SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Coming close isn’t good enough for the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz were a play or two away from advancing out of the first round of the NBA playoffs earlier this year. But turnovers and missed shots at critical times cost them against Denver and ultimately led to Utah collapsing after taking a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets.
Now the Jazz are determined to write a different story in the upcoming season.
“We’re not forgetting we blew a 3-1 lead,” guard Donovan Mitchell said. “We lost in the first round. There’s no time for that. There’s no time for slow starts. We can’t be complacent when we’re up.”
Utah did not make a splash with several big-name free agent signings or trades like a year ago, choosing to leave the roster from last season mostly intact. The Jazz worked to lock down core players like Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson with new contracts and also brought back longtime Jazz big man Derrick Favors after he spent a season with New Orleans.
Mitchell’s continued growth as an NBA All-Star may serve as a barometer for how far this team can go. He took his ability to create on offense to a higher level against the Nuggets in the postseason, averaging 36.3 points on 52.9% shooting through seven games. Mitchell scored 24 points per game on 44.9% shooting during the regular season.
Another key is how well veterans like Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Bojan Bogdanovic progress as complementary pieces around Mitchell in the offense. All three players proved their value at different times last season.
A sense of urgency permeates everything the Jazz want to do now that so many players return who are familiar with what coach Quin Snyder wants to do on offense and defense.
“We want to be a great team,” center Rudy Gobert said. “There’s steps we need to take. We are getting better individually and now collectively every single year. Obviously, last year, it didn’t really translate because we lost in the first round. But we really felt like we could have ended up in the Western Conference finals.”
Utah’s highest profile free-agent acquisition during a truncated offseason turned out to be a familiar face. Favors returned to the team where he spent 8½ of his first nine seasons.
During his first stint with the Jazz, Favors posted averages of 12.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. Utah traded him to New Orleans in 2019 as a cost-cutting move so the Jazz could sign Bogdanovic. Favors appeared in 51 games for the Pelicans, averaging 9.0 points and 9.8 rebounds.
He is happy to be back after a one-year absence.
“I wanted to come back,” Favors said. “I wanted to play for Coach Quin. He’s like my favorite coach in the world right now. I love the organization. I love the city. It just felt right.”
Utah carved out a reputation as an elite defensive team under Snyder. Gobert earned back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2018 and 2019. As a team, the Jazz have consistently ranked among the top of the league in defensive efficiency.
Until last season.
Defensive struggles became pronounced for Utah as the season progressed. The Jazz struggled to bottle up shooters on the perimeter and it eventually became their undoing in the playoffs. They finished with a 109.9 defensive rating, ranking 13th among 30 NBA teams. Utah ranked second overall in the same category in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
“What this group needs to do is continue to focus on the defense,” Snyder said. “Adjusting to one another defensively is real. You can adjust to one another on the offensive end. But at the same time, defensively, we’ve got to do the same thing.”
Bogandovic’s late-season absence after undergoing season-ending wrist surgery over the summer loomed large for the Jazz. They missed his outside shooting and offensive versatility in the bubble and could never quite fill the gap.
The forward is back in action and feeling healthy. It offers an encouraging sign for a Utah offense where Bogdanovic emerged as a reliable No. 2 scorer alongside Mitchell last season. Through 63 games, he had a career-high 20.2 points per game while shooting 44.7% from 3-point range.
“This is the first time in my life that I didn’t play for this long,” Bogdanovic said. “Even just like pick-up games or preseason games or whatever, so it was kind of strange for me, but I really wanted to play to get that good feeling back. I’m happy that I am back.”