On January 22, the Utah Jazz were in Atlanta to play the Hawks, and their season was circling the drain. Over the previous seven weeks they had lost 14 of 20. That night, the Jazz went out and lost again, decidedly, to maybe the worst team in basketball, falling to 19-28 for the season.
And enough was enough.
"We got together after the [Atlanta loss], and we knew we had to turn things around," Jazz guard Ricky Rubio told CBS Sports. "Part of it was trusting the system, but at the same time, we had to get more aggressive and not wait for things to change."
Two nights later, the Jazz won in Detroit in overtime. Then they won a close one in Toronto. Then they came home and beat the Warriors. Those three games, Rubio says, showed them they could beat any team in the league if they played with an edge. They went on to win 21 of their next 23, and now, 10 weeks later, they've gone from nine games under .500 on that night in Atlanta to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
is set for Sunday at 6:30 ET.
It's a remarkable story that has been taking shape methodically, over years of draft picks who outperformed their slot and quietly successful trades. In 2010, they drafted Gordon Hayward No. 9 overall and developed him into a star. In 2013, they acquired Rudy Gobert, who went 27th overall, in a draft-night trade with Denver, and developed him into a star. In 2014, they claimed Joe Ingles off waivers. Last season it came together, and they surprised a lot of people by defeating the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Everything was on the upswing. Utah was becoming a player.
And then, last Fourth of July, everything stopped when news broke that Hayward was leaving Utah to sign with the Celtics. Right or wrong, the prevailing perception was that everything the Jazz had worked so hard to build had just crumbled. In places like Utah, you don't just replace rising stars like Hayward. On some level, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey knew that.
"There's no way around it, we were worried," Lindsey told CBS Sports. "In those early moments when you lose a significant player, you're afraid to think about what's next."
Shortly thereafter, Lindsey and Jazz coach Quin Synder, who were on the road chasing another unnamed free agent, took a flight from Washington D.C. back to Salt Lake City. "A very long flight," Lindsey laughs. They knew the challenge in front of them was formidable. In what Lindsey describes as an honest, wide-ranging conversation, they laid out something of a post-Hayward plan. It had seven open-ended points of emphasis. Questions, if you will.
"A lot was unclear, but we felt like if we could address six or certainly all seven of these points, we could still be a really good team," Lindsey said. "If we could address three or four, that would be a good accomplishment. If it was just one or two, it was going to push us more toward a rebuild."
A few of these questions: How quickly would Donovan Mitchell, whom they had just acquired in a draft-night trade with the Nuggets, turn into the premier player the Jazz thought he could be? Would Derrick Favors, who'd just endured a miserable 2016-17 season riddled by chronic knee problems, return to form? Could Rudy Gobert take another step toward stardom? Would Ricky Rubio, already seven years into his career and pretty well established as a pass-first, bad-shooting point guard, respond to some of the player development ideas Utah had for him?
"I'm not going to go point by point," Lindsey said, "but I'll say this: Those questions we had, we feel like we have successfully answered all seven of them."
And so here they are, the hottest team in the league this side of the 76ers, entering the playoffs with the best defense in the NBA over the second half and a remarkable 30-8 record since Gobert returned to the lineup in late January. He's been MVP-valuable, Gobert has, as evidenced by Utah's 4-11 record and dead-last net rating during the 15 games the big man missed from mid-December to mid-January. He's the octopus from which Utah's defensive tentacles expand and swarm three of the deadliest scoring points in today's game: Third in defending pick-and-roll ball handlers and fifth in defending the roll man, per Synergy, while surrendering the fourth-fewest corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.
"Internally, we really felt that whether you want to just look at stats, or go even deeper in your analysis, in terms of impact, we had a top-10 to top-15 player in Rudy Gobert," said Lindsey, who added that Gobert is a prime example of the success Utah has had in developing its players.
"For us to be good, we know that we have to get a little more out of guys than maybe they've shown, or had the opportunity to show, in the past," Lindsey continued. "Maybe that's a Donovan Mitchell, who maybe hadn't been a primary player [in college] but had primary skills. Maybe that's working with Rudy Gobert as he goes from the 27th pick to a guy who gets stronger, who now gets to spots quicker, and then bang, his body and athleticism unleash him into what he is now. Maybe that's a Joe Ingles, who we picked up off waivers and has become one of the top 10 small forwards in the league. Another big one is Ricky Rubio, whose improvement has exceeded our expectations."
