The 2021-22 season is a critical one for the Utah Jazz.
Like it or not, the successes the Jazz have had over the past two years have created a situation where nearly everyone will be on the hot seat, and if the team can’t make it past the second round of the playoffs, there will be plenty of blame to go around.
Let’s talk about some of that recent success.
Donovan Mitchell has been steadily improving every year but really put his mark on the NBA while in the Orlando bubble in 2020, dueling for multiple 50-plus point performances with Denver’s Jamal Murray. Last season he earned his second All-Star bid and a max contract extension.
Rudy Gobert is now a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and has come out on the other side of being the face of COVID-19 in sports. Despite unfair criticism of his on-court abilities and his off-court faux pas, Gobert is one of the most intimidating players in the league, causing all sorts of game-planning problems for opposing coaches.
Mike Conley came to Utah and revitalized his career, playing more efficiently and effectively than possibly ever before, earning his first All-Star appearance last season.
The Jazz had the Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson, and runner-up in Joe Ingles. The Jazz finished the 2020-21 season with the best regular-season record in the NBA and coach Quin Snyder was a Coach of the Year candidate.
In order to understand why the Jazz are facing such a critical season, you have to also look at what has happened around the team on the business side.
Under new ownership the Jazz have become a luxury tax-paying team, and while Ryan Smith has indicated he’s willing to pay those penalties, there’s no one that’s willing to shell out millions of dollars for mediocrity.
Smith has moved the team into a new era and cleaned house a little along the way, moving on from Dennis Lindsey, the Jazz’s former executive vice president of basketball operations, and putting the team squarely into the hands of general manager Justin Zanik.
The job of Zanik and the rest of the Jazz brass this offseason was to address the weaknesses of the team in order to make them a more formidable contender. On paper, that’s what the Jazz did with the additions of Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall and rookie Jared Butler. Now, it all has to translate on the hardwood. And if not, who will take the blame?
The clock is officially ticking.
The max extensions for both Mitchell and Gobert have kicked in, and while the Jazz have some youth in certain spots on the roster, they also have some players at the tail end of their careers and no one is getting any younger. The Jazz have to capitalize on this window. More of the same would tarnish the reputations of the Jazz’s best players.
If the recently acquired players don’t work out for the Jazz or make the team any better, the Jazz front office could be looking at an overhaul.
If the Jazz flame out once again in the one of the first two rounds of the playoffs it will mark the sixth time in the eight years that Snyder has been at the helm and had the same result. If a great regular-season record is the peak, it’s hard to think the Jazz wouldn’t start to look elsewhere for leadership. Will they be willing to stay with Snyder if the team experiences more of the same?
If the Jazz enter the 2022 playoffs with a healthy roster — health is key — anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance will come across as a failure.
After restructuring the starting lineup two years ago with the additions of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz had some built-in excuses. The team was new and still learning to play together through the 2019-20 season. Plus, they didn’t have Bogdanovic for the playoffs.
Last year, injuries to the Jazz’s All-Star backcourt gave the Jazz the chance to not overreact or make drastic changes to the roster. After all, they might have beat the Los Angeles Clippers if Conley and Mitchell had been healthy.
But last year the Jazz once again had some critical flaws that were exposed. When healthy, they’re pretty good, though they lacked experience, depth and versatility around the edges of the roster. It seemed to be a consensus around the league that the Jazz were still a couple pieces away from being a legitimate title contender.
The Jazz made their moves and in theory they should be able to play in a more dynamic way.
The same excuses won’t work this time around. The Jazz should be doing everything they can to deliver a healthy roster to the postseason and in theory they should be able to match up better with diverse lineups. The core players of the Jazz are familiar with one another, only the role players will be on a learning curve.
If the Jazz can’t make it out of the second round this time, something big will have to change.