Utah Jazz: State Of The Union

Mar 1, 2022, 1:10 PM | Updated: 1:17 pm
Danny Ainge and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)...
Danny Ainge and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – With the All-Star break and the NBA trade deadline behind them, it’s a good time to step back and take a look at the overall state of the Utah Jazz.

Coming off the best regular season in team history, the Jazz own the fourth seed in the Western Conference with 22 games left to play, and appear likely to remain in that spot heading into the postseason.

With the roster set and the regular season standings in mind, let’s look at some of the more pressing bigger picture issues facing the Jazz.

1. The Championship Window

Though the Jazz look poised to open the NBA Playoffs with home-court advantage in the first round, it’s not been an easy season overall for the team’s fans.

The Jazz began the year with the best record in the NBA through the first eight games of the season, but after a string of four losses in five outings, the issues that may have been contributing to the losses, (age, depth, versatility) felt magnified.

The reason those issues felt more significant was due to the Jazz’s current championship window, which is more open now than it has been at any point in the last two decades, but certainly won’t last forever.

The Jazz were able to extend that window last summer by signing the All-Star point guard to a three-year contract extension, keeping him in Utah along with the core of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson who are all under contract at least through next season.

With that group together, the Jazz figure to have one of the most talented five-man rotations in the NBA most nights, and can look to internal growth, and changes on the fringes of the roster to increase their odds of winning a title while the window is open.

Currently, there are roughly nine teams in the NBA (Heat, 76ers, Bulls, Bucks, Celtics, Nets, Suns, Warriors, Jazz) that can make an argument that their championship is truly open.

As the league appears to be at a stage in between dynasties, it’s a good time to have your championship window open, and the Jazz can honestly say theirs is.

2. The Utah Jazz Economy

Like all professional franchises, the Jazz’s economics plays a key factor in the successes and failures of the team and feeds directly into how long they can keep their championship window open.

The Jazz have had to pay a hefty price to compile the amount of talent they have on the roster, and as a result, found themselves deep in the NBA’s luxury tax entering the season.

However, with the season-ending injury to Joe Ingles, the Jazz were able to get out of the aging veteran’s contract, cut their salary spending, and slash their luxury tax bill by more than $20 million.

That was a savvy move given the opportunity, and those savings should make it easier for the team to swallow future expenditures regardless of the outcome of this season.

Thankfully for Jazz fans, it doesn’t appear that owner Ryan Smith is making moves with his pocketbook first, and his desire to win a championship second. The Jazz could have unloaded salary elsewhere before the trade deadline, especially after a dreary 4-12 record in January, and found it fully justifiable.

Instead, he showed a willingness to pay a premium price to keep this group competitive, and it makes for a better product for those cheering on the team.

However, the Jazz will have difficult issues to sort out in the offseason as they go into the summer with the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA, once again among the league’s handful of luxury tax-paying teams.

Having a bloated salary cap is fine as long as the championship window is open, but if that window closes sooner than expected, those high-priced NBA salaries become difficult to move.

Luckily for the Jazz, only Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are under contract beyond the summer of 2024, giving the team plenty of expiring contracts, and financial flexibility in the coming seasons to stay competitive and malleable.

3. The Youth And Future

Now, with the Jazz’s championship window open, and the team’s economy imperfect, but far from broken, the best way to extend that window and fix the issues that do exist on the financial front is to develop the youth.

The Jazz entered the season with the third-oldest roster in the NBA, and seven of the team’s top eight players are 28 or older, but they’ve made some headway on the youth front.

First and foremost, it must be noted that Donovan Mitchell is still just 25 years old and has another 5-7 years of truly elite-level basketball ahead of him. By itself, Mitchell’s age is a feather in the cap of the team’s future for however long he remains a Jazzman.

Behind Mitchell in age, though they’ve not proven themselves as full-time contributors, are Eric Paschall, Trent Forrest, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Udoka Azubuike, and Jared Butler, all of whom are 25 or younger.

Outside of the recently acquired Alexander-Walker, each of these players has shown reasons for optimism about their future in the NBA, which could provide the Jazz with young pieces to keep the championship window open, and to help balance the financial numbers.

The Jazz would be better off if any of these players had shown a true trajectory towards stardom in the NBA already in their career, but even without it, they should have some playable depth going forward.

Where the Jazz are lacking is draft capital, having used multiple future picks to acquire Mike Conley, and others to unload players like Derrick Favors, Ed Davis, and Tony Bradley in cost-cutting moves.

But while the Jazz own just one first-round pick (2023) before the 2025 draft, the team could realistically recoup draft picks by trading away talent on the team should they deem it beneficial.

Though Mitchell and Gobert will likely be untouchable in trade talks unless they demand out of Utah, Conley, Bogdanovic, Clarkson, and Royce O’Neale would all fetch a varying degree of draft capital and young talent in any given trade.

With each of those four players’ contracts set to expire in the next two seasons, and each of those players likely looking for contract extensions beyond the veteran minimum, the Jazz may find it in their best interest to explore trades that bring back young talent or draft picks to help invest in the future.

Overall, the Utah Jazz are in an enviable position. They are currently one of a handful of contenders in the NBA, and while their payroll is on the high end of the league, they aren’t weighed down by any toxic long-term contracts.

Additionally, they have an owner who is invested in winning, a coach and general manager who are well above average in their craft, and a combination of tradable assets and young pieces that should provide the franchise with stability once this current championship window closes.

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