Eight teams were eliminated from the NBA playoffs over the last week, and most departed with their heads held high.
The New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors all lasted six games, performing well as underdogs thanks to their promising young cores. The Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls lost in five but will welcome back key players from injuries in 2022-23. And Trae Young's Atlanta Hawks, who were humbled by the top-seeded Miami Heat, were able to claim a moral victory thanks to their gutsy play-in tournament wins.
Two teams, though, were left to do serious soul-searching: The Brooklyn Nets, who must reset their culture to rekindle their title hopes, and the Utah Jazz, who have reached the end of their road together and should be headed for an explosive summer.
While Brooklyn's embarrassing sweep by the Boston Celtics drew plenty of knee jerk criticism, Utah's early exit against the Dallas Mavericks was even bleaker. The Jazz's inability to capitalize on Luka Doncic's injury and their heartbreaking Game 6 loss - a potential game-winning three-pointer by Bojan Bogdanovic bounced off the rim - made it clear that their current core has hit the proverbial wall.
Mike Conley and Bogdanovic are both too old to be major difference-makers in the postseason. Joe Ingles, a valued glue guy for years, suffered a season-ending injury and was dealt at the trade deadline, leaving a gaping hole that was never filled. Key sixth man Jordan Clarkson gets his numbers but does little to impact winning at the highest level, and the rest of the bench is largely made up of stopgap options intended to help Utah reach its first Western Conference finals since 2007. Instead, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and company topped out last year with an impressive 52-20 regular season and a gut-wrenching playoff collapse against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Mitchell and Gobert, of course, sit at the heart of Utah's identity crisis. The two all-stars attempted to patch things up after their public falling out in 2020 in the wake of Gobert's positive coronavirus test, yet Coach Quin Snyder still felt it necessary last month to push back on the notion of a lingering rift. "They sit at the same table when they eat sometimes," Snyder said, a comment that didn't exactly achieve its intended goal.
There are plenty of tension points between Mitchell and Gobert, whose differences have made them quality complements, at times, but also natural targets of divorce speculation.
Mitchell is a ball-dominant guard who is far more proficient at scoring than he is as a playmaker or as a defender. He is younger, more marketable and more calculating than Gobert, and he hinted at his leverage with the small-market Jazz by telling reporters after Game 6 that he would "think about [my future] in a week and go from there."
Gobert is a paint-bound center who excels as a shot-blocker and rebounder but can't shoot outside five feet and can be exploited in space defensively. He is more experienced, more dependable and more committed to the Jazz, although he admitted after the first-round loss that his future in Utah "is out of my control."
Both players had postseasons to forget. Mitchell took a major step back from his past playoff appearances, shooting 39.8 percent from the field and giving poor defensive effort. Gobert stomped around in anger at multiple points during the Dallas series, upset at his teammates over blown coverages and defensive breakdowns.
Unfortunately, the two stars also happen to be extraordinarily expensive: Mitchell will make $30.4 million next season, Gobert will earn $38.2 million and both are under contract through the 2025-26 season. Both Mitchell and Gobert should garner robust interest if and when they are made available, but their contracts are so large that return packages would probably need to be built around lesser players and draft assets.
Handicapping how Utah will approach this summer is impossible. Owner Ryan Smith has been on the job for less than two years, and he has collected a variety of advisers, including CEO Danny Ainge, general manager Justin Zanik and minority owner Dwyane Wade. As a lifelong Jazz fan, Smith would surely prefer that his franchise remain competitive and avoid a complete teardown. At the same time, his payroll ranked sixth this season and he doesn't have much to show for it.
Conventional wisdom suggests trading the 29-year-old Gobert and keeping the 25-year-old Mitchell, much like the Los Angeles Lakers once traded Shaquille O'Neal to retool around Kobe Bryant. Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, could lift teams like the Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards or Orlando Magic into the playoff picture by shoring up their interior. Moving Gobert would probably drop Utah into the play-in mix at best, but it would free Mitchell to have his own franchise and play a more electrifying style while also moving Utah to a more flexible cap position.
Contrarians might encourage the Jazz to retain Gobert and sell off Mitchell, thereby capitalizing on the guard's big-market appeal and the trade premium attached to alpha scorers. While that approach could allow Utah to remain in the playoff mix with a defense-first identity and avoid the possibility of a future trade demand saga involving Mitchell, it would leave the franchise without much in the way of fan appeal or hope for a brighter future.
The most radical move would be to trade both Gobert and Mitchell, clearing their salaries and exorcising past postseason demons with a total makeover. The Jazz could enter garage sale mode and sell off their other veterans in hopes of joining the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder in the annual race for lottery ping-pong balls. But such a dramatic shift might be too much to swallow for a new owner who will be hosting All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City in February.
What makes Smith's summer so fascinating is that he has three distinct paths and no great options. Does the untested Jazz owner want a fun but frivolous future with Mitchell, a respectable but uninspiring outlook with Gobert or a high-risk, high-reward reset without both of them?
The answer to that question will define Smith as an owner and set the tone for the Jazz’s next era. No pressure.