Tonight, Kobe Bryant left the NBA in unparalleled style, the Golden State Warriors earned their record-setting 73rd win of the season, and Houston beat Sacramento 116 to 81. The Jazz’s 101 to 96 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers will go down as the most after of after thoughts, of little notice and soon forgotten.
As the Jazz end their fourth consecutive year without a post-season appearance and sixth without a winning a single playoff game, the longest streaks of such futility in the history of NBA basketball in Utah1, the night cements an unpleasant reality: the Jazz franchise has become an afterthought.
This final game of the season is only of interest in regard to what it suggests about next season’s probability to change that.
The Game Itself
Kobe Bryant scored 60 points on 50 shots, and the Jazz lost by five. In Kobe’s own words, “Mamba out!”
The Player Behind the Player of the Game
It was Kobe’s night, and deservingly so. From Magic Johnson honoring him before the game to the entire world worshiping after his 60-point curtain call, there is something incredibly obvious the Jazz should take from what they witnessed.
Bryant spent his career as arguably the most hated player in the league. While players flocked to join LeBron James to chase championships, Bryant drove away stars, including Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. He will never quite escape the sordid residue of Eagle, Colorado, and last year he admitted to GQ he pretty much has no friends.
But 836 regular season wins and five championships forgives all, as tonight witnessed. It is the iron law of pro sports: winning is everything.
Trey Lyles led the Jazz with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Gordon Hayward added 17 and Jeff Withey turned minutes into production, as usual, with ten points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes of play. But the Jazz lost, and I doubt any player in their locker room felt anything but that L.
What to Make of 40 and 42
Disappointment is natural. Disappointment is good. Disappointment is needed.
But despair is destructive.
Ambiguity is unpleasant, so much so psychologists measure what they call “ambiguity intolerance.” Some people can tolerate so little ambiguity they would rather have a certain negative than an uncertainty that warrants optimism. Better the disappointment you know…
The Jazz entered this season as every national pundit’s dark horse for the playoffs, stumbled frequently under the weight of multiple key injuries, and ended the year as a team once again looking up at .500 and the final team looking outside-in at the playoffs. Dante Exum didn’t play a minute; Alec Burks appeared slightly more. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors got some All-Star buzz and, ultimately, no recognition.
It’s hard to imagine a more ambiguous conclusion to the season.
Most pivotal moments in life aren’t events but responses to them. And what this season means will be entirely determined by the response at every level of the Jazz organization. If missing the playoffs by losing obviously winnable games isn’t challenge enough, then let me throw down the gauntlet.
Every level of this franchise should do better than this.
Dennis Lindsey is an excellent general manager, but his team makes the playoffs easily if he builds a roster with even average veteran bench talent by NBA standards. Against the Lakers, the Jazz bench scored 35 points, besting their season average by three despite Lyles and Withey taking slots in the starting lineup. It wasn’t enough.
Likewise, 91 points per 100 possessions from the bench (good for 18th in the league) wasn’t enough to bolster arguably the least experienced starting five in the NBA.
And a season-ending injury to a 20-year-old is no excuse to put possibly the worst point guard rotation in the league into play in a season where the team challenges for the playoffs. Shelvin Mack was a terrific bargain in return for a second round pick, but he only looks good as a starter in context to how poor play had been before.
Quin Snyder was my most desired option for head coach when he was hired, and I still believe in him passionately, but his team makes the playoffs easily if he takes a more directive approach to adjustments when his team struggles, especially offensively. Against the Lakers, the Jazz once again wilted, managing a paltry 39 second half points.
In this essentially meaningless game with so many players unavailable, Snyder had limited options to catalyze his offense2. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Snyder’s motion offense has great potential as his players mature and learn each others’ games. However, when it isn’t working he’s responsible for making adjustments. That sometimes just hasn’t happened. Take the devastating loss against Dallas Monday night, where Rick Carlisle challenged the Jazz to shoot themselves to a win from long range. Utah answered by launching 33 threes and making only 27 percent. Following the game, Snyder lamented shots simply not going in.
That wasn’t justification under Tyrone Corbin, and it can’t be under Snyder. Because this team lost too many close games by flailing away from three—such as tonight’s nine of 30 performance–when throughout the season there were other cards Snyder could have played.
Derrick Favors may not be as elite a post up scorer as roll man, but it’s ludicrous that he used 150 fewer possessions in the post than Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, or Zach Randolph, 90 fewer than Jahlil Okafor, and 40 or more fewer than the injury-prone trio of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, or Anthony Davis, despite scoring more points per possession in the post than any of them.
Similarly, Gordon Hayward boasted a top twenty free throw rate. When Alec Burks was healthy, he got to the line even more frequently, making the Jazz one of only three teams with two of the top 20 players with the highest free throw rates in the league, along with Minnesota (Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins) and Toronto (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan).
When jumpers weren’t falling, Snyder needed to make more executive decisions to call plays to get Favors or his free throw reapers shots at the rim. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen often enough.
The Jazz readily laud their training staff of Brian Zettler and Isaiah Wright, but their players easily make the playoffs without suffering such attrition to injury. In the last game of the season, the Jazz were without the services of Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, and of course Dante Exum.
It was a night entirely appropriate to cap the season.
Put aside Dante Exum’s missed year as a freak expression of ill luck. Alec Burks missed 106 games the past two seasons. Gobert missed 21 games this year, and Favors missed 203; moreover, each of the Jazz’s twin peaks played a slew more games at far less than 100 percent.
That can’t happen.
To put in perspective what the defensive anchors to the team mean, consider that when both played 28 or more minutes this year (essentially healthy starter minutes) the team won 62 percent of its games. When only one was up to that responsibility, the winning percentage dropped to 48 percent, and when neither could answer the bell it plummeted to 30 percent.
The Jazz need their foundational tandem of Favor and Gobert at their best 75 games a season, not 55 games a season. If that can’t happen, they can’t be the foundation.
I still believe the Jazz have the stable of young players to become a contender with the present core, and that exciting development has happened this season, but the team easily makes the playoffs if each player simply plays as well as they know they can.
Rodney Hood is the only player in Jazz history able to hit eight three pointers in a half and also do this. Yet in the last three Jazz home losses, he shot 4 of 23 (17 percent) from three.
Rudy Gobert has franchise-changing potential, but in five home losses by two points or less or in overtime, Gobert missed 19 free throws as he shot 44 percent from the line. If he’d shot merely 60 percent, the Jazz get at least four games against the Warriors in the post season.
Even Trey Lyles, who proved such a pleasant surprise throughout the season, ended up as the only one of the Jazz’s top seven rotation players to prove a net negative (-0.9 NetRtg).
Every man, from Hayward to Trey Burke, can look in the mirror and see the “that much more” they could have done to get them into the second season.
As 2015-16 ends awash in ambiguity, the determining factor on the season’s meaning won’t be a five point loss to the Lakers, or even missing the playoffs. It’s how everyone in the franchise takes all that’s happened, looks in the mirror, and determines what it means going forward.
For the record, I think the Jazz’s response will make this season a springboard and not a plateau.