in Houston. He was yet another missing piece the Jazz could have used against the supercharged Rockets.
Gobert's injury. Sensing a theme here? Unlike Rubio and Exum, Gobert at least got fit in time for the playoffs - in fact, his return to the lineup at midseason was the primary catalyst for the team's zoom out of mediocrity. But who knows if they even would have been mired there in the first place if not for knee injuries that cost the defensive anchor 26 games? The Stifle Tower's injury pushed the Jazz toward a precipice; had he been out another week or two, we may have been writing this column at least a month earlier.
Rodney Hood's disappointment. Utah's biggest non-health-related personnel problem this year came via fourth-year wing Rodney Hood, who was not given an extension on his rookie deal in the offseason, and whose breakup with Utah seemed a near-certainty by the trade deadline. His numbers this season were better than you might remember - 17 points a game on 55 percent true shooting, both career highs - but the Jazz were much better on both sides of the ball without him, and his toughness was often questioned on a team where hard-nosedness was a bedrock trait. Ultimately, he was sent to Cleveland in a deadline deal for Jae Crowder, and the enduring memory of his final season in Utah was likely him hitting a cell phone out of a fan's hand after an ejection:
Mitchell's injury. It was only fitting the Jazz's season ended with their feel-good player of the season, the dude giving them most hope for the future, limping off the court in an elimination game. X-rays were negative, and it was diagnosed as mere "foot soreness," but you can bet Jazz fans won't breathe easy until they get proof of health as early as possible next season. Without Mitchell at 100 percent, the margin of error for this team gets real slim, real quick.
Is that it for Favors? Despite his nice bounce-back year, it's unclear what importance Favors has to the Jazz's future. He's a free agent this summer, and while Utah might have the financial flexibility to negotiate a mutually beneficial extension, it'd be a big frontcourt investment for a team which should arguably be more worried about its production on the wings. But Favors was huge down the stretch and in the playoffs, and despite being Utah's grizzled vet, he's still only 26. Losing him for nothing would hurt, especially with Lyles no longer available to step up as his logical successor.
What about Exum? The most frustrating thing about Exum's injury-plagued season is that it's coming up on decision time for the Jazz regarding their fourth-year combo guard. He's shown elite potential but is still inconsistent on offense and can be abused on defense, and he's missed more total games than he's played on his rookie contract, which is up this summer. Signing him to a big deal would be risky, but so would letting him go: The Rockets series showed how much Utah needs whatever perimeter defenders it can get its hands on, and a promotion could be available for the 22-year-old if he proves he's starter-ready next season.
Can the offense be improved? Considering nearly all their summer 2017 spending was on defense-first players - Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Rubio, and so on - the fact the Jazz finished 16th in offensive rating on the season probably should be considered something of a success. But it's hard to contend for a championship while being in the bottom half of the league on either side of the ball, so to hang with the Rockets and Warriors, the Jazz might still need to improve their O game. Can you build a top-level offense around Mitchell? And can the Jazz develop or land another volume scorer to lighten the load on their perimeter dynamo?
Will the Jazz be active on draft night? Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey has been one of the league's most active movers around the draft in recent years, trading two picks for one to nab Trey Burke in 2013 (not so good), moving the No. 12 pick for George Hill in 2016 (justifiable), and swapping Lyles for the No. 13 pick that became Mitchell in 2017 (ultimately exceptional). This year, the Jazz are scheduled to pick at No. 21 and 52, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Lindsey being proactive again near draft night to put the Jazz in a position to make another step forward next season.
Can a healthy Jazz squad be contenders? Though they began the season as a fringe playoff team sans Hayward, the Jazz ended 2017-18 as a team who could look at a second-round exit and actually reasonably wonder if they could have done even better. Given the inopportune timing of its injuries, Utah could reasonably argue it didn't get the proper chance to show what it can really do; indeed, at its best, this team looked about as dangerous as any in the West. But do they have the firepower, the versatility, the skill to push the conference's big boys? Hopefully, the Jazz can avoid such nagging health issues next year and we can properly find out.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)