First Gordon Hayward left. Then George Hill followed. The Jazz two leading scorers from last season, gone. Dennis Lindsay and the Jazz front office decided to bring in veterans who fit with the Jazz’s new, clear cornerstone, Rudy Gobert. Defense was the name of the game so signing Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefalosha, and Ekpe Udoh made sense. The Jazz drafted Donovan Mitchell, who appeared in Summer League to be perhaps the biggest steal in the Draft. The Jazz looked formidable and poised to make a run at the Playoffs. Then, Dante Exum was lost for the season, Joe Johnson was lost for four weeks, and the face of the franchise went down for 4-6 weeks after a dirty play left him with a bone bruise on his knee. The injuries to Exum and Johnson hurt, but the injury to Rudy hurts the most. The Jazz have lost 5 of their last 9 since Rudy went down and the trajectory of the season has changed. Losing 5 of 9 without Rudy doesn’t seem too bad until you consider that the four wins came against teams with a combined winning percentage of .415 and the teams they lost to had a combined winning percentage of .526. So, that’s losing 5 of 9 in a soft stretch of the schedule where the Jazz didn’t play any of the top seven teams and only three teams in the top half of the league.
Now that the soft part of the schedule is over, the Jazz face a brutal December including 12 road games (only two against teams with a worse record) and games against the Warriors, Cavs (twice), Rockets (twice), Thunder (three times), Pelicans (twice), the Spurs, Celtics, Nuggets, and Wizards. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), the month of December for the Jazz is the hardest month for any team in the NBA this season. The Jazz will be navigating it without their cornerstone, without the player whom the entire roster was built around. The Jazz went from a top five defensive team with Gobert to a team that was outscored in the paint against the 76ers 66 to 34. No team with Rudy Gobert would give up 66 points in the paint.
So, here are the new priorities for the Jazz this season:
1-Get Donovan Mitchell as many minutes, shots, experiences, and chances as you can.
This is the number one priority for a few reasons. First, Mitchell (along with Rudy) is the future of the Jazz. He has star written all over him. When I watch him play, I see a Damian Lillard-type scorer who plays elite level defense. Second, Mitchell is a special player to build around and the Jazz need to develop him as quickly as possible. Keep him shooting and don’t do anything that would toy with his confidence. According to www.basketball-reference.com, in the eight games since Rudy went down, Mitchell has averaged 17.6 points, 4.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. He is also shooting 53 of 123 from the floor for 43.1 percent. Now I know that his efficiency can get better, but that’s not bad for a rookie being asked to be the number one offensive option on a team whose top three scorers are shooting 41.9 percent (Hood), 38.9 percent (Rubio), and 38.3 (Mitchell percentage on the season). Based on those numbers, I think we are okay with 43.1 percent. Let the kid shoot.
2-Never tank, but commit to youth and let the chips fall where they may.
I hate talk of tanking. It rarely works and usually is a multi-year, slow rebuilding process which includes a complete reboot of culture and winning back alienated fans. Don’t intentionally lose, but commit to developing Mitchell, Hood, Rudy (when he returns), Neto, Burks and Bradley. This will allow you to 1) have time to evaluate which of them will be part of the Jazz’s future plans and 2) you will keep butts in the seats because even if we lose more games than Utah fans are used to, the young players, especially Mitchell will keep people coming. As the Jazz play their young players, the losses will naturally pile up and it will put the Jazz in the best position to land a top notch lottery pick in next summer’s draft. Conversely, if the young core competes better than expected and Rudy comes back healthy and motivated, the Jazz still may make the Playoffs and Utah fans are happy. Either way, commit to the young core.
3-Trade Derrick Favors.
This one hurts because I like Favs, but when you consider how much better the Jazz have been offensively without Gobert and Favors on the floor together (especially when Rubio is also on the floor), the only options are to trade Favs or make him the back-up Center. Favs is good enough to start for someone out there and someone will pay him starter money in the off-season. So it is time for Derrick to go and you might as well get something in return. Favors looked like an all-star just a couple of season ago. Then last year he struggled with injuries and we gave him a pass. This season he is healthy and motivated to have a good year to set him up for a healthy new contract next summer. Gobert’s injury gave him an even better chance to showcase what he can do. Favs has responded pretty well. But seeing what the Jazz are doing without two traditional bigs in the line-up has illustrated just how incompatible Favs is with Rudy. He cannot play next to Rudy and the Jazz are better without one or the other on the floor instead of both. If one of them has to go, it’s got to be Derrick. Maybe we could get a future asset for his expiring contract (similar to the Enes Kanter trade).
At the beginning of the season, I projected the Jazz to be the 8th seed in the West. Now, based on injuries headed into this rough stretch in December, it’s more realistic to think that the Jazz will win between 30-32 games and finish in the 10-13 range in the West. That doesn’t mean all is lost. But, if Jazz fans don’t resize their expectations, it could make for a very frustrating season. So, sit back, relax, and just enjoy watching Mitchell develop into the star we all want him and need him to be.