Friday, July 1, 2022

With playoff disappointments mounting, it’s time for the Jazz to consider the nuclear option: A total rebuild

You’re going to hear a lot of explanations of what went wrong for the Utah Jazz  in the coming days. They’re all going to have some degree of merit. Their perimeter defense is genuinely terrible. Rudy Gobert does become slightly less effective in a playoff setting that deemphasizes his preferred drop-coverage. He and Donovan Mitchell never quite clicked. Mike Conley aged just a bit too fast. Losing Joe Ingles hurt just a bit too much. But if you’re looking for the root cause here, you have to go back a lot further.

The original sin of this era of Utah Jazz basketball came all the way back in 2013. Gordon Hayward, who had just been relegated to reserve duty for much of his third season, wanted a four-year rookie extension. Though he expected fair compensation, agent Mark Bartelstein noted at the time that he was not asking for the max. Utah declined. Hayward shined in his fourth season. The Jazz still refused to give him a five-year max contract in restricted free agency, instead daring him to find such an offer on the open market. Utah badly misread that market. At least two teams — Cleveland and Charlotte — are known to have offered Hayward the max. He took it from Charlotte … but with a caveat. Instead of the five-year deal Utah could have offered him, he locked in for only three. That allowed him to become a free agent again in 2017, when he had blossomed into an All-Star with the cache to bolt for Boston. Though technically teammates for 12 days, Hayward and Mitchell never played a game together in Utah.

If they had? Maybe everything changes in Utah. Maybe the freak accident that robbed Hayward of his All-Star status never happens. Maybe Mitchell is so promising that Hayward doesn’t feel the need to leave. Maybe with that star trio in place, Utah can redirect its remaining assets toward the perimeter defense it now lacks. Maybe a healthy Hayward is the difference between a second-round exit and the 2021 championship.

If it feels cruel to harp on a nine-year-old mistake, well, it should. The existence of small-market contenders is rather cruel. The margin for error is virtually nonexistent, and the Jazz are feeling that right now. They went all-in to build this team and never even made the conference finals. They entered the season with the NBA‘s third-oldest roster. Among their nine leaders in total minutes played, only Mitchell will still be in his 20s when next season ends. Utah is already out two first-round picks. They have no promising young talent to speak of. This is their team, and even with a three-game head start on Luka Doncic, it wasn’t even enough to escape the first round.

There are some striking similarities between the Jazz and another formerly doomed small-market contender: the Russell Westbrook-era Oklahoma City Thunder. They lost their star, Kevin Durant, just a year earlier than Utah did. Like the Jazz with Mitchell, they rebounded by pulling another star out of thin air in Paul George, and as the Jazz did by trading for Mike Conley, the Thunder went all-in by trading for Carmelo Anthony. When Oklahoma City’s playoff dreams withered and died, the Thunder found themselves in the same position the Jazz do now: nursing an aging roster with limited upside. They were bailed out by a trade request.

Maybe the Jazz will be too. But they shouldn’t need to be. Oklahoma City — proud owners of 18 first-round picks in the next seven drafts — is in a rather enviable position right now. It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the Jazz, having accepted the inevitable, use Mitchell and Gobert as trade chips to kickstart a similar rebuild. Doing so would just represent a degree of proactivity not even the Thunder showed. Though there are exceptions — and Utah, with Deron Williams in 2011, is one of them — teams tend to cling to stars as long as humanly possible even when doing so no longer represents their best interests. At this point, holding Mitchell and Gobert no longer represents Utah’s. To prove it, let’s go through the Jazz’s alternative possible paths and see just what else might be waiting for them behind Door No. 2.

The path of least resistance: Keeping Mitchell and Gobert

The Jazz just lost in the first round. At a bare minimum, that means eight teams will have come closer to winning the championship than they did. Realistically, there are probably more than eight teams with a better chance of winning next year’s championship than the Jazz. There are two means of improving a basketball team.

  • Internally, through player-development and the standard aging curve.
  • Externally, through free agency, trades and the draft.

Are the Jazz in line for major improvement through either method right now if Mitchell and Gobert are on the team? Probably not. Mitchell certainly still has room to grow. Some of it is on him. If Devin Booker can grow into a plus-defender, there’s no reason to believe that Mitchell can’t. That just needs to be a personal choice. If he’s going to grow as a playmaker, it’s incumbent upon the Jazz to entrust him with more playmaking responsibility. Trading for Conley made sense regardless of Mitchell’s development, but this is a team that has saddled him with veteran babysitters throughout his career. If it’s not Conley, it’s Jordan Clarkson or Joe Ingles. The Jazz have never empowered Mitchell as the lone ball-handler in primary units even knowing that doing so could help their woeful perimeter defense. Growth here is as much on the Jazz as it is Mitchell.

