On Monday morning, Jazz CEO Danny Ainge commented at a press conference on his reasons for ending the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell era of Utah Jazz basketball.
Ainge had a lot of thoughts on why the team performed how they did.
“What I saw during the season, was a group of players that really didn’t believe in each other. Like the whole group, I think they liked each other more than what was reported...but I am not sure there was a belief...so when we got to the playoffs, I thought, well, this is a team that has had some disappointing playoffs...and maybe they’re just waiting for the playoffs. And so I gave them that benefit of the doubt...but it was clear the team didn’t perform well in the playoffs, again. This was something that we discussed internally between all of us and I think it was unanimous that this was the direction we needed to go.”
This is a master class in media spin. Stating the team got along when it is widely reported that their two stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell did not care for each other is a tidy bit of housekeeping. During the season, now departed head coach Quinn Snyder did his best to camouflage the painfully obvious chemistry issues. Usually, there is an “if there’s smoke, there’s fire” reason for a coach to detail to the media that two embattled stars are occasionally eating lunch together. But Ainge realizes there is no upside in detailing those personality conflicts after both players are already shipped out of town.
Ainge then pivots to the notion that it was simply a lack of belief that kept the Jazz from succeeding during the season, and in particular, in their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks.
Even though they were the fifth in playoff seating, enough national pundits picked Utah to prevail. One has to imagine that the timing of Luka Doncic’s left calf strain in the final game of the regular season made the Mavericks appear vulnerable to the Jazz brain trust. The job was simple. Step out to a commanding early series lead while Dallas was without their superstar.
Yet, we all watched the Mavericks outplay and outcoach the Jazz over the course of six games. The defining Game 3 stands out. Still without their best player, the Mavericks went into the hostile confines of Vivant Arena and shot the lights out. While Game 7 against the Suns will be remembered far more in a few years, the victory in Game 3 against Utah flipped the script and positioned Dallas to make a deep playoff run that shocked the NBA world.
All too often, predictions are made nationally based on perceived star power. With Doncic initially sidelined in the series, the door was wide open for Mitchell and Gobert to step through and advance. That same opportunity was seized by a group of Mavericks players who were largely unheralded on the national stage. Maxi Kleber, Davis Bertans, and Josh Green combined for 11 out of 17 from downtown. PandaHank’s stellar highlight package is worth another look.
It wasn’t a lack of belief that ended the Jazz season. It was the better team, the Dallas Mavericks.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst believes that Ainge dialed back his response by 50 to 70 percent. This makes me think the unvarnished answer to the same question would have been refreshing to hear. Ainge’s actual rationale for trading away his stars for a mountain of draft picks likely extends far beyond something as nebulous as players believing in each other.