The Utah Jazz got almost everything right. They acquired their two cornerstones -- Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert -- via draft-day trades with picks outside of the top 10. They struck gold on two undrafted free agents -- Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles -- and rewarded each with hefty contracts. They gave Bojan Bogdanovic fair market value in free agency and traded fair market value for a third All-Star in Mike Conley and the Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson. Both flourished in their perfectly choreographed system. It was a masterclass in building a roster the hard way. No continuous tanking. No superstars forcing their way aboard. None of the auxiliary benefits either provides. Just a series of smart decisions layered on top of each other to open a window for contention.
It's how a team has to build in Salt Lake City, where stars will likely never flock and sustained tanking is financially infeasible. The Jazz played the cards they were dealt, and in the second round, they were knocked out by a team that received such a favorable hand that they were able to beat them without their best player.
The Jazz should have beaten the Los Angeles Clippers once Kawhi Leonard went down. No circumstance should excuse their inability to do so. There's an undeniable degree of humiliation in losing to such a wounded Clippers team, but in the grand scheme of things, it's worth turning the question around and wondering how the Clippers gave themselves a big enough margin for error to beat a No. 1 seed without Leonard. A lot of it boiled down to wise management. Teams that draft players like Terance Mann No. 48 overall tend to do quite well for themselves. The Clippers had a vision for this roster and executed it brilliantly. But before even accounting for what he did on the floor, Leonard's presence helped build that roster off of it.
He is the reason Paul George forced his way to Los Angeles, after all. George went on to play a major role in recruiting Reggie Jackson, who averaged 18 points per game in the Utah series and did so on a minimum contract. Jackson might not have even been the most important minimum-salary player on the Clippers roster. Nicolas Batum, the small-ball center who so confounded Rudy Gobert, also signed for the minimum. He chose Los Angeles over a number of teams, including the Jazz, who attempted to use his friendship with fellow Frenchman Gobert to recruit him and failed.
They are rewards for competence, to an extent, but competence is more attractive in Los Angeles than it is in Salt Lake. The Clippers made themselves attractive enough to land stars and all of the good things that come with them. That includes a wider margin for error. The Jazz never had one. It made them vulnerable to any mistake or misfortune. They experienced both.
Would they have won this series with a healthy Mike Conley? It's hard to say, especially considering the parallel mystery of Leonard's health. It certainly would have made a difference, especially once Donovan Mitchell tweaked his ankle. The Clippers got away with playing such small lineups in part because Mitchell was the only ball-handler who could consistently penetrate the defense, scoring 8.3 points in the paint per game compared to 3.7 or fewer for every other player on the roster aside from Gobert. That made it particularly difficult for the Jazz to punish the Clippers for playing so small.
Instead, it was the Clippers punishing the Jazz for playing big. Utah had no alternative. The Jazz were capped out last offseason, but still had one powerful tool to wield in free agency: the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. They could have offered over $9 million per year to any free agent. They chose Derrick Favors, a traditional backup center who had once been their starting power forward. The logic was sensible at the time. Their defense had just struggled when Gobert had gone to the bench. Favors, in theory, protected against that possibility.
But if Gobert struggled against the smaller Clippers as a Defensive Player of the Year, the slower Favors never stood a chance. The Jazz lost his minutes by 35 points in the first five games of the series. In Game 4, they lost the game by 14 points, the exact amount they were outscored by with him on the floor.
Imagine a scenario in which the Jazz had signed a traditional backup center for the minimum and then used their mid-level exception on another player they once let go of: Jae Crowder, who took a similar deal in Phoenix. That would have given the Jazz a small-ball center of their own to counter the Clippers. JaMychal Green might have achieved the same effect. With no small-ball option, the Jazz had no realistic countermeasure for Batum.
Few teams are capable of building for every possible matchup eventuality. You could argue the Clippers are one of them. After all, they played big with Ivica Zubac for most of the season. When they lost Serge Ibaka to injury, they were able to successfully pivot into small ball in part because of their excellent minimum signings.
But the Jazz don't get Nic Batums for the minimum. The opportunity cost of their roster decisions is greater. When they sign the wrong player, they can't have an alternative lined up to replace him. Losing core players to injury is lethal. All of the stars need to align for Utah to win a championship.
They did in the regular season. They might again next season. But it's unclear how long that will be the case. The Jazz already owe well over $130 million to players next season before a new Conley deal is even accounted for. Re-signing their point guard would vault them deep into the luxury tax. Will they be able to keep all of their supporting talent and pay Conley? Who gets sacrificed if the answer is no? If the answer is yes, is that just for next season, or for the foreseeable future?
Steve Ballmer's wealth insulates the Clippers from decisions like this. They owe almost $150 million in salaries next season before accounting for Jackson, due a hefty raise through his Early Bird rights, and Batum, whom the Clippers will surely offer their mid-level exception if he demands it. They just paid Luke Kennard $64 million sight unseen and proceeded to park him on the bench for most of the regular season. The Clippers can afford to make basketball decisions that most teams can't.
None of this is to say that the Jazz can't win a championship. With some better luck or one better decision, they might still be alive right now. They just don't have that Kawhi Leonard-sized margin for error that the Clippers did in this series. Few small-market teams ever do. For a team in their position, getting almost everything right might not be enough.