The rest of the roster, though? It’s tapped out. Clarkson, O’Neale and Gobert are in their primes already. Conley and Bogdanovic are on their way out of it. Unless you’re especially intrigued by Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Jared Butler, nobody here looks primed for a leap. Even buyout standout Danuel House has probably earned a raise on the open market.

Utah can’t expect any younger players to grow into substantial roles, and it will therefore struggle to turn them into much on the trade market. The Jazz can’t trade a first-round pick until 2028, either. Rudy Gay and Juancho Hernangomez are extraneous enough to serve as salary ballast in a deal that would absorb someone else’s mistake, but who’s trying to offload the sort of 3-and-D wings that the Jazz need?

Could Bogdanovic net something decent in a trade? Probably. But that would create as many problems as it would solve. The Jazz have had two top-three offenses and two top-three defenses over the past five years … but never at the same time. Their roster sacrificed scoring for defense before Bogdanovic arrived. Trade him for defense and you’re right back where you started. Conley, 34 with two expensive years left on his deal, probably isn’t all that desirable on the trade market. Clarkson and O’Neale might net protected first-round picks and some bad salary.

There are teams that frequently manage to make something out of nothing. If the Heat or Raptors had two All-Stars, they could be relied upon to develop a cast around them. Utah doesn’t have that track record. It paid market rate for Conley, Clarkson and Bogdanovic. O’Neale and Ingles were player-development success stories, but ones played out over the course of several seasons that never amounted to much more than average starters. Even if the Jazz can develop an undrafted gap-filler like Fred VanVleet or a late-first-rounder like Jordan Poole, they probably don’t have time to do so while this roster remains at all viable. There’s just not an obvious move here. Utah has two extremely desirable assets. Making the sort of sweeping changes it needs to make requires extremely desirable assets.

One step back to take two steps forward: Trading Gobert

Gobert is widely treated as the likelier trade candidate among Utah’s stars for two reasons:

  • He’s four years younger.
  • His skill-set is harder to find.

Both arguments are valid. Based on the way older guards like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry have aged, Mitchell might have another decade of stardom ahead of him. Shot-creation is the single-most valuable playoff skill. Mitchell provides plenty. Gobert provides practically none. Over 72 percent of his field goals were assisted this season. Gobert has other offensive virtues and he’s better at the things that he’s good at than Mitchell is in his own areas of expertise, but Mitchell more closely fits into the traditional superstar box. He’s the sort of player teams more frequently cling to.

As such, he’s the sort of player teams are more eager to trade for. The going rate for rim-running, shot-blocking centers tends to be one first-round pick. That’s what Atlanta paid for Clint Capela. That’s what Cleveland paid for Jarrett Allen. That’s what New Orleans paid for Steven Adams before signing him to a regrettable contract. Gobert is better than those players, but he’s also older and more expensive. A more likely starting point in negotiations might be the prices paid for Nikola Vucevic (two first-round picks and a worthwhile young player) and Domantas Sabonis (one ultra premium young player). They are not analogous players. Chicago and Sacramento paid more for their centers because they expected to run offense through them. Gobert can’t do that, but he’s so absurdly valuable as a regular-season defender that he likely bridges that gap. Having Gobert virtually assures you a top-10 defense. Case in point: This year’s Jazz, who just got demolished by Jalen Brunson, finished 10th. If you have a Mitchell-type in your backcourt who’s a bit more eager to throw lobs? Your offense is in pretty good shape too.

But Mitchell’s youth is a double-edged sword. Gobert seems eager to remain in Utah. It’s less clear if Mitchell is as enthused about Salt Lake City. Forget about the rumors and about Utah as a market and just consider the basketball situation. Does an aging roster with limited draft capital and financial flexibility offer him the best chance at winning a championship? Probably not. Mitchell has three guaranteed years left on his contract. You might be able to get away with one rebuilding year. Two is pushing it. If you don’t have a clear path to contending after three, Mitchell is out of there.

