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The Utah Jazz started the season with sights set on a title. Now they’re searching for an identity

SHARE The Utah Jazz started the season with sights set on a title. Now they’re searching for an identity

Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell (45) pumps up teammate Rudy Gobert during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)


SALT LAKE CITY — A trade for Mike Conley, grabbing Bojan Bogdanovic off the free-agent market, adding Ed Davis and Jeff Green. These were all moves by the Utah Jazz last summer that were heralded throughout the NBA community.

The Jazz were keeping their core and bolstering it with experience and skill. The engineering the front office did with the roster over the summer, along with the votes of confidence in extending Quin Snyder’s contract as head coach and Joe Ingles’ contract with the team, had many believing that at the very least, the Jazz were one of a handful of teams that could contend for the 2019-20 NBA title.

To top off the upcoming season’s expectations, the NBA announced that the 2023 All-Star Game would be coming to Salt Lake City, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the last time it was here. Saying that there was buzz around the team would be an understatement.

Jazz-Nuggets playoff schedule

(3) Denver Nuggets

vs. (6) Utah Jazz

Game 1

Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2

Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3

Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4

Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5

Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Game 6

Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Game 7

Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3

It can be a little hard to remember what things were like in the preseason. It seems like Oct. 2019 was a decade ago. For a brief refresher, after all of the summer excitement, the big talking points early surrounded the fact that there were a lot of concerns right out of the gate.

Bogdanovic was lost in the offense, the defense was horrible and the Jazz looked disjointed. Fast forward to a few weeks later, and the Jazz were 8-3 to start the season and things were looking pretty good. Conley was struggling a little, and so was Ingles in his new role on the bench, but that was something everyone knew would take some time to get used to.

But Conley heated up in November, looking a little more like the veteran guard that had led the Memphis Grizzlies for more than a decade, and though Ingles continued to be inconsistent with production, the Jazz were finding their way behind routinely amazing performances from Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

On the downside, the defense was average and the bench worrisome with neither Davis nor Green proving to fit as seamlessly as expected in the Jazz’s system. Then, just when everyone thought Conley had found a groove, he’d show signs that things still hadn’t clicked just yet.

Even still, the Jazz shot through December and January with a 19-2 run that was a huge part of why Mitchell and Gobert earned their first All-Star bids. After a big roster shakeup right at Christmas time that saw them waive Green and end the Dante Exum era with a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers that brought Jordan Clarkson to Utah, the Jazz started to look like they were filling out nicely.

February brought the Chicago All-Star break and a week full of fun in the Windy (and freezing) City, which came at a time when Utah was playing very inconsistently. The break was exciting for the Jazz, particularly for the two All-Stars who soaked up every bit of attention that came with being dubbed two of the game’s best players.

But when the fanfare was gone, the Jazz had to contend with the fact that that 19-2 run came against mostly losing teams, and it was done mostly without Conley on the floor, who was dealing with a hamstring injury. When play resumed after the break, the defense plummeted, with the Jazz finishing February as the fifth-worst in the league.

On the bright side, Bogdanovic seemed like he’d found his place and fit in perfectly after a short rocky start, in part because he was averaging at least 20 points a night. By comparison, Conley was up and down after returning from injury at the end of February. He admitted he was trying too hard to force himself into a new role rather than finding ways for his game, which he’d spent years cultivating and crafting, to fit into the Jazz’s system.

But as the calendar turned from February to March, it really started to feel like the Jazz were beginning to find a groove. They’d turned away from playing Davis, giving Tony Bradley more minutes behind Gobert. Conley seemed like he was starting to settle into something comfortable, Bogdanovic was shooting the lights out and, as always, Mitchell and Gobert held the fort down on a nightly basis.

But there had been a whisper of concern for a few weeks, not about anything on the court, but of the new and dangerous virus that was sweeping the world. Rumors swirled that maybe teams would have to play games in fanless arenas, that the NBA would have to take a break.

Then on March 11 in Oklahoma City, the NBA came to a screeching halt when Gobert became the first player to test positive for COVID-19.

The next morning, Mitchell’s results came back, and he’d also contracted the virus. By then, the media circus had already begun. Reports of tension between Mitchell and Gobert became a talking point for months as the NBA grappled with how to move forward.

Then in May, just as some of the noise regarding the two All-Stars started to die down and the NBA was finalizing plans for an isolated restart to the season in Orlando, the Jazz announced that Bogdanovic would be having season-ending surgery on his injured wrist.

Utah suddenly lost the momentum it had started to pick up in early March, the team hadn’t played together in months, a cloud of drama hung over the group, and as they readied for their trip to Walt Disney World, it was hard to imagine which version of the Jazz would take the court.

To say that the Jazz’s regular season was a roller coaster would be a fair description. It would also be fair to characterize their eight seeding games in the NBA bubble in the same way.

The Jazz used to have the identity and reputation of a defensive juggernaut. With rising stars and one of the best centers in the league, it was clear what you’d be getting if the Jazz were your opponent. Now, heading into a first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, there’s not much that’s certain about this team. Actually, the only good constant in the bubble seems to be the player that was most inconsistent through the season, Conley.

On any given night, you could get the Jazz who are good for spurts but fall apart and get sloppy with the ball. They could be the team they were in the first half against the Nuggets on Aug. 8, moving with fluidity and defending at a high level, or they could be the team that showed up in the second half of that double-overtime thriller in which the lead escapes them and they’re forced to turn to the heroics of Mitchell just to have a fighting chance.

They could be a deep team with a second unit of Clarkson, Bradley and Georges Niang holding onto a lead for the starters in perfect form, or they could be a Jazz team so desperate for help that they’ll turn to any number of players who scored their first NBA points during roster experimentation in the bubble.

The Jazz have shown that they can hang with the Nuggets and that they have the tools to beat them, but they haven’t shown that for the entirety of a basketball game. And although it seemed like they had an abundance of time to figure things out at Walt Disney World, that time is up.

The sixth-seeded Jazz open up the NBA playoffs Monday against the third-seeded Nuggets. If Utah can find some semblance of consistency and push the Nuggets to a Game 6 or 7, many would call that a success at this point. 

The Jazz aren’t expected to be a title contender, they aren’t favored to win the series and any expectations that were had for them before the season began — what feels like a lifetime ago — aren’t the same as the expectations for them now.