SALT LAKE CITY — Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate defensively this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.
After getting knocked out of the first-round by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.
“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday during locker clean out. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”
Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.
Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After Jan. 1, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.
Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs
“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”
Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per-game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0).
Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain who did it in 1966-67.
Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.
“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”
POINT GUARD CHANGES?
Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.
Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games — five more than in his six seasons in Minnesota. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.
Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.
“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”
Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade
The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season.
“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”
Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6 to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.
He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed: 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after Jan. 1 and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).
His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.
“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”
For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.
Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players. 3-POINT FLURRY
Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10 or more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.
Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.