To tank, make a change or stay the course: The Utah Jazz dilemma

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Ricky Rubio #3, Donovan Mitchell #45, and Head Coach Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Ricky Rubio #3, Donovan Mitchell #45, and Head Coach Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After a disappointing start to the season, the Utah Jazz may soon find themselves facing some tough decisions on how to proceed this year.

There’s been a lot of chatter regarding the future of the Utah Jazz of late. After a disappointing start to the season that finds the Jazz at 6-9 after losing six of their last seven and suffering yet another wave of devastating injuries, many have begun to believe that this 2017-18 campaign will be a lost season.

In many ways, that’s a disappointing reaction. After all, we’re only 15 games in with a revamped team that we knew would face some struggles. Sure, the start to the season has gone much worse than I or many other Jazz fans might have predicted, but that’s part of being a fan – sticking through the highs and lows.

And to say it’s been all lows would be a major overstep. Donovan Mitchell has looked phenomenal and clearly appears to be the future of this team. Rodney Hood has started to slowly break out of his shooting slump and has put up some promising games of late. And guys like Joe Ingles and Thabo Sefolosha have produced plenty of plays that have given us something to cheer about.

Nevertheless, at three games under .500 and with a daunting December stretch ahead that the Jazz will have to face without Rudy Gobert, it’s starting to appear that playoff qualification is becoming more and more of a stretch. Is it possible that Quin Snyder works his wizardry and finds a way to turn this Jazz team around? Perhaps. After all, we are only 15 games into a lengthy 82-game season. However, doubting that such will be plausible given Utah’s lackluster personnel and recurring injuries this season is certainly justifiable.

Therefore, the Jazz are faced with somewhat of a dilemma at this point of the 2017-18 campaign. Many have called for them to simply declare the season lost and flat out tank, thus jockeying for better position in the draft. Others would like to see Utah shake things up a bit, perhaps making a change such as adding a knock-down shooter that may help them claw their way back into playoff contention in an overwhelming Western Conference.

Then there’s others who feel as if the Jazz fanbase needs to simply relax. We always knew this year was going to be a year of discovery (unfortunately some of those discoveries thus far have been less than reassuring), so why not let a year that wasn’t going to amount to much in the first place simply play out, then the Jazz will be able to use their ample financial flexibility to make major adjustments this offseason.

With those three viewpoints serving as the primary options, let’s dissect each one, shall we?

First on the subject of tanking. In my mind, the option of tanking kind of has two definitions. One is to simply not look to improve and just continue on a course that may not provide that beneficial of results in the current season, but could pay dividends in the future. The other is, bluntly put, to purposely lose games to get a better draft pick. Think of the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 who had a top-7 protected pick and therefore decided to rest players, trade away Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut and then went on to lose 17 of their last 20 games.

That style of tanking often includes shutting players down for the end of a season, making trades to bring in worse players and simply instilling in the current roster that losing isn’t a big deal as it’s going to make them better off down the road. In my opinion, that kind of blatant tanking is absolutely despicable. I’m blown away by the number of Jazz fans that are calling for this garbage right now and I am vehemently opposed to it.

Quite frankly, I think such obvious failure to compete should be punished. For example, just think – had the Warriors not blatantly tanked, their pick would have fallen outside of the top seven and the Jazz would have had a solid first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, one that many have surmised they would have looked to trade to try to draft higher and nab Damian Lillard. Man, would that have ever changed history.

Instead, the Warriors were overwhelmingly rewarded for their disgraceful purposeful losing by landing Harrison Barnes in the draft and, of course as we all know, eventually going on to become NBA Champions and now one of the most powerhouse squads this league has ever seen. When several hoops fans that don’t like the NBA are asked why they feel that way, this ridiculous rewarding of intentional poor play is often a major point that is brought up.

But enough of that tangent, I could go on and on about my views of the heinous nature of tanking all day long. Instead, let’s get back to the Jazz. I simply don’t believe the competitors on this team (Rudy Gobert is the first to come to mind) will want anything to do with losing in hopes that it one day pays off. For every story like that of the Golden State Warriors where tanking works out there’s a million others of where it goes completely awry.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been notorious tankers for the past several years and while, yes, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, among others, certainly look like they have that team headed towards elite status in the not so distant future, there’s no telling what could go wrong. They certainly won’t win a championship this year and who knows what the upcoming seasons could hold.

Not only that, but they had to suffer through five absolutely abysmal years that haven’t been and won’t be easy to come back from. That’s something a small market team like the Jazz may not be able to survive at all.

Also, just because a team tanks and gets a high draft pick, by no means does it mean that pick will actually end up being a difference maker. Even in the lottery, drafting is often such a crap-shoot as we’ve seen plenty of top three picks fail to pan out. Furthermore, even good picks that turn into solid players take time to develop. And, just as we saw with Gordon Hayward last summer, once said players hit their stride, they don’t always stick around especially in small markets.

