Despite disappointing first-round playoff exit, Jazz future bright with rising star Donovan Mitchell, but he'll need more help
Utah's season ends after getting bounced in the first round by Houston, but its future remains bright with Mitchell
After the Utah Jazz lost a heartbreaking Game 3 to the Houston Rockets to go down 3-0 -- after Jazz star Donovan Mitchell missed a wide-open 3-pointer out of a timeout with 8.7 seconds left that would have tied the game -- 38-year-old veteran Kyle Korver stepped in front of the cameras and gave one of the most genuine and complimentary breakdowns of a young player that you'll ever hear.
"I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell," Korver began. "I have never seen someone so young take ownership of a team, take ownership of his play, do it with charisma, do it with class. I've never seen that in my 16 years in the NBA. And he missed a tough shot tonight. But it's just going to be part of his story. If you've played any meaningful basketball in the NBA, you have a shot like that. If you don't, that means you haven't played in meaningful games, or you haven't been trusted by your coaches or your teammates to take that shot. I don't care who it is in history -- everyone has a shot that they want back. This is just going to be part of the story at the end of the day."
I'm sorry to quote Korver at such length. But there's a good reason that I am: Because, as the Jazz head into another offseason after which they once again got knocked out of the playoffs in five games by the Rockets after a 100-93 Game 5 loss on Wednesday night, what Korver was saying applies just as much to Mitchell as it does to this Jazz franchise.
"Because of who he is, he's going to put too much on that shot," Korver said. "We miss free throws. We miss dunks. We miss layups. We miss 3s. It was not about that shot -- it was not about that shot. We had so many more chances to win that game. But I'm super proud of him. He heard that he hadn't played as well as he wanted to those first couple games, and he put the whole thing on his back. He tried tonight. And for a young guy, 21 years old or whatever he is, that's really special. He is on a great path in the NBA. At the end of the day it's just going to be part of his story, part of his journey, and he's going to keep building on it. So I just wanted to say that."
This season for the Utah Jazz must ultimately be judged as a failure, I suppose, though it pains me to say that. Through a bit of bad luck -- their net rating, which ranked fourth in the NBA, indicated they should have been a 57- or 58-win team instead of the 50-win team that they were -- or through a poor start that had them sitting at .500 well into 2019, the Jazz grabbed the fifth seed in the West one year after winning 48 games and grabbing the … fifth-seed in the West. They stagnated. And then they lost a first-round series to the same team they lost to in a second-round series last season. This is not what the Jazz had in mind when they tipped off the new season in October. They played well against the Rockets after the first two games in Houston. Whether you think it was gimmicky or not, they did as good of a job on James Harden as you could ever hope for. It is easy to see how this series could have gone completely differently if Mitchell's 3 at the end of Game 3 had gone in. But it didn't, so here we are.
And yet: Listen to what Korver was saying there. The Utah Jazz have a foundational superstar -- Mitchell is actually 22, not 21 -- and he's on a rookie contract. Three cheers for Dennis Lindsey, because he made a masterstroke by trading up to get Mitchell with the 13th pick in 2017. Mitchell is still young, still raw, and he's equipped with a drive to become one of the greats in this game. The leaps his game has made in the past four years -- from when he was a freshman at Louisville who averaged 19 minutes, mostly off the bench, and 7.4 points, to now a second-year All-Star-in-the-making who seems in line for a max contract extension -- are exponential. Mitchell is a late bloomer in this game because he thought he was going to be a professional baseball player until his sophomore year in high school, when Mitchell, playing shortstop, collided with the catcher and broke his wrist. That moment humbled him, and put him on a path to pursue basketball full time. Since then, it's been an otherworldly basketball trajectory for Mitchell. It's hard to judge his second NBA season as anything other than a big step in the right direction, especially considering the slow start that he had.
Consider: On Jan. 7, this Utah team lost at Milwaukee and fell back below .500. They were 10th in the West. It marked the halfway point of their season, and it also would mark the final time the Jazz were below .500 this season; the rest of the way, they went 30-11.
Part of it was that the Jazz had a schedule that was heavily front-loaded. But the other part of it was that Mitchell, who struggled during the first half, made a massive leap in the second half.
Before that Milwaukee loss, Mitchell hadn't been great. He'd averaged 20.2 points per game, and a meager 3.4 assists. He was shooting a miserable 30 percent from 3. It appeared that he'd stagnated, and was the exact same player from his rookie season.
Something about that Milwaukee loss, when Mitchell made six of 12 3-point attempts, ushered in a change. The rest of the way, Mitchell was a beast, posting the sorts of numbers that, if he'd posted them the first half of his year, would have gotten him selected to the All-Star Game. Mitchell averaged 26.9 points per game from that point on. He was a better facilitator, averaging nearly five assists and he was not settling for jump shots and getting to the rim -- he averaged 6.2 free throw attempts per game in the second half after averaging only 3.9 in the first half. Most importantly he was lights out from 3, hitting 41.5 percent of his 3s in the second half of the season.
There are still considerable challenges for the Jazz's offseason. No. 1 ought to be finding another offensive creator to take some pressure off Mitchell. There's some uncertainty going forward -- Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent, as are Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha -- but the team's core of Gobert, Mitchell and Joe Ingles are locked up through the 2020-21 season. Derrick Favors is guaranteed one more year at $16 million, which does not seem like a great contract, but there are plenty of team-friendly deals they have, too.
The Jazz have some flexibility in the offseason. They're not the Knicks or the Clippers or the Nets with a massive amount of salary cap space with which to remake their roster, but they do have some room; the Jazz rank in the middle of the pack in the NBA in the amount of practical cap space, per spotrac.com.
But this first-round playoff exit was as much about the Jazz again running into a miserable matchup against the Rockets as it was the Jazz falling short. James Harden and the Rockets are an offensive juggernaut. No team in the NBA allowed fewer 3-pointers during the regular season than the Jazz did -- about 27 3-point attempts per game. Here is how the Rockets shot from 3 this series: 15-41 in Game 1, 17-42 in Game 2, 15-45 in Game 3, 17-46 in Game 4 and 13-37 in Game 5. Oof.
If you are wondering what the future looks like for the Jazz, they still have the best defensive big man in the game in Rudy Gobert, which is huge for a team that hangs its hat on defense. But everything about the Jazz revolves around Mitchell. The franchise loves him. As I wrote back in the fall, the whole state of Utah loves him; I'm not sure if there's been such an authentic connection between a young star and the city he plays in since Kevin Durant was a budding superstar in Oklahoma City. You can nitpick parts of Mitchell's game if you want. His shooting can be streaky. He can get tunnel vision and not help the Jazz's ball movement (although it's hard to fault him for that, given the Jazz's dearth of options). He can put too much on himself. He can force plays when they're not there.
But like Korver said, this is all going to be part of his process -- and part of his story.
The Jazz still have some work to do on their roster, as these playoffs proved. (I'm still intrigued what a fully healthy season from Dante Exum looks like, for what it's worth.) And there are plenty of question marks this offseason. But the Jazz have something in Mitchell that is the envy of the majority of the NBA: A young, charismatic star -- no, lets call him a budding superstar -- who seems committed the franchise and the city for the long haul. Once you have that, a lot of the other details can work themselves out.
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