Jazz Panic Unnecessary Despite Week Of Change

Jun 29, 2021, 4:11 PM | Updated: 4:24 pm
Ryan Smith - Dwyane Wade - Utah Jazz...
Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, left, and Dwayne Wade, who bought a share of the team, watch a game at the Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Courtesy of Deseret News)
(Courtesy of Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A sudden wave of panic seems to have overtaken fans of the Utah Jazz in the weeks since the team was eliminated by the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.

To be fair to those concerned fans, it hasn’t been the least handwringing stretch in the history of the franchise.

First, the Jazz blew another postseason series, losing four straight games to the Clippers after opening the conference semifinals with a 2-0 lead. The final two losses of the series came against a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers roster, including blowing a 25 point lead against the L.A. in the series-clinching game six.

Since their elimination, Jazz fans have had to watch the Clippers face the Phoenix Suns battle it out for a trip to the Finals that could have belonged to the Jazz with slightly better health.

Meanwhile, during the team’s locker room cleanout, neither All-Star guard Mike Conley nor the franchise showed total commitment to continuing their marriage next season.

Then, fans were hit with a somewhat significant shakeup in the front office as on Sunday night, it was announced that long-time Vice President of Basketball Operations Dennis Lindsey was stepping down from his position, and assuming a more hands-off, advisory role with the team.

Most recently, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst claimed early Tuesday that he believed there was fear among Jazz ownership, namely minority owner Dwyane Wade that Donovan Mitchell may be eyeing an exit from the team after another frustrating postseason loss.

For a franchise that has built itself on stability and patience over the last three decades, the last 11 days have been unusually action-packed, especially following a tremendously successful regular season.

But, before Jazz fans smash the panic button any harder, let’s dissect the individual issues one by one, and clarify how they might impact the Jazz future.

Abrupt Ending Leads Jazz Fans To Panic

Just as winning cures everything, losing seems to add a certain sour flavor to every issue in its immediate vicinity, and that might be the largest problem for the Jazz to date.

With Mitchell playing at a superstar level, and the Jazz taking a 2-0 lead, the idea of losing four consecutive games to the Clippers, especially the final two without Leonard seemed nearly impossible.

And yet, for the second consecutive season, the Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs despite finding themselves in an advantageous position early in a series.

Why the Jazz lost the series seems pretty clear — without Conley, and Mitchell playing with limited athleticism and lateral quickness, the Jazz offense broke down. The Clippers could withstand Mitchell’s big scoring nights knowing no other Jazz player was a threat to go off for big games individually for long stretches.

This was the same issue the Jazz faced in consecutive losses to the Houston Rockets just a few years ago, and the reason why the Jazz made the blockbuster trade for Conley to relieve Mitchell of that heavy burden.

Unfortunately, Conley’s hamstring injury which plagued him over the final five months of the season once again flared up at the worst possible time, and it prevented the Jazz from advancing further in the postseason.

There’s no question that it’s one of the most painful playoff exits in Jazz history. Mitchell even admitted that this season’s loss was more painful than last year’s exit against the Denver Nuggets, despite owning a more commanding 3-1 lead in that series.

But just because it’s painful doesn’t mean it’s inexplicable. A healthier Jazz team could have advanced, just as a healthier Los Angeles Lakers team or a healthier Brooklyn Nets team could have advanced his season.

As one front office member told KSL Sports, “The team was set up to win it all. Too bad on the injures that sidetracked them.”

Mike Conley’s Future

The second piece of panic-inducing news that hit Jazz fans came during locker room cleanout when neither the team nor Conley committed to a long-term marriage.

While certainly, a clearer plan between Conley and the Jazz would have put fans at ease, both sides are smart to hold off on their commitment.

First, Conley has never been a true free agent as there were always significant financial benefits to return to Memphis when he signed prior contracts. Now, facing what will likely be the last large contract negotiation of the 33-year-old’s career, he’s wise to see what the open mark has to offer.

Fans should recall Jordan Clarkson having a similar sentiment heading into last year’s offseason, only to re-sign with the Jazz shortly after free agency opened.

Similarly, the Jazz find themselves in one of the toughest, albeit most enviable spots NBA teams face. They’re nearly true title contenders, and as previously mentioned, may have been contenders with better health.

But taking that leap from almost good enough to a championship favorite is a tough gap to close, and it’s the reality of where the Jazz find themselves.

They could go all-in on Conley, spending significantly over the luxury tax in an attempt to run it back next season. It’s a good option for a team that may have had the right pieces this season, only to see their title hopes undone by poor health.

