SALT LAKE CITY — For a team that went through the worst split since Brad and Jen, the Utah Jazz seem to be having way too much fun this season. You’d never know that last summer they were dumped by Gordon Hayward, who spurned their pledge of love, money and commitment and ran away with another suitor.
The Jazz are one of the best stories of the season. They are thriving. They are 35-30, they have a new (and better) franchise player to build around, the new-and-improved arena is packed and they are competing for a spot in the playoffs again.
OK, a year ago the Jazz were 40-24 on this date, but there are a few caveats worth noting. To begin with, this year’s team had to stumble around for a few months trying to adapt to life without Hayward. The Jazz spent years developing Hayward and building a team around him and then he was gone. So maybe it was understandable when the Jazz lost seven of eight during one stretch in November and 13 of 16 during another tough December-January stretch.
They’ve also had several key players sidelined by injuries. Rudy Gobert has missed 26 games because of two different injuries and was largely ineffective for six games during a brief midseason return. Dante Exum, the No. 5 pick of the 2014 draft, has not played this year because of a shoulder injury, and Thabo Sefolosha has been shelved since January with a knee injury.
But somehow the Jazz have hit their stride. In the second half of the season they are 18-6 and counting. Wednesday night’s victory over Indiana gives them 16 wins in 18 games, which includes an 11-game winning streak. Their longest winning streak in the second half of last season was four games (six for the entire season).
Meanwhile, a star was born. Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick of the 2017 draft, already has made fans forget what’s-his-name. Mitchell seems almost certain to be named Rookie of the Year. Dare we say it: He’s better than Hayward. Ask yourself this: If Hayward and Mitchell were both on this year’s roster, would the Jazz still be running the offense through Hayward? Would the Jazz trade Mitchell straight up for a healthy Hayward?
No and no.
OK, it’s entirely possible that this will lead to the kind of heartbreak that is inevitable for smaller-market teams (aka farm clubs) in the NBA. Mitchell could end up bolting the Jazz a few years from now for a bigger stage after his contract runs out, à la Hayward, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Such is life in the NBA thanks to its failure to adopt a hard salary cap. But meanwhile, Jazz fans are enjoying the rise of a great player and an overachieving team, one that plays the type of selfless, team-oriented basketball that is a lost art in the league.
Mitchell is already one of the best talents the Jazz have ever drafted and his charisma, combined with his play, have made him popular among fans. He is a big factor in 16 straight sellouts at home.
He’s also a big factor in the Jazz’s late-season run for a playoff spot. With 17 games to go, the Jazz have a favorable schedule in their bid to win more than 40 games and overtake the Clippers and Nuggets for the eighth playoff spot.
In the era of Instant Championship Teams (see any team LeBron has personally formed via luxury tax and debt), it would be refreshing to see the Jazz achieve some level of success. This is an organization that does things the right way, through smart moves in the draft and free agency and through player development. They deserved better than what Hayward — aided and abetted by the NBA — did to them last summer.