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The 10 biggest Jazz stories in 2021 included both glad and sad tidings

Utah finished with the best record in the NBA and was flying high in 2021, but not everything that happened was so pleasant

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder talks with Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City.
Utah coach Quin Snyder talks with forward Royce O’Neale (23), Joe Ingles (2) and guard Donovan Mitchell during a timeout as the Jazz and Grizzlies play in Game 5 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Utah finished with the best record in the NBA and eliminated Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, but suffered a disappointing second-round ouster at the hands of the Clippers.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While a single calendar year usually wouldn’t tell a full story about an NBA team, 2021 was unique in that it included nearly all of the 72-game shortened 2020-21 NBA season as well as the first half of the 82-game 2021-22 season.

A lot has happened in the last 12 months. From the Utah Jazz starting the season with just 1,500 fans allowed in the arena and the NBA fighting its way through a pandemic season sans bubble, to the historic season the Jazz had that included three All-Stars — Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley — multiple awards and the No. 1 record in the league.

That season came to a crushing conclusion for the Jazz when, after their meteoric rise and an easy win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, they were sent packing after the second round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Clippers.

While the second-round exit called for some soul searching from the Jazz’s main players, the Jazz front office went searching for ways to bolster the roster. The team said goodbye to Derrick Favors a second time, then made offseason moves the Jazz are hoping will serve them better in this season’s playoffs.

This season, the biggest question for the Jazz is will they flame out again early in playoffs after regular-season success, or are they set up to make a run at an NBA title? That will be answered in 2022.

So while we wait to see what will happen in the new year, let’s take a look at the top 10 Utah Jazz storylines from 2021.

Rise to the No. 1 seed

Fans watch the Utah Jazz compete against the Memphis Grizzlies during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Salt Lake City. The Jazz finished with the best record in the NBA last season.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

After a 4-4 start to the 2020-21 season, the Jazz went on a tear and would lose only 16 more games before the playoffs. It was clear early on that they were gunning for the top spot, and they were leading the Western Conference and the NBA in wins for nearly the entirety of the 72-game grind.

Heading into the playoffs it was the first time in franchise history that the Jazz were sole owners of the No. 1 seed. Along the way the Jazz set multiple NBA and franchise records for 3-point shooting, wins to start the season and saw multiple players set career highs in myriad categories.

The Jazz were the first team in the league to secure a playoff berth before eventually locking up the top spot. The season came to an end in the second round for the Jazz. It wasn’t the finish the team had been hoping for, but the regular season was a majesty that fans will remember for years.

The ‘Aight’ game

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and forward Royce O’Neale (23) try to stop New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday Jan. 21, 2021.
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and forward Royce O’Neale try to stop New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday Jan. 21, 2021. After the game, TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal conducted an awkward interview with Mitchell that created quite a buzz — and added motivation for Mitchell.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

On Jan. 21 the Jazz beat the New Orleans Pelicans in a nationally televised game that was broadcast on TNT. At halftime of that game, the “Inside the NBA on TNT” crew of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson debated whether Mitchell was a superstar.

The argument centered around the idea that Mitchell was a scorer and not much more. But that’s not where things ended.

Mitchell scored 36 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out five assists and blocked a shot to lead the Jazz to a seventh-straight win. To say he impacted the game in more than one way would be an understatement. On that night, Mitchell also became the fastest player in NBA history to hit 600 3-pointers, a feat that went overlooked once the night was over.

In Mitchell’s walk-off interview with the “Inside the NBA on TNT” crew, O’Neal didn’t talk about the game or praise Mitchell for his performance or the Jazz’s win streak. He questioned his ability to play like a superstar, live on the air.

“I said tonight that you are one of my favorite players but you don’t have what it takes to get to the next level,” O’Neal said. “I said it on purpose and wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?”

Mitchell responded by shaking his head and saying, “Aight.”

That response became a battle cry for the Jazz and for all of their fans throughout the rest of the season. The Utah House of Representatives even ended up passing a resolution honoring Mitchell after the awkward interaction.

But, even when criticism continued and when other players around the league would take jabs at the Jazz and their players, everyone knew that there was a perfect way to respond.

“Aight.”

