SALT LAKE CITY – Trying to evaluate the entirety of the Jazz season has become a difficult endeavor, with strong arguments pointing in opposite directions.
On one hand, it’s hard to overlook a regular-season in which the Jazz finished with the outright best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history. There’s also a 4-1 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, a significant achievement that had not happened since 2018.
Individually, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley represented the Jazz in the All-Star game. Gobert won his third Defensive Player of the Year award and was named to the all-NBA third team.
On the surface, all these feats are enough to qualify as a successful season. Off the court, the organization transitioned smoothly from the Miller family’s long-time ownership to Ryan Smith, a diehard Jazz fan intent on building upon the outstanding legacy.
But, but, but . . . we know what some of you are thinking. The playoffs, as has been the case over many seasons, ended in disappointment.
Unlike those prior heartbreaks, the relatively short run in the postseason was particularly bitter. Downright brutal, is more like it.
Dispatching the Grizzlies was routine, something expected of every No. 1 seed. The only drama involved Mitchell’s return in the second game after missing the prior month with an ankle injury.
Losing in the second round to the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers makes it virtually impossible to view the playoffs as a positive development. Point to injuries all you want, but the Jazz still were up 2-0 after winning the first two home games and then saw the Clippers sweep the next four.
Personally, it’s legitimate to claim Conley’s absence for all but the final game and Mitchell’s recurring ankle problems were enough to thwart advancing to the Western Conference finals. But it’s also hard to ignore the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard for the last two games.
In its own way, Game 6 will live in Jazz lore for all the wrong reasons. Allowing Terrance Mann go off for 39 points, and in the process blowing a 25-point lead, was unacceptable on every level.
For a good portion, the Jazz literally stood by and watched the Clippers score 81 points in the second half. ESPN analyst Tim Legler likened the wide-open three-point shots for the Clippers to shooting without any defensive pressure before games.
For all the disappointment, Mitchell’s performances on a bum ankle was nothing short of sensational. His strong will to win also was manifest in his postgame comments.
“This is going to eat at me for a long time, watching the Clippers and the Suns play in the conference final and even watching the (NBA) Finals,” he said. “We had an incredible regular season, made so many pushes and we continued to fight. But, man, this is going to eat at me. Even when I go to the grocery store I’m going to be thinking about this.”
For Jazz fans and management, this is beautiful music. The team’s most dependable player, and the face of the franchise, will hold himself along with teammates and management accountable.
One year ago, after the Jazz blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, Mitchell emphatically stated he was done losing in the first round like the team had done the prior two seasons. He made no such proclamations this time around but his irritation was just the same.
And, remember, Mitchell is still only 24 years old. Four-time NBA champion LeBron James didn’t win his first title until 2012, almost 10 years after the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him first coming out of high school.
To get there, even as Mitchell continues to grow as an elite player, obviously the Jazz need improvement. The Clippers exposed deficiencies with the Jazz perimeter defense, but a complete overhaul is not necessary.
“Obviously, we err towards continuity,” Jazz vice president Dennis Lindsey said the day after the season ended. “I think that served us really well this year.”