Donovan Mitchell used to dream of someday becoming an NBA star.
Today, it’s not uncommon for him to see kids wearing his jersey, wearing his signature sneakers, he’s one of the most intriguing and dynamic young stars in the league. It really is a dream come true ... almost.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA player who says their dream was to make it to the NBA and be a regular-season champion. That’s not the goal. The ultimate dream is to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy overhead after winning the NBA Finals, to be a part of a ring ceremony, to raise a championship banner in an arena. That’s the dream, and Mitchell has imagined what it would be like to win a title not just with any NBA team, but with the Utah Jazz.
“The fact that it’s not just the finals, but it’d be the first one in (team) history,” Mitchell said when explaining what it’s like imagining winning a title. “It’s just one of those things that puts a smile on your face.”
In order to achieve that dream, the Jazz will need to take advantage of the rare opportunity they have in front of them. The team is loaded with players who are capable of winning and they are all aware that the window available to them won’t last forever.
The Jazz have proven that they are a team that can dominate in the regular season. They are widely expected to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference through the regular season and to have a top seed going into the playoffs. But that regular-season success means nothing if they can’t take things to the next level. First- or second-round playoff exits will not cut it. They have to prove that they’re more than just a great regular-season team.
“After last year — obviously falling short — after the regular season that we had it’s obviously disappointing,” Joe Ingles said. “The regular season is great, but you don’t get anything for winning the regular season. You want to win in the playoffs.”
Looking back while moving forward
The Jazz held training camp in Las Vegas for a couple of reasons. First, Jazz coach Quin Snyder wanted to give the team a chance to bond in a bit of an isolated environment. Second, there were some finishing touches on renovations at Zions Bank Basketball Campus that needed to be wrapped up. And finally, Snyder wanted the team to process what happened last season, to really talk it through.
Certainly there are things that can be taken from the Jazz’s past failures and used as motivation. The blown 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in 2020 and the 2-0 lead against the Los Angeles Clippers last season that led to four straight Clippers’ wins and another playoff exit both happened in less than a year and are fueling what the Jazz are building toward.
“We all use those experiences to be ready for the next moments,” Rudy Gobert said. “You learn and try to come back better.”
There are schematic lessons to be learned and the Jazz are doing everything they can to combat the ways that teams have punished them in the past. The Jazz are deeper and more versatile than they’ve ever been and they are ready to admit where they went wrong.
Health is one of the most important components, and while there is a lot of luck that’s needed when it comes to health, the Jazz are going to make concerted efforts to deliver a healthy roster to the playoffs by controlling as much as they possibly can.
While there is a lot that the Jazz can reflect on and take with them as they move forward, there is also a certain amount of amnesia needed when it comes to how things played out last season.
“We’re trying to win, day to day. Rack up the wins in the regular season, grow during the regular season, get to the playoffs, get out of the first round, get out of the second round, get out of the Western Conference, try to get to the Finals. That’s how it’s got to be broken up. We can’t look past nothing.” — Jordan Clarkson
“This is a whole new journey, a whole new thing,” Jordan Clarkson said. “There ain’t no awards on the table, no All-Stars and All-NBA right now. Nothing is set.”
The Jazz had the best record in the league last season, the Defensive Player of the Year, the Sixth Man of the Year, three All-Stars, a Coach of the Year candidate and other accolades as well. And Clarkson is right. None of that matters.
There isn’t a single team in the NBA that cares what the Jazz did last season, and to a certain extent, the Jazz shouldn’t either.
If the Jazz flame out unceremoniously again in the first or second round of the postseason it will be a huge disappointment and a failure. But they have to get to the playoffs first and they can’t be overconfident on their way there or think too far ahead, just because they’ve had some success during last year’s regular season.
“We’re trying to win, day to day,” Clarkson said. “Rack up the wins in the regular season, grow during the regular season, get to the playoffs, get out of the first round, get out of the second round, get out of the Western Conference, try to get to the Finals. That’s how it’s got to be broken up. We can’t look past nothing.”
There’s been one thing that has really stood out to Jazz players as they’ve moved through training camp and the preseason this year. It’s not the intense and physical practices, those are pretty common for the Jazz, especially at this point in the calendar when players are anticipating the season starting and the young players are competing for the possibility of getting extra minutes when the opportunities present themselves.
It’s not that the Jazz are a united team that is close-knit under the keen tutelage of Snyder. That’s been the case for years.
The one thing that players say has changed is how much they are holding one another accountable.
“We know what to expect from each other,” Clarkson said. “So, we’re not going to look around the room and stand for anything less.”
When someone is doing something wrong — misses a read, is out of position, makes the wrong cut, isn’t ready to shoot — it’s the players who are stepping up to point out the flaws. They are the ones that are on the court and see what’s happening in real time.
Snyder believes that it’s his job to do that all the time, but it’s encouraging for him to have a team that is at a point in its development where they’ve taken on some of that responsibility.
“We really feel like we have an opportunity to do something special. You don’t get that many of those windows in your career, so it’s a great opportunity for us, no matter what has happened, to really try to be the best we can be, and it’s exciting.” — Rudy Gobert
As Mitchell sees it, it’s easy to do that now but there are two key things to keep in mind as the season progresses. One, each player needs to remember that not everyone takes criticism the same way. Those accountability conversations have to be tailored to each person’s personality. And two, they have to stay this engaged and committed to being accountable even when things get tough.
“It’s one thing to do it in October,” Mitchell said. “But it’s being able to do that throughout the course of the year when we’re exhausted, when we’ve played three in four, when we get to the dog days of January, February, in March when you’re playing for that spot and even in the playoffs when you’re up 2-0 or even when you’re down 2-0. That’s where it counts and I think this is a good start for us.”
The reason that the players have felt so comfortable going at one another and holding everyone to a higher standard is because they can feel the pressure and the expectations and they are welcoming all of it.
“We really feel like we have an opportunity to do something special,” Gobert said. “You don’t get that many of those windows in your career, so it’s a great opportunity for us, no matter what has happened, to really try to be the best we can be, and it’s exciting. It’s exciting after all those years of losing learning, losing learning, to be a part of a group that wants to do something even better.”
There’s a lot that can happen between now and the end of the regular season. There will be even more losing and learning and there will be times when it’s hard to remember that accountability is a good thing. It will be hard to remember the end goal, and that in order to get to the proving ground of the playoffs, they have to make it through the 82-game regular season.
The Jazz have a long road ahead of them. But there’s one thing that isn’t in question at all. The Utah Jazz are chasing a dream. This team wants to be the one that delivers the state it’s first NBA championship.