Utah’s Place in a Warriors’ World

June 15th, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

(Forbes.com)

Like it or not, it’s the Warriors’ world. Everyone else simply lives in it.

For competing NBA teams like the Jazz, that presents a uniquely difficult and potentially discouraging challenge.

Golden State’s 4-1 Finals demolition of LeBron James, the unquestioned greatest player of his generation, and the Cavaliers team that shockingly beat the Warriors for last year’s title is merely the latest testament to how thoroughly the team by the bay has mastered the sport.

Consider just these few numbers:

A 16-1 rampage through the 2017 playoffs, a league record1.

Over the past three seasons, Golden State has won 207 regular season games compared to only 39 losses. That’s a winning percentage of .841. Three of the nine best regular seasons in league history have been stacked atop each other by these Warriors, including a record-setting 72 victories.

Three consecutive Finals appearances with two titles and one Draymond Green groin kick2 short of a third.

Four All-NBA talents, none older than 29.

Unfortunately for the rest of the league, this Warriors’ past looks very much like prologue. Entering next season, Golden State is perhaps the heaviest favorite in the modern history of American team sports. Jeff Sherman, who sets odds for the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, says the 2017-2018 Warriors “are going to be the highest favorite we’ve ever had going into a season, any team in any sport.”

In a conference call before the Finals, former coach and current television commentator and analyst Jeff Van Gundy summed up the NBA’s future with guillotine-like finality: “I see nothing preventing [the Warriors] from going to eight to 10 straight Finals. It will be a massive upset, I think, if they’re not there every year.”

This leaves the Jazz, and every other team in the league3, in a quandary of how to approach competition in a league where victory, in the ultimate sense, may not be realistically possible.

Should Utah write off the present in an attempt to better position the team for the future?

In the face of the Warriors juggernaut, have no doubt more teams will embrace a race to the bottom in the hopes of rising near the top after Golden State’s dominance has ended. Frankly, tanking is a regular practice in the NBA. Its most famous – and infamous – case came in the form of Sam Hinkie’s Process in Philadelphia, a plan still playing out, and Mark Cuban has recently admitted that his team embraced the tank after being eliminated from playoff contention this year.

With the Warriors mountain seemingly too high to climb, especially for any team not already at an NBA elite level, expect to see more NBA teams abandoning the slopes of full competition to try to restock for a future expedition in the draft.

This isn’t a particularly attractive option, however, especially for the Jazz. Bottoming out in the NBA is never pleasant. The deliberate rebuild that started in the Tyrone Corbin era and continued into the tenure of current head coach Quin Snyder has left this truth fresh in Jazz fans’ minds.

But consider it could well have been SO much worse. See: Kings, Sacramento.

Would the Jazz have the stomach to up their aggression – and accept a comparable increase in risk – by trying to build a contender to the Warriors through dramatic trades?

Few teams in the NBA will embrace such an approach because, honestly, very few teams are even a dramatic move away from a slight chance to upend the current champs. The Houston Rockets, who won 55 games this season behind likely league MVP James Harden, may be such a team. Indeed, Houston GM Daryl Morey has admitted that an aggressive move with added risk  may be in the cards he’s holding in an attempt to claim the west. San Antonio has Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich, and as long as that’s the case they are always a major addition away from reshaping the league landscape. And there’s always LeBron’s Cavaliers, a company that is always in acquisition mode.

At present and pending Gordon Hayward’s free agency decision, the Jazz sit in a tier beneath these teams alongside squads like the Celtics, Raptors, and Clippers. From such a position, does going for broke make sense in an attempt to leapfrog the tier above to the pinnacle where the Warriors stand alone?

Probably not. Short of pairing an Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo4 or a similar talent with Rudy Gobert, no such move would even get the Jazz within scratching distance of Golden State. Any realistic upgrade in talent would certainly be an order of magnitude below a franchise player, and even that would cost a king’s ransom. Consider the most recent NBA teams that went all-in to spring dramatically upward in the NBA hierarchy, the Nets5 and Lakers6. Both rose only to the level of middling playoff team and were easily dealt with by true NBA elite squads. The cost of those failed jumps have been falls so far the franchises have cratered.

The only option left to the Jazz seems to be doing everything possible to compete now as well as for a prolonged window into the future – even if that means likely losing to the Warriors in the end.

It isn’t an invigorating option. But it’s the best the Jazz have, and a better option than those presenting most teams in the league right now.

Whether Hayward stays or goes, the Jazz have a super-elite defensive force in Gobert. The only other defenders of such impact, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard, play on two of the three best teams in the league. Utah has a universally well-respected general manager in Dennis Lindsey and one of the best coaches7 in the NBA in Snyder. This combination sets the Jazz up to swim against the Warriors’ current more successfully than most teams.

