In the 2012-2013 season, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry led a Mark Jackson-coached Warriors to a second place finish in the Pacific Division of the Western Conference. Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut rounded out the rest of a starting lineup (Draymond was still relegated to the bench). The team finished 47-35 in the regular season, and the Dubs won a playoff series against the Denver Nuggets before folding against to the San Antonio Spurs in a 4-2 series defeat.
We knew the Warriors were on to something, but I speak for many when I say that we didn’t know what was coming. Two year later, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The innocent band of baby-faced assassins would go on to lead the Warriors to best record in NBA history the following season. Oh, and then they won back-to-back championships.
Last season, the Utah Jazz finished fifth in the Western Conference with a 48-34 record. Like Steph Curry in the 2012-2013 season, the success of Utah’s squad was rooted in a young star, Donovan Mitchell. In any other year, Mitchell would have won Rookie of the Year. He is the type of transcendent talent that can ignite dynasties. His offensive growth and defensive tenacity will only improve in the years to come.
Mitchell is surrounded by solid veterans in Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and almost-All-Star Rudy Gobert. The Jazz are still yearning for a Mitchell co-pilot who can score in bunches like Klay Thompson, but it seems Utah is just getting started. Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and rookie Grayson Allen could be the start of a formidable armada of sharp shooters.
This Utah team has something the 2013 Warriors did not. A good coach. Quin Snyder is considered one of the best coaches in the NBA, beloved by his players and assistant coaches alike. His teams play focused defense and team-first basketball. What the Jazz lack in three-point shooting ability, they make up for in grit and focus.
Not only is Utah’s personnel stable, but the rest of the Western Conference is unpredictable. The Rockets lost essential talent this offseason, and Chris Paul is never healthy. The Lakers are a one-hit wonder for next year, on a fast track to the six seed. The Spurs are still the Spurs but will be without Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder still wade in fierce hope, waiting for their blessed messiah, Russell Westbrook, to turn into basketball Jesus and lead them to the promised land. Inevitably when the the Thunder arrive to the Red Sea, Westbrook will take 50 shots and the Thunder will die out.
It’s unlikely that the Jazz will push Golden State to the brink of anything next year. Remember the 2014 Warriors? The year before they won their first Finals, the Warriors still looked like a work in progress. The Jazz are looking to compete in the window after next year.
Utah’s primary struggle in advancing to the league’s top echelon is their ability to recruit a star free agent. Combining the terms “Salt Lake City” and “NBA basketball lifestyle” are the verbal equivalent of adding orange juice to your morning coffee. It just doesn’t make sense. Unlike that 23-year-old college graduate named Tyler who loves to snowboard in the fresh pow pow, NBA basketball players don’t gravitate to Utah.
Donovan Mitchell understands that he must play a major role in making the Jazz an attractive landing spot for prospective free agents. I remain confident that in a year or two we’ll be tearing into a Woj article (in the Athletic) about how Mitchell recruited a star to join his basketball team blocks away from the Mormon Tabernacle. The allure of winning rarely transcends the location for NBA players. LeBron James was able to find some folks to join him in Cleveland. I think Mitchell does the same, the Jazz will challenge the Warriors in 2020 and beyond.