Now that the Warriors have extended their reign in the NBA with another championship, the localized issue is what the Jazz can learn from Golden State’s success.
The immediate question revolves around what the Jazz could ever do to catch the Warriors. The discussion of who is ahead of the Jazz, though, might be less important than how those guys are doing it.
A broader subject is in play, with the NBA trending toward personnel and a style that makes someone like Jazz center Rudy Gobert an exceptional player — but not necessarily an advantage to his team in every circumstance.
The Jazz have built themselves around Gobert. There’s no turning back from that construction method, and he’s the biggest reason the franchise has remade itself into a winner. Yet as the Jazz try to keep climbing, they will have to defy the league’s prevailing philosophy.
Sports Illustrated recently addressed that dilemma in a story about University of Arizona center Deandre Ayton, the presumptive No. 1 pick in this month’s NBA draft: “There’s also the question of whether, in a league increasingly dominated by small ball and versatile wings, a team should even use the top pick on a big man. Jazz 7-footer Rudy Gobert was played off the court by the Rockets in the playoffs, and Houston center Clint Capela’s value was cut in half against the Warriors.”
Jazz fans’ initial reaction to that observation should be approval, in this sense: Gobert uses any perceived slight as motivation, and here’s an actual one. His likely Defensive Player of the Year award (announced June 25) will show Gobert’s value. But it also is worth wondering just how far the Jazz can go in the coming years in a playoff field that eventually will match them against an offense that reduces Gobert’s effectiveness — whether that’s the Warriors, Rockets or some other emerging team.
ESPN.com’s 40-member panel ranks the Jazz No. 5 in the NBA, going into the 2018-19 season (factoring in potential offseason developments).
1 • Golden State.
2 • Houston.
3 • Philadelphia.
4 • Boston.
5 • Utah.
6 • San Antonio.
7 • Toronto.
8 • New Orleans.
9 • Denver.
10 • Minnesota.
The related, more pressing question is where Jazz forward Derrick Favors fits into this discussion as a free agent. The Jazz, and Favors, have to determine exactly how important he is to them, and in exactly what role, before they can agree to maintain the partnership that began seven-plus years ago when they traded Deron Williams.
They’re committed to Gobert. What’s interesting to me is that if the Jazz’s Quin Snyder somehow were allowed to create a team of his ideal NBA personnel, he probably wouldn’t start with Gobert. My guess is he would love to coach a team of fully interchangeable players (making an exception for Donovan Mitchell). He wouldn’t have anyone with a defined position of center, for instance.
So as much as Gobert is a blessing to him, it also is a credit to Snyder that he is able to adjust to his personnel, respond to opponents’ matchups and make the Jazz function well as a defense-oriented team. They’re also efficient offensively, reflecting Snyder’s ability to design a scheme that maximizes Gobert’s skills. That’s why he’s a Coach of the Year finalist.
So if Phoenix drafts Ayton, it would be intriguing to watch former Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov, now the Suns’ coach, feature him in a Jazz-style system.
Meanwhile, I picture the Jazz doing more to follow the trend of the rest of the league, surrounding Gobert with four versatile players. Mitchell probably will fail in his bid to recruit free agent Paul George, but it is OK to dream. And eventually, one of the NBA’s elite players will want to join Mitchell and Gobert; that’s not unrealistic to believe.
In the current alignment, Snyder has succeeded in making the Gobert/Favors tandem work, but the Jazz are just as good or better when Gobert is paired with another style of power forward. If Favors re-signs with the Jazz, he will have to embrace a varying role. There would be nights when he has to accept being basically a backup center, as dictated by matchups. Other times, he might be more effective than Gobert, as may have happened against Houston if not for Favors’ being limited by an ankle injury.
Regardless of whether they’re built around Gobert/Favors or just Gobert, though, the Jazz will be trying to continue their rise in the NBA their own way. We Utahns like to think of ourselves as distinctive people. The Jazz certainly fit that description in today’s NBA.