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For the second straight season the Utah Jazz had their season end at the hands of the Rockets, ousted in five games by Houston.
The first two games of the series were blowouts, with the Rockets cruising at home to 20-plus point wins. The final three seemed more representative of how close Utah actually is to Houston, but still illustrated where the Jazz’s greatest shortcomings are and why their ceiling appears the same as it was a year ago.
Donovan Mitchell proved in Game 4 he can be a big time offensive player, but his flaws on that end of the floor were also exposed. Mitchell hasn’t been an especially efficient scorer in either of his two seasons in the NBA, as he didn’t make much of a stride in that area from his rookie to sophomore season. In both he’s shot just over 43% from the field, although he did see his three-point percentage go from 34% to 36% this season. The biggest change was that his attempts per game went up by 2.7 per game, but his makes only went up by 1.1 per game.
He simply isn’t an efficient scorer right now and that’s not a surprise when considering his shooting profile. On the season, Mitchell took 39% of his shot attempts as pull-up jumpers from outside 10 feet, hitting 38.4% of those attempts (33.2% from three). Catch-and-shoot looks accounted for only 14.7% of his attempts, of which he hit 40.1% from three-point range. In the playoffs, the Rockets happily let that trend continue as he hit just 25.7% of his pull-up shots (again accounting for 39% of his attempts in the series), leading to a dismal overall field goal percentage of 32.1%.
The problem facing Mitchell is that he’s being asked to be the primary shot creator without having much in the way of help around him on the perimeter. Joe Ingles is supposed to be their best secondary scorer on the perimeter, but he disappeared in the postseason, making just 27.6% of his three-point attempts. Jae Crowder had a few nice games, but few would be under the illusion he’s a wise player to bank on for consistent offensive production.
Some will point to this first round series as a fluke, and there’s some merit to this just being a horrific five game stretch of shooting. Utah was unbelievably bad on wide open shots in this series, making just 28.7% of their 25.8 (!) shot attempts each game in which the closest defender was six-plus feet away from them. That seems impossible for an NBA squad, even one that’s not known for being an elite shooting team.
Still, this is back-to-back seasons in which this Utah team has run into the Rockets in the postseason and been soundly ousted, despite three pretty good defensive performances. There is no doubt the Jazz can be one of the NBA’s elite defensive teams, but without offensive firepower around Mitchell, that defense serves to only really keep things respectable against the very best in the West.
This offseason, the task for the Jazz front office will be how to balance upgrading the offense without completely sabotaging their defense. It’s reasonable to assume bringing in better offensive players, particularly at the point guard position, would lead to a dip in defensive efficiency, but as long as the trade off is a net positive, it’s a risk Utah must take. Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent and ideally Utah would bring in someone else that can take on a greater offensive role to help ease some of the stress placed on Mitchell.
There aren’t a ton of realistic point guard options on the free agent market this season that would be clear upgrades for Rubio, however, leaving Utah possibly searching for offensive help elsewhere.
Utah will have difficult decisions to make on their cap sheet beyond Rubio’s $21.5 million cap hold. Derrick Favors is on the hook for $16.9 million, but that’s a non-guaranteed deal that can be waived by July 5. Favors struggled early, but came on strong late for the Jazz, making the decision tricky. Letting him go leaves a big hole in the frontcourt as he served as their defensive anchor when Rudy Gobert sat (or was injured) and is a useful offensive big. The question is whether what he brings is more valuable than could be found from a younger, cheaper option that offers more backcourt help.
If they really wanted to, they could get to $38 million and max money to go after the likes of Kemba Walker, but that would require them to gut half their roster. It also would be a massive swing from an organization that’s found stability in a time where many thought they’d have to enter at least a minor rebuild after losing Gordon Hayward, and that seems highly unlikely.
Instead, what seems most likely to happen in Salt Lake is they bring back the majority of this squad again and try to bolster the offense with moves on the periphery. Maybe they bring Rodney Hood back to Utah on a cheap deal after he’s failed to have the impact elsewhere he once did on the Jazz to shore up their wing rotation with another shooter. Hood’s current teammate Seth Curry is also an unrestricted free agent and will undoubtedly draw interest from plenty of teams, but would be a reasonably priced option to bring an elite three-point shooter to their rotation.
Mitchell isn’t likely to get another backcourt star to ease the pressure on his shoulders this summer in free agency, but Utah should be active on the market (and on trade calls) to do everything they can to try and do something to provide him help. He’ll never become an efficient scorer until he’s allowed to play a bit more off the ball and with less of the expectation of being their first and, really, second option on a lot of offensive possessions. Maybe a Mike Conley trade package is out there to give him a steady veteran hand next to him — who also wouldn’t bring down their defensive ceiling that much — but that may be unrealistic.
Whatever the case, the ceiling (and floor) for Utah is fairly clear right now. They are a top 6 team in the West, with the potential to land homecourt in the early rounds, but when asked to take on the West’s elite, don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up in a seven-game series. The Jazz are far from being on the treadmill of mediocrity, but they do appear to be on the elliptical machine of “pretty good.” There are worse places to be in the NBA, but upgrades and incurring the risk that is changing up the chemistry on a team that works pretty well are a must to find upward mobility in the West.