The Utah Jazz season came to a disappointing end after an excellent year. The four-seed Los Angeles Clippers defeated the number one seed Jazz in six games in the Western Conference Semifinals. In Game 6, The Clippers were led by second-year guard Terance Mann, who dropped 39 points on a scorching 71% from the field. Donovan Mitchell had 39 points of his own but could not will the Jazz to a victory and force a Game 7.
This was obviously not the result the Jazz wanted after losing to the Denver Nuggets in the first round last season. Utah was a better team this season than last. They had the best record in the league during the regular season at 52-20 and were a top-five team in both offensive and defensive rating.
The Jazz also led the league in three-pointers made. With two major award winners, the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson, Utah was among the favorites to win it all. Kawhi Leonard's injury in game 5 of their series versus the Clippers gave the Jazz their best chance in years to advance to the conference finals.
What went wrong?
To counteract the defensive prowess of Gobert, Clippers' head coach Tyronn Lue used a ton of small-ball lineups, with Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum playing center. Gobert is a dominant defender in the paint, but he struggled to contain perimeter players such as Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and Terance Mann.
In fact, the Clippers' players shot 80% from the field when Gobert was the primary defender last night. Gobert also finished without a block in back-to-back games for the first time since last year's series versus the Nuggets. It appears as though teams have figured out how to neutralize him in the playoffs. Gobert's offensive game is limited, so his struggles on D are magnified.
Jazz point guard Mike Conley, a first-time All-Star this season, missed the first five games of the series and struggled mightily in his return last night. Conley was great in the regular season, averaging 16.0 points and 6.0 assists per game. It was a nice bounce-back year for him, after a poor season his first year in Utah. Unfortunately, health is a major problem for Conley. He has missed more than 20 games in each of the past two seasons. A strained hamstring prevented him from making a meaningful contribution this postseason, which really hurt the Jazz.
This makes two straight years that the Jazz have been eliminated before the conference finals. Their offensive success is predicated primarily on spacing. Quin Snyder has designed a terrific offensive system with shooters all over the court, which makes the Jazz a pleasure to watch. They struggle on defense at times, but their terrific offense should make up for it in theory. It is honestly tough to pinpoint why this team has underachieved so much. Their roster should be good enough to compete for a championship.
The Jazz have some questions to ponder heading into the offseason. Both Mitchell and Gobert signed max contract extensions before the season. They are locked in until the 2024-2025 season (both have player options in 2025-2026). In addition, most of their other core players, including Bojan Bogdanović, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O'Neale, and Joe Ingles, are all under contract for at least one more year.
Mike Conley is an unrestricted free agent, but the Jazz are likely to resign him. Therefore, the Jazz must decide whether to give it another shot with the same core or begin to think about making some roster moves to bring in pieces to better compliment Mitchell and Gobert, who are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Utah needs a legitimate second option on offense next to Mitchell. They traded for Conley to fill this role, which he did admirably during the regular season. However, his inability to stay healthy in the playoffs cost the Jazz. Trading Clarkson and/or Bogdanović for another star is an option. Both are solid players who can go off on any given night but struggle with defense and consistency.
The Jazz have committed a lot of guaranteed money to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. We have seen Mitchell elevate his game in the postseason, and his contract extension was a no-brainer. Gobert's contract, on the other hand, is a little bit more questionable. Small-market teams must overpay their stars to keep him, so I don't fault the Jazz for paying him. But his superior defense is negated to a degree in the playoffs, limiting the ceiling of this Jazz team.
Utah is still a championship contender, and I expect them to be back in the hunt next season. Although, the two max contracts plus Conley's leaves them with little room to improve their roster.