The game is competition after all, and competing against true excellence can make you better even when you lose. Gobert will never cower or give in to the Warriors’ awesome potency. He won’t settle for second best. It isn’t in his nature. Lindsey will reinforce that attitude as he builds teams each year, and Snyder will cultivate it within the teams that time and again square off against Golden State.

The Warriors’ unparalleled offense might be a unique pressure to make the Jazz’s already excellent defense even denser. Getting squeezed that way may not be fun, but it can make you tough if you endure it.

Why endure repeated disappointment only to lose again and again?

Because no one rules the world forever.

Everyone falls from the mountaintop at some point. Injury. The unexpected, such as Draymond Green’s suspension in the 2016 Finals and Golden State’s stunning collapse thereafter. And money. It’s often said that Father Time is undefeated, but the Almighty Benjamin is nearly so as well in the NBA.

This summer Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Zaza Pachulia are all unrestricted free agents while Kevin Durant has a players option for one more season. Keeping the band together will be costly but Golden State’s ownership will certainly foot the bill two ensure two years of likely dominance over the NBA, a sufficient span to qualify as a genuine dynasty.

Then Klay Thompson’s contract will be up in the summer of 2019 with Green’s following in 2020. This is where things will get tricky fast.

No more will they have Curry, a two-time league MVP, earning less than half of what Mike Conley makes.

This time there will be no collective bargaining quirk coinciding with a massive and unexpected influx of television money8.

If Golden State succeeds at doing whatever it takes to retain Curry and Durant, as they have consistently promised, then a team with two huge contracts will face the prospect of finding a way to pay two more All-NBA caliber players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe estimates that may result in a roster bill in the area of $440 million dollars. It would be almost impossible to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury taxes, even to maintain arguably the greatest team in NBA history.

The most likely outcome, at least as presently assessed, sees Thompson parting from the most super of superteams.  A squad with Durant, Curry, and Green would certainly still be a contender. But without Thompson warping defenses off-ball and likely deploying a leaner roster, especially one lacking Iguodala’s vital influence off the bench, would Mount Warriors still be insurmountable? Or would dollars, decline from age, and defections bring Golden State down to the merely mortal once again?

If so, Gobert would just be entering his prime at that time.

It’s the Warriors’ world – until someone takes it from them. It’ll happen. The only questions are who, how, and when. The Jazz should keep that at the forefront of their collective mind as they forge their place in the modern NBA landscape.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

2 Comments

  1. jerry says:

    a great article, clint per your usual work.

    the worrisome thing about the warriors is that their money issues going forward may be overstated. both curry and durant seem committed to keeping the team together, and iguodala is apparently already all but signed. curry and durant could take significantly less that the max should they choose to, because of the huge amount of endorsement money that both earn (far exceeding their nba salary). green also seems amenable to not breaking the bank in a couple of years. whether or not thompson wishes to be the main focus on some other team in a couple of years may be the only real issue.

    as to the jazz conundrum facing the warriors mountain there are no easy answers. anthony davis paired with gobert would be incredible, but just not sure how that could ever be done. perhaps favors, hood, exum and picks could pry davis away?

    the jazz are in their window of opportunity right now, so what to do with hayward is the biggest issue. he will get a max offer from someone, so the question becomes does maxing hayward hamstring the team going forward? ingles is a unique player who i suspect wouldn’t look close to this good with another team, but he is looking to get paid this summer. favors, hood and exum contracts would all be looming in the near future.

    think point guard is still a huge issue, and don’t believe exum is the answer. might someone like a jeff teague fit in well with gobert and hayward? snyder is familiar with him, and teague was on that very good hawks team a couple seasons ago that ran such a nice and well spaced offense.

    would love to fortify the stretch 4 position on the team, and lyles just doesn’t look like the answer. think there is still a chance that hood can be the knockdown shooter that the jazz need, just needs a lot more consistency. can we ever have a healthy burks again, and does that even matter?

    this will be an interesting summer.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Nice thoughts, Jerry. Personally, my baseline assumption is that money will win out. Not in every case but overall. The players who accept less than the maximum – especially a substantial amount less – tend to be toward the end of fantastic careers and sitting on a mound of already made money. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki both come to mind, and both were among the top paid players in the league before they took less money late in their careers.

      Also, I haven’t given up on either Exum or Lyles yet. They clearly have tools to become very good players, and I trust Snyder’s developmental capability. This season will be pivotal for each however.

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