Therefore, to any Jazz fans advocating that the team simply throw in the towel and aim to drop as many games as possible, I say shame on you. Not only because of the terrible culture it breeds on the team and throughout the fanbase or the blatant lack of sportsmanship and respect for the competitive nature of the game it implies, but because especially for a team like the Jazz, it seldom works out. Instead, you would be turning in a pathetic season this year to likely only produce mediocre results after that.

The next option the Jazz have is to look to make some trades, either now or at the deadline, to help spark them this season or perhaps to help set them up even further for the future. I’m all for a team looking to make whatever changes it takes to get better, but obviously trades can be a tricky venture.

First of all, while I don’t support tanking, I also don’t believe it’s wise to perform a knee-jerk reaction trade that is detrimental down the road. It’s one thing to purposely lose, it’s another to foolishly sacrifice a potentially prosperous future for little immediate benefit. The other thing is that making a trade can sound like a nice idea to improve a team, but it also takes two to tango. This might be where the Jazz find themselves in a bit of trouble.

Unfortunately, especially considering how poorly they’ve played up to this point in the season, they may have a hard time getting much in return for what have largely appeared to be poor trade assets. Aside from Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert, who the Jazz clearly have no intentions of moving, who would they even be able to give up for any value?

Dante Exum certainly has value in the eyes of the Jazz organization, but now potentially missing his second season in four years will make him less than worthy of a trade to most. Rodney Hood may have some worth, but he’s been far too inconsistent and injured, and the Jazz likely want to see what he can do this year and how much they’ll be able to retain him for once he hits restricted free agency.

Derrick Favors is a similar case, although he is set to hit unrestricted free agency which means unless a team feels like he can have a major impact now and push them towards title contention (which I’m not sure that he could), they might feel it very risky to trade too much for a guy that could very well bolt at the end of the year.

Beyond those guys, who’s all that appealing for the Jazz? Maybe some expiring contract-type guys. But moving them likely wouldn’t push the needle all that much for Utah this year and instead would likely take away the Jazz’s best current asset – their unbelievable financial flexibility in upcoming offseasons.

Therefore, if you hadn’t picked up on it already, rather than take the despicable route of tanking or the knee-jerk route of gutting the roster, at least at this point the Jazz need to resist the urge to hit the panic button and simply stay the course. For one thing, for all of those tanking advocates out there, based on what we’ve seen so far the Jazz are losing plenty of games as it is, thus they may end up with a high pick already without going through the ridiculous exercise of unnecessarily resting players or damaging the culture by purposely seeking losses.

And guess what? If the Jazz turn it around enough to be ninth place in the West instead of 12th, for example, well there’s still plenty of gems in the middle lottery that Utah could scoop up. In fact, I’m sure Donovan Mitchell himself would attest to that.

Not only that, but even though there was some optimism heading into this season that the Jazz could be better than expected, we all knew that this season wasn’t going to be all that spectacular and that the team’s ceiling was likely a second-round playoff appearance at best, if that. We also knew that Utah would use this year to evaluate what it has on the roster, then go on to make the best decisions moving forward.

Even though some of those decisions may not be turning out as we might have thought, that is still exactly what is happening this year. Derrick Favors has a great chance to prove himself with Rudy Gobert sidelined. Rodney Hood has looked better of late. Ricky Rubio has looked awful, but even he still has plenty of time to prove himself before the season’s end.

The point is, though, that the Jazz are either going to turn this around and still be an enjoyable team this year, or they’re going to keep struggling and finish near the bottom of the Western Conference. The only real difference will be a couple of spots in the draft. And in my mind, risking that is much better than risking destroying the culture or irritating a guy like Rudy Gobert by tanking or limiting the team’s flexibility this offseason by trying to move guys prematurely.

This season has been an interesting one so far and may end up feeling quite a bit longer than we originally imagined, but at the end of the day, 2017-18 was never going to be the money-maker year for the Jazz. As soon as Gordon Hayward left the team and Dennis Lindsey and Co. reloaded by adding financially-savvy contracts, we all knew that the 2018 and 2019 offseasons were going to be where Lindsey and the Jazz truly made their moves, be it through trades or free agency.

That still has to be the case. And as much as it sucks to have a poor year, Utah still needs to look ahead to this summer rather than dwell too much on this season. Donovan Mitchell is going to continue to improve. Certain guys will step up or fizzle out making Utah’s decisions easier at the end of the year and eventually things will come together.

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This is no time to panic or tank. It’s time to exercise a word that Jazz fans became all too familiar with from 2013 to 2016. Patience.

If the Jazz organization can do just that, then it’s quite likely that the 2017-18 season will eventually be viewed not as a lost or wasted year, but rather as just a minor bump in the road.