They could choose to let Conley walk, recognizing that having greater financial freedom entering the offseason could benefit them on the trade market if they see more pressing needs on the perimeter and the frontcourt.

Or, they could sign Conley with the understanding that he could be moved in a trade either immediately after agreeing to a contract or later on to help the Jazz acquire additional assets.

Whichever direction Conley and the Jazz choose, the team will maintain flexibility. Outside of Derrick Favors’ two years and $20 million deal, the Jazz don’t have any truly bad contracts and could be active altering the makeup of the roster if they want to be.

However, there won’t be more clarity on the future of Conley and the Jazz until August 2 when free agency officially opens. Regardless of the outcome, fans should remember the franchise has been preparing for this day for two years and will have contingency plans no matter how free agency shakes out.

Front Office Shakeup

The first major move after the Jazz season ended came in the front office when the team announced Sunday that Lindsey was stepping down from his role as Vice President of Basketball Operations and taking an advisory role with the team.

After the move, reports surfaced that tension between Lindsey and Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was partly to blame for the move.

Though fans may have been caught off guard by the news of turmoil among the Jazz brain trust, it should be understood that the “chilly” relationship between the team’s VP and head coach has been a poorly kept secret in Jazz circles for some time. Furthermore, it isn’t one that hasn’t prevented the team from reaching new levels of success over the last several seasons.

Even with the disagreements among the team, the Jazz finished with the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history, and with Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in tow long-term, should factor into the Western Conference playoff picture for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, there’s no evidence that the front office shakeup was a reaction to the team’s postseason downfall, or even as a result of the relationship with the coaching staff. One source with knowledge of the Jazz front office said this move had been a long time coming.

“No,” the source told KSL Sports when asked if the move was a surprise. “He had talked about doing something different for a couple of years.”

While the move from Lindsey to Zanik, and any further additional names brought in to manage the front office will certainly bring change, they don’t need to bring concern for deeper cultural issues within the organization.

The NBA is a league of change, after nine years with Lindsey at the helm, and Zanik sitting in waiting since 2019, a shakeup was to the status quo inevitable. With a talented roster at their fingertips, Lindsey is leaving the Jazz in better shape than he found it, which is as good a time as any to depart.

Wade Worried About Mitchell

The latest bit of news to send Jazz fans into a tailspin comes from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on The Hoop Collective podcast regarding minority owner Dwyane Wade and the long-term future of Mitchell in Utah.

“Dwyane Wade is going to influence changes, and he’s going to influence changes because the way Donovan Mitchell saw this season unfold, specifically how his ankle injury was handled in the playoffs, really unnerved him and he was in a bit of a rough spot with the franchise near the end of the year,” Windhorst said. “Look he’s starting a brand new four-year contract at the max, I’m not implying anything.”

Mitchell was clearly frustrated with how the team’s season ended, saying after the game six loss, “This is going to eat at me for a long time.”

However, as Windhorst indicated that he “wasn’t implying anything,” there doesn’t seem to be additional fervor beyond the concern that should always exist for teams wanting to hold onto their superstars.

In an era of player movement and superteams, holding onto young talent has become the number one challenge facing every team in the NBA, not just smaller markets. While premier franchises may have an easier time attracting All-Star free agents, no team is free from worrying about their young stars forcing their way into what they hope are greener pastures.

The Jazz clearly made a mistake in the team’s opening-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies clearing Mitchell to return from an ankle injury 24 hours before game one, only to tell the guard he couldn’t play just hours before tip-off.

However, as Mitchell’s ankle injury worsened throughout the playoffs, it was also clear that the guard never fully recovered from the April sprain, lending credence to the training staff’s decision.

Regardless of which party was correct, with the power players have in today’s NBA, the Jazz need to show Mitchell the support he deserves as the team’s premier franchise building block, and let him know his desires are weighted in future decision making.

To Ryan Smith’s credit, he’s done that by bringing Wade into the ownership fold to help mentor Mitchell, and to give the franchise guidance on how to handle a young star.

Until Mitchell indicates that there is unrest with the franchise, or that he wants out, Jazz fans should fear Mitchell’s departure any more than every franchise does with their best young players.

It’s been a tumultuous week and a half for Jazz fans since the season ended, but rather than panic, fans would be wise to recognize to step back from the season and look at the recent changes with a level head, and not fear future unknowns.

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Jazz Panic Unnecessary Despite Week Of Change