The contradictions the Jazz face in their search for greatness
After finishing with the best record in the NBA last season, expectations were high entering the 2021-22 campaign. But that didn’t mean things would be easy
Donovan Mitchell sat in a small interview room at Vivint Arena after a recent Utah Jazz loss and looked out at the group of local reporters. How do the Jazz right their wrongs? How do they take things to the next level? How do they prove that they are worthy of basketball glory? How do they silence the doubters?
“We just have to do it,” he said.
It seems like that’s too simple an answer for almost anything, but in this instance, when the Jazz are looking to move from good to great, it might really be the answer.
On paper, the Jazz are in the perfect spot to make a leap and are poised to step into a higher tier among NBA teams.
They’re coming off one of their best regular-season finishes ever, they’re talented and deep, they have players who are on Hall of Fame paths, they have rising stars, sneaky weapons, underrated players and the respect of their peers.
The Jazz have suffered postseason losses, fueling them to improve. They have incrementally constructed a roster and improved talent at every position. They are right on the precipice of being able to really make a statement.
“This is a title-contending team,” Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said of the Jazz. “This is one of the top five or six teams in the game.”
The final hurdle for the Jazz is a mental one. They have to be able to take in all the information, all the feedback, all the lessons, all the contradictions in front of them and put in more effort than anyone else — and want it more than anyone else.
“Don’t talk about it,” Mitchell said. “Be about it.”
Well, it’s all easier said than done, otherwise this article could end right here and the Jazz would go undefeated for the rest of the season en route to their first-ever NBA title.
The Jazz have been talking about the difficulty of making the jump from good to great for years. They’ve stressed how difficult it is and now we’re seeing the Jazz right in the heart of an attempt at that leap.
And make no mistake, there’s a lot to take in.
The Jazz need to use the past as motivation but also have a certain amount of amnesia, because other teams don’t care about what they’ve done before now. They have to transition from being the hunters to being the hunted, but also keep in mind that they have to have the mentality of a hunter.
They have to be unselfish and make the extra pass, but don’t pass up open shots. They have to play free and loose, but also be focused and lasered in. They have to prepare for every opponent, but prioritize what they do best no matter the opponent. They have to acknowledge their weaknesses, but never seem weak. They have to perfect their strengths, but avoid being overconfident.
They have to hold each other accountable, but do so without ruffling feathers or severing relationships. They have to have an edge and be tough, but also have finesse and grace. They have to recognize the talent of the rest of the league, but believe that they have what it takes to be the best.
“When you put it that way, it’s a lot to think about,” Mitchell said.
Yeah, no kidding.
So how do the Jazz deal with all the contradicting directives and all the stuff they have to somehow mold together in their minds?
Don’t overthink it.
“I think that’s what takes away from the aggression, from playing free,” Mitchell said. “And we’re not the only ones that have that problem.”
Therein lies the rub. The Jazz have the most difficult of NBA-related tasks ahead of them, and they’re no different from any of the other teams trying to achieve greatness.
Even with all the talk of super teams around the league and outside expectations that the Jazz will once again fail to make much noise in the playoffs, the Jazz have recent proof that none of that matters for a small-market team if everyone on the inside is on the same page.
The Milwaukee Bucks were doubted and the butt of jokes and bounced from the playoffs multiple times, even as the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Their star was criticized for his flaws, their coach was blasted for his unwillingness to change, and no one really believed they would win until Giannis Antetokounmpo was hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy overhead in July.
The thing is, even Antetokounmpo didn’t know it was going to be the Bucks’ year.
“I don’t know if this year is going to be different,” he said the day before the first game of the 2020-21 season. “Might be the same, who knows. The results are gonna speak for themselves at the end.”
That’s the truth.
You want honesty about the NBA? Every team has doubts up until the last minute. Every team is dealt harsh criticism and is expected to deal with a mountain of mental contradictions from one second to the next. And there isn’t a single team in the NBA that knows how things are going to shake out over the course of a season, or a single team has the perfect answer for how to make it all work.
That’s why it comes down to teams who have the mental fortitude to talk the talk, walk the walk and want it more than anyone else. That’s why “we just have to do it” is probably the closest thing to an answer.
We’re going to spend the entirety of this season analyzing every move the Jazz make. I’ll point out areas where they need to improve and praise them for their strengths and critique offensive and defensive schemes and weigh the wins and losses, but if the Jazz reach the top of the top, they’ll have to be motivated by something inside. Something we can’t see.
“That’s what championship teams do,” Rudy Gobert said. “They get it done.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.