Jazz reppin’ at the All-Star Game

Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry celebrate NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Sunday, March 7, 2021. The Jazz were well-represented at the All-Star Game, with Quin Snyder coaching a team and Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell joining Conley on the floor.
Brynn Anderson, Associated Press

With the way the Jazz’s season had been going, it was almost a formality that Mitchell and Gobert would both be named to the All-Star squad for the second straight season. They are the faces of the franchise that was tearing through the league. But with all of the success of the Jazz, and the fact that Conley was having arguably the best season of his career, there was certainly a case to be made for the Jazz having three All-Stars.

Conley put the league on notice from the outset of the 2021-22 season. The growing pains from the previous season seemed to be in the distant past and Conley was the maestro orchestrating one of the most lethal offenses in NBA history. He was second in total plus-minus in the NBA, while Gobert owned the top spot, he was shooting more than he ever had and was more efficient than he’d ever been.

More so, Conley had long been thought of as the best player in the league to never make an All-Star team. And at first, it seemed that the unofficial title would stay with him.

When full All-Star rosters were first announced Conley was not on the list. Then when a replacement was needed for injured Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis, Conley was once again snubbed for Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker. But then Booker was unable to play in the All-Star game and so Conley got a call from the league office that shocked him.

He was not only offered a spot on the All-Star team, but asked to shoot in the 3-point contest. He accepted immediately and joined his teammates as well as Snyder, who was honored as one of two coaches to coach the All-Star game. The four of them went to Atlanta for the festivities, which took place in an empty arena.

Rudy Gobert and Jordan Clarkson earn NBA awards

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) moves the ball past Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) as Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) sets the pick at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021.
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) moves the ball past Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks as Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) sets the pick at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021. Clarkson was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year while Gobert earned his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When it came time for end-of-year awards to be doled out, the Jazz were in the running for at least three awards, with four finalists.

Gobert walked away with his third Defensive Player of the Year award, a feat that only three other players have ever achieved. Gobert credited his teammates and everyone who had helped him develop over his seven years in the league, but gave the most thanks to his mother, who he said was responsible for every thing he’d ever made of himself.

Jordan Clarkson beat out teammate Joe Ingles for Sixth Man of the Year after re-signing with the Jazz the previous offseason and then having his best season in the NBA. Ingles was more than gracious in defeat, and joined in on presenting the award as a surprise to Clarkson.

Clarkson, who had been a favorite for the award since early in the season, even garnering some All-Star buzz, detailed what it took to get to this point in his career and how he had to accept a different role many years ago, before finding a home in Utah that he felt he could truly be himself.

Snyder didn’t end up winning Coach of the Year, but he was one of three finalists in the running and was praised by his peers and mentors all season long for what he achieved since taking the reins in Utah.

Dwyane Wade becomes part owner

Dwyane Wade, part owner of the Utah Jazz, talks about a rebranding plan effort for the team during the Silicon Slopes Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
Dwyane Wade, part owner of the Utah Jazz, talks about a rebranding plan effort for the team during the Silicon Slopes Summit in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On April 16, three-time champion and 13-time All-Star Dwyane Wade, who retired from the game in 2019, became a minority owner of the Utah Jazz.

Newly minted owner Ryan Smith had only been at the helm a few months himself before bringing in one of the biggest names in basketball to run the team alongside him. The news made national headlines and was celebrated by everyone involved.

The move was seen as not only beneficial for Wade but also for the Jazz, giving them an edge for the future in possibly luring and retaining free agents.

Injuries to Mitchell, Conley — and what may have been

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and teammate Donovan Mitchell talk as Mike Conley looks on during game May 12, 2021.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and teammate Donovan Mitchell, right talk as Mike Conley walks behind during the Jazz-Portland Trail Blazers game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Mitchell and Conley were nursing injuries down the home stretch of season and into the playoffs.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While April 16 started out as a day to remember for the Jazz, it ended as a day the team would hope they could forget. That night, the Jazz took on the Indiana Pacers, and their luck of avoiding major injury to star players ran out when Mitchell sprained his right ankle.

The Jazz said that Mitchell would be reevaluated in one week, but that week turned into another, and another and another until Mitchell ended up missing the rest of the regular season and the first game of the playoffs against the Grizzlies, much to his chagrin.

The injury to Mitchell was made worse by the fact that a nagging hamstring issue that Conley had been dealing with all season long reared its head near the end of the season and caused the first-time All-Star to miss the first five games of the Jazz’s second-round series against the Clippers.

