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Utah Jazz can't stand pat and rise much further

SALT LAKE CITY — Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was all smiles after the Rockets had jettisoned the Jazz from the playoffs, Tuesday night. But that’s just him. He’s a positive guy.

D’Antoni couldn’t say enough good things about the Jazz. Well, maybe he could. He limited it to his opening statement.

“Before we get started …” he began.

In other words, let’s do the obligatory tribute to a team you beat in five games.

“Utah played really, really good. Quin (Snyder) did a fantastic job on what he did. (Donovan) Mitchell’s unbelievable. We had them down a couple times and they kept coming back and they kept playing. Just a bunch of smart, hard-playing guys. Got a lot of respect on this side for them.”

None of this was patronizing, because he’s right on all counts: good team, fantastic coaching, Mitchell. A team with comeback toughness. Smart, team-oriented players. The part D’Antoni left out, for obvious reasons, was what the Jazz will be next year.

The answer is that if they stay the same, they’ll be about the same, and finish about the same. They’ll be an upper-end team in the hopelessly steep Western Conference. They’ll possibly climb above Oklahoma City, which finished tied with the Jazz for fourth, but the Thunder are likely to see changes — including the departure of All-Star Paul George. The Jazz could overtake Portland, too, which finished just a game ahead in the regular season. That would put them in rare air. But even then, Portland finished 11 games behind No. 2 Golden State and 16 behind Houston.

Barring the addition of, say, OKC’s George, or another borderline elite player, third is as high as the Jazz will get. They already had the league’s second-best defensive team rating in the regular season. But they were 19th in scoring, 13th in offensive rating.

It’s no secret the Jazz are a ferocious team. Nor is it a surprise they’ve staked their future on keeping games competitive via smash-and-grab defense. But how does that put them into contention for a championship? The Jazz already have a top scorer in Mitchell. Then what?

Houston was Exhibit A of what happens when there are offensive options. James Harden tried everything in his bag of tricks on Tuesday, but couldn’t get untracked. He finished 7 of 22 from the field. Most of the night his shooting percentage was in the 20s and he ended up at 32 percent. But Chris Paul got 41 points, to put away the Jazz.

The Rockets had a go-to guy even when their go-to guy was sick.

Until the Jazz get that player, they won’t rise further than where they ended up this year: with a second-round loss to Golden State or Houston. That addition could be George, whose career stops so far have included Indiana and Oklahoma City, neither big-market destinations.

He never completely blended on a Thunder team that had Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. But there would be no competition for the position of secondary scorer on the Jazz, were George to play at small forward. He averaged 22 points and six rebounds on a team that already had two players that don’t like giving up the ball. Joe Ingles would be a nifty scorer off the bench.

Utah is No. 13 in starting cap space going into the summer, according to The same source rates the Jazz 11th in maximum cap space. While Derrick Favors did an admirable job of adjusting to playing alongside Rudy Gobert, in matchups such as the Houston series, the Jazz went with Jae Crowder, who has better range. Favors becomes a free agent this summer, as does Dante Exum, the tantalizingly long point guard, whose defensive growth was apparent in the postseason — until he got hurt. Again.

Other teams could lose or gain a free agent and change the view. For instance, Golden State’s Kevin Durant has a player option on his contract. Quin Snyder is fond of saying the strength of the team is the team. But as the playoffs showed, nothing says you can’t have a team that includes a couple of lights-out scorers. Adding one — even if it means losing Favors to free agency — is one way to leapfrog ahead.

The Jazz are a cohesive, upbeat team that should get better with experience. But they aren’t likely to slip into Houston-Golden State territory without more firepower. Change happens. The Jazz can’t assume being good is good enough. It will take tweaking what they have, to get where they’re going.