Not everyone is a hardcore Utah Jazz fan.
As I’ve gone through the summer barbecues and parades, I keep running into friends and family members who aren’t perhaps as plugged into the NBA scene with the same religious fervor as some of us nerds.
For those more well-adjusted people, the Jazz have been doing some pretty confusing things. First, they traded Rudy Gobert, their All-NBA and Defensive Player of the Year stalwart, without getting an elite player in return. Now, they’re hearing that the Jazz are looking to trade 25-year-old star guard Donovan Mitchell too.
Why would the Jazz do that?
Here’s how I’ve tried to explain it to my friends and family. You’re welcome to forward it on to yours, too.
The status quo was untenable
Exactly nobody was interested in extending the tenure of last season’s team.
It wasn’t just one thing that caused the strife. True, there was a disconnect between Mitchell and Gobert. There was discord between multiple players and the coaching staff with regard to their roles on the team. And head coach Quin Snyder felt that the team would benefit most from a “new voice,” feeling that he couldn’t get the players to the heights both wanted to achieve.
Frustration never really boiled over — there were no major incidents, no demands to leave. But I think that likely would have been the consequence of another season built around this group of players had they all stayed around.
There was no way to improve
Beyond that, past moves had put the Jazz in an impossible position.
New CEO Danny Ainge wrapped it up this way: “The season wasn’t very much fun this year. The draft wasn’t very much fun. Free agency wasn’t very much fun. We were over the tax, [had] no draft picks, and our team loses in the first round. It wasn’t fun for us. We want it to be fun for our fans and our players, but we just haven’t had much flexibility to do anything over the last little while.”
The former team vice president, Dennis Lindsey, had signed players to deals that eventually overpaid them when compared to their on-court value. The Jazz had to dump Derrick Favors’ contract, losing a 2024 first-round pick in the process. They lost two second-round picks trading backup center Ed Davis, one while trading little-used guard Rayjon Tucker, one while trading former first-round draft pick Tony Bradley.
Lindsey, and assistant general manager Justin Zanik, traded future second-round picks for reserves Matt Thomas and Eric Paschall. Ainge also sent two second-round picks out in the Joe Ingles trade. Finally, the team had no 2022 first-round pick, thanks to the trade that landed veteran point guard Mike Conley in Utah.
The Jazz also had no room in the free-agency market, beyond a paltry mid-level exception.
Even acquiring a useful player there wouldn’t have outweighed the likely regression of a 36-year-old Rudy Gay, a 35-year-old Mike Conley, and a 33-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic.
With or without a new coach, I don’t believe the Jazz were going to improve on 49 wins in 2022-23 — or 2023-24 for that matter. They were stuck.
Donovan Mitchell likely leaves Utah when his contract ends
That explains why the Jazz felt they needed to make major changes, including getting a haul of future assets for Rudy Gobert. But why now are they looking to trade Mitchell?
Well, let’s start with this: the overwhelming feeling among league insiders is that Mitchell is likely to sign outside of Utah at the first available opportunity in 2025.
Mitchell considers New York home. Mitchell has spent the majority of this offseason in New York this year. His skills trainer, Chris Brickley, operates out of a gym in the city. It makes sense that he’d be interested in living there full time.
There are other places he’s reportedly interested in — Miami being a candidate as well. There’s a sense that many in Mitchell’s team would prefer he play in a larger market than Utah. Such a market would likely earn him a bigger profile, and perhaps more money, from sponsors.
There are sociopolitical issues in Utah, too. Mitchell has been outspoken about incidents of racism of Utah, especially when directed at kids. He spoke out against Utah’s critical race theory resolution, which earned him derision from Utah Senate president Stuart Adams.
The Jazz have no realistic chance of winning a title between now and then
Why not keep Mitchell until 2025 then, or at least until closer to that date? Well, the Jazz simply don’t have a realistic path to winning an NBA championship before then.
Mitchell is a bonafide All-Star, a very good player — but not a great one. He has yet to be named to an All-NBA team, yet to be considered one of the three best players at his position. He is not at the level of a LeBron James, a Kevin Durant, a Steph Curry, a Kawhi Leonard, a Giannis Antetokounmpo, players who can drag their teams to a title run.
Looking at the Jazz’s assets, even after the Gobert trade, it’s hard to imagine them putting together a team that would be a true title contender. They’d likely need to acquire a player like Kevin Durant to be their true No. 1 — but the Jazz don’t have a player that would make sense as a centerpiece in a deal like that. Their newly impressive collection of picks can get a player like Gobert or Dejounte Murray, but they fall short of that standard needed.
There are examples of teams winning without those super-duper-uber stars, but they needed a truly impressive collection of role players. The 2004 Pistons needed all of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace to shock the world — let alone helpful guys like former Jazzman Memo Okur off the bench. With Utah’s roster aging out, the odds of putting together all of those players needed to win a title borders on the impossible.
The NBA isn’t about being good, it’s about being great
There’s dignity in the fight, though, right? Why can’t the Jazz simply be a perennial playoff team around Mitchell, win a majority of games every year, and keep fans interested — just like John Stockton and Karl Malone did for over a decade until they finally broke through in 1997?
Essentially, NBA culture has changed. The goal is no longer to win games and to be profitable. The goal is to win an NBA championship. Multiple championships, in fact.
Some of this comes back to the treatment of NBA legends like Stockton, Malone, Charles Barkley and the like, who never ended up breaking through to get a ring. So-called “Ringzzz” culture has denigrated those athletes, in service of those who did win titles. The number of rings as a be-all, end-all point for those in favor of, say, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant has skewed the picture.
It also can be explained by the NBA’s financial landscape. Thanks to the NBA’s revenue-sharing program, teams are nearly guaranteed to make money, no matter how they perform on the court. Exploding franchise values mean that even a small loss will be recouped many times over, with franchises worth 10 times more than they were just 15 years ago. The national TV deal is now the largest source of income. Survival is no longer a concern — teams will continue to exist, and operators make money, if their buildings are half-full.
Finally, the NBA’s playoff structure provides no incentive for marginal success. In the NFL, a middling team can have a lucky streak for four games and win a title. In baseball and hockey, a team can find a hot pitcher or a hot goalie and shock the world. It’s nearly impossible for underdogs to win in the NBA. Each game has a sample size of 100 possessions. Each series is a best of seven. The best team nearly always wins.
Nor are there regular-season incentives for success in the NBA. There’s no trophy for the best regular-season team. Regular-season high seeds get just one more home game, played on a court with the same dimensions, than their opponents. The only difference is high-pitched cheers vs. low-pitched boos for the players to dribble through.
It means that if you’re stuck in good-but-not-great non-contention, like the Jazz are, you’re in no-man’s land. You have to go either up or down. Unfortunately, the Jazz don’t have a logical pathway to go upwards to a title.
As a result, their only logical path is toward the bottom of the league: to try to draft other stars, on a longer timeline, and open up a window later.
That’s why, just as they did with Gobert, they’re looking to trade Mitchell for future picks and younger players — ones that might be part of the next Jazz team to bring a championship to Utah.