Mitchell came back too soon from his injury and was hampered through that series against L.A. And although he reached impressive heights through the postseason, it was clear that he was hurting.

In the end, Jazz fans would be left wondering what might have been if their All-Star backcourt had been healthy for the playoffs.

Second-round playoff exit to Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, right, talks with Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, center, as Clippers after the Clippers defeated the Jazz 131-119 in Game 6 of a second-round playoff series Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

The loss to the Clippers was a spiral of astronomic proportions for the Jazz.

The Jazz took a 2-0 lead over the Clippers behind magnificent performances from Mitchell, Gobert and even some unlikely defensive grit from Bojan Bogdanovic. They were riding a high of sailing through a 4-1 series win over the Grizzlies, beating the Clippers twice without Conley, and they were feeling like they were just inches away from seeing a Western Conference finals matchup.

But once the series left Utah and headed to Los Angeles, the tide shifted. The Clippers rattled off two wins of their own to even the series. It was clear that not having Conley on the floor wasn’t sustainable and what became even more clear was that Mitchell was in serious pain.

The Clippers, without Kawhi Leonard, beat the Jazz in Game 5, forcing the Jazz into a win-or-go-home Game 6 in L.A., which would mark the first game of the season for the Clippers with fans in attendance.

The Jazz blew a 25-point lead in Game 6, were outscored 81-47 in the second half of the game and the Jazz’s season came to an end with both Conley and Mitchell limping away from the game.

Mark Eaton’s death and hole left in Jazz’s collective heart

A small memorial of former Jazz center Mark Eaton sits on the Jazz note in front of Vivint Arena as the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies prepare to play in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
A small memorial of former Jazz center Mark Eaton sits on the Jazz note in front of Vivint Arena as the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies prepare to play in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Grief is a part of any journey, and it was no different for Jazz nation in 2021.

The unexpected death of Mark Eaton in May was jarring and shocking for all that heard the news. The 7-foot-4 giant Jazz legend, was an All-Star on the court and an All-Star of kindness away from it.

Gobert was particularly affected by the death of someone he considered a close friend, who he would often text after games, go on bike rides with in the offseason, and who was always there for Gobert to share his experiences and wisdom.

From Dennis Lindsey to Danny Ainge

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith looks at Danny Ainge
Danny Ainge, left, and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, speak about Ainge’s new role as CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball, in charge of all basketball decisions, at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Former BYU star and NBA player turned front office executive Danny Ainge stepped away from his post with the Boston Celtics in June and not long after announcing that he was leaving that job, rumors started swirling about where he could end up next, with the Utah Jazz at the top of the rumored teams.

Later that month, the Jazz announced that Dennis Lindsey was stepping away from his role as president of basketball operations. Rumors about Ainge intensified. But as the offseason came and went without the Jazz replacing Lindsey, the rumor mill quieted.

That was until the Jazz hired Ainge on Dec. 15. Ainge, who has long been a close friend with Smith, the new owner of the Jazz, was named CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball.

Though it’s clear that Ainge brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the Jazz, it’s still unclear how much Ainge will be involved in personnel decisions moving forward alongside general manager Justin Zanik.

Offseason moves and 2021-22 outlook

Utah Jazz guard Jared Butler speaks during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City
Utah Jazz guard Jared Butler speaks during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 31, 2021. Butler was the No. 40 draft pick in the NBA.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After the Jazz’s unceremonious exit the playoffs, yet again, the team had a clear to-do list for the offseason and the upcoming season.

The Jazz needed to get a guard for the future in the draft, which they did when they selected Baylor guard Jared Butler with the 40th pick. They needed to re-sign Conley, which they did. And they needed to bolster the bench and find a suitable backup for Gobert, which they did, by signing free agents Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside and trading to get Eric Paschall.

While we are still in the middle of the 2021-22 season, and it’s unclear whether the Jazz are going to be a better team than they were before, there are some things that the Jazz can control in their quest toward a deep playoff run and hopeful title contention.

The Jazz need to be able to deliver a healthy roster to the playoffs and they need Mitchell to be even better than he has been. The Jazz are working toward accomplishing those goals as they wade through the regular season, knowing full well that everything they do now could end up mattering once the playoffs are here again.