ROUNDBALL DAILY

With Donovan Mitchell and a perfect supporting cast, the Utah Jazz will be contenders for a while

Contending for a title in the NBA is just about the hardest thing to do in sports.

For most teams, it’s a pipe dream–like the future you talk about with your friends in between shifts at your dead-end job.

Not only is the Larry O’Brien naturally titled towards an elite few of the game’s best players, but the teams without them have to clear giant hurdles at every turn.

Not only do you battle LeBron, you battle the refs, the most determinant home field/court advantage in sports, and maybe even the wishes of powerful TV executives, and on and on.

Hope for an NBA title for about 25 of the league’s 30 teams is just as real and palpable as it is for the Reno Bighorns. It’s as attainable as world peace.

Just about 10 months ago, Utah Jazz fans felt that wave of existential depression reserved for the NBA’s purgatorial middle. It’s the same feeling you get after that 568th “Thank You for Applying” email comes back.

The Jazz had just lost their latest franchise player to free agency, seemingly proving that no matter how humble, how grounded, how home-grown the star, not many want to spend their best years in Utah.

But now, less than a year after Jazz fans thought their team was headed back to the lottery for a while, Utah is one of those few franchises that can legitimately claim hope for a gold trophy in the future.

The main reason for this is rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick in last year’s draft, who just finished maybe the best rookie season of any Jazzman (Jazz musician?) (Jazz musician basketball player?) in history.

Mitchell was relatively unheralded out of Louisville, where he showed just flashes of the bouncy, Donald Trump revelation-explosive talent he possesses. But ever since he hit the ground at the Vegas Summer League, he’s become a superstar, and the best true rookie in the NBA this season.

The 21-year-old averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, while shooting 43.7% from the floor. He was fantastic in the first round against the Thunder, racking up 28.5 ppg on 46 percent shooting and turning “Playoff P” into “All Packed for Vacation P.”

There’s legitimate hope that Mitchell, who the Nuggets traded to the Jazz on draft day for Trey Lyles (how stupid was that?!), can become the best player on a title-contending team.

Not many rookies who are the best player on their teams lead those teams into the second round of the playoffs. And not many perform as admirably (Mitchell scored 22 points in a quarter!) once they get there.

It’s not just about Mitchell, of course.

The Jazz have a near-perfect supporting cast around him, including defensive menace Rudy Gobert (10.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg), three-point specialist and first-class instigator Joe Ingles, one of the game’s best perimeter defenders in Jae Crowder, and a talented veteran point guard in Ricky Rubio (13.1 ppg, 5.3 apg).

They’re also led by one of the absolute best coaches in the game, the maniacal Quin Snyder, who has turned this roster into a truly imposing defensive force.

The Jazz led the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage (47.1), finished second in points per game (100.4), and second in defensive rating. They were impenetrable during a 19-2 run in March, that took them from the lottery to as high as No. 3 in the West at one point.

No one would have believed this when Gordon Hayward decided he was shipping up to Boston last summer, but the Jazz are in better shape now than they were before he left.

Utah isn’t a superteam, it doesn’t have LeBron James, and it’s not quite as well-set-up for the future as Philadelphia or Boston. But thanks to a stroke of luck, some great roster-building and suffocating defense, this is a team that will need to be reckoned with for a long time.

 

Also see: Do the Sacramento Kings finally have a young core they can build around? 

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