There’s no denying that this season has been a special one for the Utah Jazz. After years of mediocrity and a rebuilding process that hasn’t been as fast as some would like, fans are finally starting to see a glimmer of results that they have long been hoping for.
It’s safe to say that the Jazz have overachieved. They’ll finish this season closer to .500 than many predicted at the start of the season. Gordon Hayward has shown that he is capable of being the primary offensive threat for this young team. Rudy Gobert has had the exact opposite of a sophomore slump, positioning himself to potentially be this year’s NBA Most Improved Player. Derrick Favors has shown that he’s still growing into the player that he’s capable of being. Coach Quin Snyder has displayed a Popovich-esque manner of getting the most out of his players, especially those who’ve flown below the radar as D-League players or rookies.
With the surprising amount of success that the team has found late this season, fans have been quick to discuss the Jazz reaching the playoffs and contending for the Northwest Division title next year. But in the words of Lee Corso… Not so fast my friend.
The Jazz have certainly made big strides this season, but they are still in the middle of a rebuild, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that rebuilding the right way usually takes time. So should the Jazz be competing for a playoff spot in the incredibly competitive Western conference next season? Absolutely, but here are a few reasons to temper expectations.
Injuries: Overall, the Utah Jazz were pretty fortunate in avoiding the injury bug this season. Sure, they lost Alec Burks early in the year to shoulder surgery and saw Rodney Hood miss time throughout the season, but Hayward was able to play 76 games this season, just one less than last year’s career high. Gobert played all 82 games, and Favors appeared in 73, giving the Jazz consistency despite having a shallow depth chart in the front-court. Utah would be lucky to find such fortune next season. Questions of Burks’ and Hood’s durability remain, and fans will be waiting to see how minutes are impacted for the Jazz starters, as the wear and tear of the season has shown in the final weeks of this season.
Rotational Changes: Coach Q is going to have a decision to make next season. The Jazz didn’t give Burks a generous extension to watch him sit on the bench while Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap play heavy minutes. With Burks coming into the line-up next season, how will his play impact the team? While Alec brings a powerful offensive threat, it would not be surprising for his game to take time to work in with what the Jazz have been doing this season. While not a sure thing, Burks’ need to have the ball in his hand could cause some struggles for the Jazz early next season.
Burks is unlikely to be the only change that the Jazz see. With this year’s draft, many team-option players, and a sizable amount to spend during free agency, Dennis Lindsey and Company will likely be making some big decisions this off-season. It is possible that Utah decided to keep these guys together and see how the youth grow as a team, but it is also possible that an opportunity presents itself and Lindsey attempts to help the Jazz move up a spot or two in the West, so long as it doesn’t come at a long-term expense of the team.
Youth: There’s no arguing that the youth movement in Utah has been going well, but it is possible that things don’t stay quite as grand as they have this season. The young players have been impressive, but I’m not certain they stay consistent for a whole season. Remember, the Jazz had a rough start to the season, especially in November and early December. While they finished strong, who’s to say that they don’t encounter a similar situation next year?
Competition: Everyone can agree that the Western conference is brutal. While some teams are on their way down (Dallas, San Antonio… I mean, eventually they have to, right?), others are on the rise (New Orleans, Phoenix). The West will remain competitive, and some of the teams that are in the basement are unlikely to remain there. The Los Angeles Lakers will have a quality draft pick this season, bring back Julius Randle who missed this season due to injury, and should have the money to try to recruit someone to play alongside Kobe Bryant in his twilight years. Minnesota is already seeing the benefits of trading Kevin Love for an almost-certain generational talent in Andrew Wiggins. It seems like it’s only a matter of time until they are ready to compete for a playoff spot. While the Jazz are improving, many teams in the West will be doing the same this off-season, and nothing is certain, especially for those last few playoff spots.
When it comes to rebuilding, the Utah Jazz are ahead of schedule. At the beginning of this season, few expected that Hayward would be playing like an all-star and Rudy Gobert would be a name you’d hear in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. Few expected the Jazz to keep picking up players from the D-League, let alone seeing those guys contribute heavily to the team’s success. Personally, I saw the Jazz struggling this season almost as much as they did last year, and I welcomed the surprise. Going into next season, I’m cautiously optimistic. I can see the Jazz getting into the playoffs, but no higher than a seven-seed. I can see them having a winning record at home and nearly .500 on the road. When all is said and done, they’ll probably be right where they should be – still learning and growing as a team.
It’s easy to get carried away with this team. The potential is through the roof, and with the embers still warm from the success that Jazz fans are used to, it’s hard not to want to see the Jazz competing in the post-season. The important thing to remember is that the Miller family and Jazz management have wanted to build a team that can soon contend for a championship, and that will take more than just a couple of seasons, but if you’re wanting a team that can compete, you already have it. This Utah Jazz team has competed every night they’ve taken the court, and playoffs or not next year, I can’t wait to see them get back to work.