Why good is not good enough: Jazz face hard questions heading into draft, free agency
Parting with some fan favorites may be needed in order for team to build depth and improve versatility
As the Utah Jazz’s 2020-21 season came to an end on June 18, two things were made very clear: The Jazz have some work to do this offseason, and being good isn’t good enough anymore.
The Jazz have been a playoff team for five consecutive years. This last season, with even fewer games played through the regular season (72 rather than the usual 82), the Jazz won 52 games. That’s the highest win total this team has seen since the 2009-10 season when it won 53.
The Jazz were the winningest team in the NBA through the regular season, earning the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs. They went from being a good regular-season team to a great regular-season team. But, the Jazz suffered another second-round exit in the postseason.
Much has been proven about this Jazz team. The group that is shepherded by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is good enough to be nearly unstoppable in the regular season, they have the top-end talent to lead a team. But first- and second-round playoff losses aren’t going to cut it anymore.
There’s no doubt that injuries to Mitchell and Mike Conley hurt the Jazz in the postseason. But even if the Jazz’s All-Star backcourt had been healthy, the Jazz had flaws and weaknesses that could have been exploited at any point, and if the Jazz are quiet during the offseason and don’t make some critical changes, they’re likely to run into the same problems and suffer the same fate; being a great regular-season team, a good playoff team, and nothing more.
What needs to be fixed?
The Jazz’s biggest problems during the playoffs were lack of depth and lack of versatility.
The Jazz are hamstrung by only being able to play one type of basketball — a traditional five-man lineup. When faced with small-ball lineups or opponents that can play five-out with a shooting big, it’s no secret the Jazz don’t fare very well.
Gobert is an exceptional center and has been honored as the Defensive Player of the Year three times, including last season. Saying that the Jazz need a small-ball five, or a way to make their rotation more versatile, is not meant to take away from what Gobert can do. It is, however, a way for the Jazz to humble themselves and admit their shortcomings.
The Jazz also have a depth problem. The team patted itself on the back many times throughout the regular season when a bench player would have a big scoring night for the team and credited depth as a strength, but the truth is that the Jazz’s rotation rarely went further than nine players. That means there were eight roster spots taken up by players who rarely played meaningful minutes, or didn’t play meaningful minutes at all.
There are certainly times during the postseason when rosters shrink, but having a range of skilled players filling out the roster can only be helpful in the postseason. Look no further than the Jazz’s second-round series against the Clippers for examples of all of the Jazz’s roster flaws.
Without a reliable backup point guard, the injuries to Conley and Mitchell were amplified. Without more versatile wing defenders, the Jazz were overpowered from the perimeter and had to make tough choices on coverages. And finally, without a small-ball five, the Jazz’s front court was targeted and worn ragged in switches that were advantageous for the Clippers.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles fielded multiple lineups, had options beyond nine players and were able to advance to the Western Conference finals because they had options and depth.
When Kawhi Leonard went out with an injury, Terance Mann stepped into the starting lineup. The Clippers had Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo and Patrick Beverley to rotate through depending who would be better against the matchup. They also had Ivica Zubac for a traditional center, DeMarcus Cousins who could stretch the floor a little, and Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris to play small ball. The Clippers also had their stars and role players who could shoot and defend.
It’s not like the Jazz need to replicate the Clippers’ roster, but it’s a good blueprint to follow. The Clippers showed what a team is able to accomplish when it has reliable options across the roster, not just in the top eight or nine.
How can the Jazz fix their problems?
To address those issues, the Jazz have limited options as far as resources go.
The Jazz have the 30th pick in the July 29 NBA draft, they have a $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception, they can sign players to minimum contracts, and they can make trades.
There isn’t cap space to make any big free-agent acquisitions and there isn’t any wiggle room. That might make things sound difficult, but it’s absolutely possible for the Jazz to get better through the draft and free agency.
While the 30th pick in the draft is not the spot you think about for picking an All-Star-caliber player, it is a spot where you can get a serviceable and skilled role player who is ready to make an impact right away.
As for signing players to minimum deals, Cousins and Mann, Phoenix’s Torrey Craig and Cameron Payne, Denver’s Monte Morris and Washington’s Raul Neto are just a few of the players that were signed to minimum deals this season. The players are out there, the Jazz just have to go get them.
Though the taxpayer mid-level exception is not a huge amount, it is absolutely enough to use on a role player who can make the Jazz better. The number of difference-making players who earn $5.9 million or less is too long to list here.
The Jazz’s hands are tied a little bit when it comes to how much they can spend and how they are able to bring players aboard, but they do have ways of improving the roster and if push comes to shove they can also make some deals, and that might have to happen this offseason or before the trade deadline.
There are some things that are going to be very black and white for the Jazz this offseason. Re-signing Conley is an easy decision and if the Jazz can make a deal there, they will. Other decisions though, won’t be so easy for the Jazz.
In order to improve the roster, it might come at the expense of some players that have been very good for the Jazz for a very long time, but are no longer the answers for getting the team past the point of just being good.
Georges Niang is a free agent. Niang has been a good player but he wasn’t very helpful during the playoffs. Has he done enough to stay on this roster? Miye Oni seems like he could be a reliable defender if he could limit his fouls, but he also needs to develop a more reliable shot.
What about players like Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles? Those could potentially be players that the Jazz would be willing to deal if it meant getting some younger players who offer more versatility to the roster. That’s definitely not what a lot of Jazz fans want to hear, but if it means that this team can get over that second-round hump in the postseason, it would be worth it.
Finally, there is the vast amount of developing players or nonrotational players that the Jazz need to decide what to do with. Do they want to put their faith in Juwan Morgan as a small-ball five, or cut ties? Do they want to give Jarrell Brantley a minimum contract, or let him go elsewhere to continue his NBA career?
The Jazz are at a point where they can’t afford to use so many roster spots on empty players like Matt Thomas and Ersan Ilyasova, or players that might amount to something in three, four or five years. If they decide to keep some of their low-minute players, they need to figure out a way to get them meaningful minutes through the regular season so that they are able to help when needed in the playoffs.
The Jazz’s needs are clear. The team needs depth at the wing position, it needs a versatile front court and it needs a backup point guard. The mechanisms for the Jazz to acquire players are clear. They can draft, use the taxpayer mid-level exception, sign players to minimum contracts or make deals with other teams.
What’s left for the Jazz to do is make the tough and right decisions that can lead this team to being better than good.