Indeed, Rubio is playing the best basketball of his career. More specifically, he's shooting better than he ever has. Rubio has always been a tough defender and a savant passer, but the shooting had always, in at least some capacity, held him back. Not anymore. For the season, he's shooting career highs from both the field and 3-point range (over 35 percent from the latter, a more than serviceable mark for a guy who brings all the other things that Rubio does).
Over the final two weeks of the season, as the Jazz climbed the ladder to put themselves in position for the 3-seed, Rubio shot over 54 percent from three on a healthy four attempts per game. The 13 points a game he's averaging is also a career high.
"Just from the standpoint of his stability, controlling possessions while Donovan was developing as a high-usage player, you could make an argument that of all the teams Ricky has played on during his career, from Joventut (Spanish ACB League), to Barcelona, to the Spanish national team, to his seven years in Minnesota, no team has ever needed him more than we needed him here in Utah," Lindsey said. "Especially after we lost [Hayward]."
As the Jazz were recruiting Hayward to stay, it was widely viewed that the decision to bring in Rubio was made, at least in part, to entice Hayward, who had openly expressed his desire to play alongside the Spaniard. That's really neither here nor there at this point, but to be clear, Lindsey says Utah's plan was always to put the ball in the hands of a veteran point guard, whether that was going to happen through re-signing George Hill or bringing in a guy like Rubio. They wanted, needed, stability. They needed it for the team to stay on track. They needed it to give Mitchell time to simply get on track.
Everything with the Jazz, it seems, comes back to Mitchell.
As well it should, because the simple truth is that without Mitchell blowing past all reasonable expectations in becoming a legit franchise cornerstone years ahead of schedule (if anyone had him becoming that type of player at all), the Jazz are not the No. 5 seed in the brutal Western Conference. If we're being honest, there's a good chance they're not in the playoffs at all. Mitchell has been that incredible -- the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets in 2003-04, the first rookie since David Robinson in 1989-90 to be the leading scorer on a team with at least 46 wins, the all-time rookie leader in made 3-pointers with 187.
"We were working through the draft on several players, and Donovan was one that stood out to us on multiple levels," Lindsey said. "We always felt like his handle was way underrated, or at least I did, and as a group we felt like his vision was great and we liked that he was unselfish inside his role at Louisville, because we play in that same balanced way.
"Going into the day of the draft, I was very motivated and anxious to move up [from our 24th pick]," Lindsey continued. "Yes, Donovan was a priority, but [no moves] were really presenting themselves."
Ultimately, one move did present itself. And that's all it took. With a big smile on its organizational face, Utah sent the No. 24 pick and Trey Lyles to the Nuggets (the same team that traded Gobert to Utah in 2013, thank you very much) for the rights to Mitchell. They knew they had a good one. Then, after an electrifying Summer League, the Jazz felt like they had a potentially great one. So far, it does not appear that they were wrong.
Lindsey hugely credits Snyder (who just might sneak up on the pack and win Coach of the Year) with taking the rookie reins off Mitchell early and often. A lot of coaches won't do that with young players. They won't endure the mistakes in the name of growth. But Mitchell made it easy. Relatively speaking, he didn't make many mistakes, and the ones that he did make, he corrected. Everyone in the Jazz organization glows about Mitchell's accountability and work ethic, hardly ever taking the credit, gladly shouldering the blame. It has earned him endless respect from the veterans.
"There may have been a few other teams or coaches that he could've gone to, or certainly a team with more mature, ready-made offensive talent, where Donovan might've had to bide his time," Lindsey said. "But Quin said this from the beginning, that he wasn't into the whole rookie earn-your-stripes thing. If Donovan was ready to be our most versatile offensive player, why obscure it? Why get into this rookie ritualistic, pay-your-dues, wait-your-turn stuff. Let's just get on with it."
Now Mitchell enters the next, and most difficult, phase of his NBA star exam: Can he lead a team in the playoffs? The regular season, after all, is one thing. But starting Sunday in Oklahoma City, he's going to feel a level of basketball intensity that he's never felt. The NBA playoffs cannot be replicated. The Thunder will be obsessively focused on stopping him. He's going to make mistakes and have to bounce back immediately. He's going to have to beat double teams, traps, defenses strategically designed to confuse him. But he's not alone. The Jazz are a really good team. Better than a lot of people still realize. And they didn't come this far to be satisfied.
"We know it's going to be tough in the West, but if we play our best, we can beat anybody," Rubio said. "That's our mentality going into the playoffs. And we're not just thinking about the first round. We're thinking more ahead."