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James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks to get past Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz in the second half of Game Three during the first round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena on April 20, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
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O’Connell: Jazz Won’t Win, Maybe Ever – That’s Okay

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks to get past Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz in the second half of Game Three during the first round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference Playoffs at Vivint Smart Home Arena on April 20, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz are not going to win their first-round series against the Houston Rockets. You know it. I know it. After coming up short against the Rockets in Game 3 despite being at home in front of a raucous crowd on a night where Harden couldn’t buy a bucket, I would bet that the Jazz know it too.

Here’s the thing. That’s actually okay, at least for now.

The Jazz are not yet contenders. Not real contenders in today’s NBA at least. Very few teams actually are.

What It Takes To Compete For An NBA Title

Houston is a real contender because they’ve got a pair of Hall-of-Famers and some nice accompanying pieces to go along with them.

Denver isn’t an actual contender, despite what their seed and their record might say.

In order to be one of those, you’ve got to have stars. Plural. Multiple stars. One isn’t enough, and hasn’t been for a long time.  Two probably isn’t enough either.

By “two stars,” I don’t mean Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

Rudy is amazing, a player deserving of more respect and more accolades. He isn’t the kind of star that allows you to get by with only two. He is too much of a specialist. All defense and high-percentage post offense. Rudy Gobert is a savage force on one end of the floor, which makes him an excellent asset in a hypothetical triumvirate. If Rudy is the center of your trifecta, you might be creeping into the contender realm, but you need an All-Star-caliber third Musketeer.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Jazz front office can get one of those guys to Salt Lake City. I’m not going to hold my breath, for the same reasons I didn’t hope Gordon Hayward would stay. I think asking for three All-Stars in a Jazz uniform is asking too much.

Here’s the thing. That too, is totally okay.

This Jazz team doesn’t need to be true contenders. Not this year, not next year, maybe never. Probably never, if history is anything to judge by. Sure, progress is important. For this group of players, with this coaching staff, I think progress is an eventuality.  They will get better. They will get further into the Western Conference Playoffs in years to come.

Maybe in 2021, they make a false push for the Finals. Who knows? We will love them for their growth and their progress, but we won’t actually love them more for it.

The most important thing and the reason that an early playoff exit doesn’t really matter (at least for now) is the fact that this team is Utah’s team. I don’t mean that in the sense that they play their games in downtown Salt Lake City. That’s always been true, obviously. This Jazz team is Utah’s Team in so many ways and on so many levels that are only partially related to basketball.

The Players We Love

Losing this series hardly matters, because they have the love of the people. Donovan and Rudy and Quinn have won the mob.  Folks all over Utah love the way their Jazz play gritty, team-first basketball. We love how Jae Crowder hustles and goes chest-to-chest with the NBA’s heavy hitters when things get chippy. We love that Joe Ingles is an instigator on the court, because he is our instigator and he gets under the skin of opposing players that get under our skin.  Oh, then he turns around and spends time and money for autism awareness in the community. He looks like the guy from the seventh ward basketball team with the sneaky jump shot and creative faux curse-words, but we LOVE him for it.

Donovan Mitchell is a rising star in the NBA, but is already a superstar in Salt Lake City. Some of that comes from his unreal abilities on the floor, but an equally large part comes from his acumen as ambassador. He shows up at Stars games and Utes games, he treks to Logan and to Provo with apparent stop-offs at children’s hospitals for good measure. It’s a common thing for an elite professional athlete to be embraced by the city that they play in. It’s another thing altogether when that athlete chooses to hug the city right back. Never have the Jazz had a guy like this. Never. That includes the glory years when they actually were contenders. John Stockton is an all-timer, but was famously standoffish with fans.  Karl Malone is the best to ever don a Jazz uniform, but he wasn’t so visibly charismatic and giving of his time (and shoes).

If you think his impact ends there, take some time to listen to Kyle Korver’s postgame comments about Donovan. Unsolicited praise from a guy in his second stint as a Jazzman is a nice compliment to a young player on the come-up. When you consider the teammates that Kyle Korver has played with over his 16-year career, you start to understand the gravity of what he is saying.

Oh yeah. Kyle Korver. He’s another reason we are so enamored with this Jazz team. He brought his sharpshooting abilities and Ashton Kutcher-y good looks back to Salt Lake City after a decade in the East. More importantly, he brought a well-traveled perspective and uncommon candor to help this Jazz fan-base wrap their heads around a moment that reflected poorly on all of us and address an important elephant in the room regarding race relations in a whitewashed arena.

I could keep going with Ricky Rubio’s hilarious “meowing” in commercials and Ekpe’s book club. You understand the point I am making, and whether you want to admit it or not, you are tallying more reasons that you love this team regardless of their win/loss record or their playoff future.

Okay With Being ‘Okay’

It’s an uncomfortable thing, to be okay with “okay.”  To come to the conclusion that “good” is actually good enough in some cases. I’d be willing to bet that if anybody in or around the Jazz locker room read this column, they would hate what I have to say. I’m confident that Quinn Snyder would dismiss this notion of acceptable mediocrity with one of his meme-worthy super villain faces (you know the look I am talking about). The players, coaches, and people that matter in this organization would never accept that what we are getting from this Jazz team is enough. They shouldn’t accept it. It’s their job not to accept it, but it’s still the truth.

Maybe this is just the beginning. Maybe this 2019 Jazz team is like the 2013 Warriors, a young group on the edge of greatness.  Perhaps this team is the 1997 Spurs, and we’re just around the corner from bearing witness to the rise of an unlikely dynasty. I don’t think either of notions will prove to be true, but I reserve the right to say that I “called it” if indeed they come to fruition.  Ultimately, confusingly, insanely, it doesn’t really matter.

As much as we loathe moral victories in professional sports, just having this team -as constructed with these personalities – is enough of a win. The coaches, players, and front-office will vehemently disagree, as they should, but the metrics for success are skewed by the adoration of fans in a way that might actually be unique to this market.

This Utah Jazz squad is obviously not the best we’ve ever seen. They’re probably not the second best either if you factor in the D-Will/Boozer/Kirilenko years. We love them as if they are on par with the greats. This Utah Jazz team doesn’t need to deliver a championship. They probably won’t, if we want to face the cold, hard reality of it. It’s not even necessary to establish a hold as an actual contender in the West.

We don’t have to believe that this team will reach new heights on the floor because we believe that they love this community, this city, and this state. We don’t require them to be as good as the Rockets, because we believe they represent what we want our Utah Jazz to represent. We’ll continue to pack our behinds into the arena and buy up all of the merchandise because we actually believe (perhaps foolishly) that when it comes down to it, Donovan Mitchell will stay. That he will choose this place over other places because of the way he’s already weaved into the fabric of Utah’s sports culture.

The Utah Jazz have won over this community not with what they are, but with who they are. In a time where the sports-watching public is obsessed with counting rings and contract dollars, the Jazz somehow don’t have to win in the playoffs to win us over. We simply enjoy watching them perform because we actually believe that they like performing for us. We buy into the notion that this group of guys cares about the name on the front of their jersey just as much as the one on the back. In today’s sports landscape – as jaded as we are to the “it’s a business” mentality – that is a precious belief.

So we will hope for the Jazz to stage a miraculous comeback in this series with against the easy-to-despise Houston Rockets.  Much to our chagrin, they won’t pull it off, proving that our boys are not yet power players on the NBA stage.

Here’s the thing, because of who we believe this team to be – at least for now – that’s really, actually, definitively okay.


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