So that’s the rub with a Gobert trade. The Jazz can’t just stockpile deep future assets. They need to get something that Mitchell can bet his prime on, and that means something relatively immediate: a young player or a very high 2022 draft pick. Are such assets available? There’s nothing like Tyrese Haliburton out there. Charlotte is an oft-rumored Gobert suitor. Could Miles Bridges be had in a sign-and-trade? Is Patrick Williams good enough? Would pairing him with Vucevic in an effort to stay afloat right now do the trick? The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor suggested Ben Simmons recently. The basketball fit makes some sense. The personality fit in tiny Salt Lake City probably doesn’t. A Gobert trade is simply harder to execute in reality than theory. Utah could deal Mitchell in a heartbeat.

The road less traveled: Trading Mitchell

Utah drew the blueprint for this very trade. In 2011, rather than waiting for Deron Williams to force his way out, the Jazz acted first and got an excellent haul: two-first round picks and two young high-end starters. It was the right trade. It was also a half-measure. Utah kept the bones of its existing roster in place. It kept Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, added a few other medium-name veterans over the next year or two and plodded along aimlessly until Gobert’s development saved them. Utah made the playoffs once in the five seasons following the Williams trade, but never picked higher than fifth. 

If Utah’s goal is to sell some tickets and turn a profit? There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, Gobert’s presence is a path to a tank-free rebuild. Trade Mitchell for enough youth and picks and you might land on your next superstar without ever tanking aggressively. Might is the operative word there, though, because that path is enormously uncertain. There is no asset more valuable to a team than its own first-round picks because the value of those picks is within their control. The Jazz can’t force a team trading for Mitchell to play badly. Giving him away for a bunch of picks in the 20s would hardly represent a fair return. 

If the goal is to use Mitchell to restock for another few years with Gobert, there are swings to be taken. Maybe the Jazz think Tyler Herro is on Mitchell’s trajectory. They could probably convince the Heat to part with several other assets in that sort of swap. Toronto has more wings than it knows what to do with. Offer them Mitchell for Scottie Barnes just to reorient your roster around a future two-way stud. Heck, if winning right now is the goal? Bring Weber State alum Damian Lillard back to Utah in a Mitchell trade and demand some role players come with him. Are these moves especially plausible? Some more than others. The point is that trading Mitchell means trading from a position of strength. You get to call the shots when you’re trading a 25-year-old All-Star with three years left on his deal.

But timing is an issue here as well. Gobert’s game relies so heavily on athleticism that he could age out of stardom relatively quickly. His defensive metrics, while still stellar, dipped slightly this year. Trade Mitchell for youth and that youth probably won’t be good enough to compete until Gobert isn’t. Trade him for experience and you’re shortening your window drastically. These all sound like great ways to keep losing in the first round. Miss on the trade and things look even grimmer. Utah need only look at its own history last decade to see that.

The final stage of grief: Trading both

Tanking is an unfamiliar concept to Utah. It’s made three top-five picks in the past 40 years. Deron Williams became a star. Enes Kanter and Dante Exum did not. That likely informs the Jazz’s hesitance. This is a franchise used to doing things the hard way. The economic realties of their market used to force it. Such arguments are less convincing in a modern NBA in the middle of a $9 billion national television deal. Asking the Jazz to tank is asking them to fundamentally change who they’ve been for nearly their entire existence.

Would that be such a bad thing? To bring this argument full circle, consider the degree of difficulty the Jazz imposed on themselves by building the way that they have. It took one nine-year-old mistake to deprive them of a championship-caliber roster. The goal is to get over that hump. Does anyone in Utah want to bet on the mistake-free decade it might take to get there?

This is the argument in favor of an aggressive teardown. No team-building strategy is without its risks. It’s entirely possible that Utah goes another decade without finding another Mitchell- or Gobert-caliber player. It might also find several. The beauty of proactive rebuilds is that they lower the degree of difficulty enough to allow for the sort of mistakes Utah has previously been unable to make. Oklahoma City doesn’t have to get every first-round pick right when it has three of them every year.

This specific iteration of the Jazz has reached its logical endpoint. It was a noble effort. They made smart and aggressive moves to build a No. 1 seed a year ago. But the championship window has now closed on the team as a whole. It hasn’t on the individual players. Mitchell would bring in a bounty. Gobert would fetch a meaningful package as well, and their role players are valuable enough to at least draw decent bids from the win-now lot. They may be out two first-round picks at the moment, but one is in the 20s this season and the other is protected enough to stay in their clutches if they tank aggressively enough.

Not every asset this endeavor produces has to mean much. That’s the benefit of a clean slate, of giving yourself several bites at the apple. The Jazz have been playing the roster-building game on hard mode for decades. If they’re going to reset now, they might as well go all the way and try to make sure no nine-year-old mistakes ever cost them another championship.

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