After a five-year run that saw two regular-season MVPs, a 73-win campaign and three NBA championships, Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL has Golden State on the outside looking in. The Warriors will still make a playoff push, and should likely succeed, as a healthy Stephen Curry and reinvigorated Draymond Green can do that for you. But the title no longer runs through Oracle – and not just because they’re leaving Oakland.
Golden State coming up short didn’t just signal the end of a dynasty; it represented a power shift in the NBA. Their loss to Toronto was the first domino to fall over six weeks of player movement that saw six All-NBA members switch teams. The conventional wisdom of the last decade – that you needed three stars to win a ring – had suddenly unraveled and players began doubling up instead of tripling.
The starriest example comes from the Staples Center, where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on one side of the hallway, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the other. On the whole, Los Angeles is now the overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 NBA Championship as Vegas puts the Clippers and Lakers at +350 and +400 respectively. Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia follow these two teams, with one boasting the reigning MVP and the others involved in splashy offseason moves.
There’s another sexy title pick, especially for those that consider themselves in tune with the NBA: the Utah Jazz. The additions of Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanović give the Jazz the much-needed playmaking and shooting they’ve badly missed over the past two postseasons. With them in tow and Rudy Gobert owning the middle, Utah is only one development away from winning the West: Donovan Mitchell becoming the 2006 version of Dwyane Wade.
Mitchell and Wade are often linked and for good reason. They share sizes, athletic abilities and euro-steps. They were both thrust into scoring roles on playoff-ready teams as rookies, and both have now played for Team USA.
Wade isn’t just a comparison for Mitchell, he should be an aspiration as well.
Dwyane Wade’s arrival on the national scene came in his third season. He dominated the 2006 NBA Finals, bringing the HEAT back from 0-2 and giving Miami their first championship. While year three was impressive, his real breakout occurred the year before. In year two, Wade’s numbers looked like this:
24.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds per game on 47.8/28.9/76.2, with an effective field goal percentage of .483.
Now, here’s Donovan Mitchell last year, in his sophomore season:
23.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds per game on 43.2/36.2/80.6, with an effective field goal percentage of .493.
The scoring numbers are almost identical and Mitchell has already proven himself a better three-point shooter. The assist discrepancy is a product of Utah’s reliance on Mitchell to score, causing him to force shots often. Mitchell also started this past season poorly and after the first 33 contests of 2018-19, the athletic guard’s line sat at just 20.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game.
He played the next 44 games at a rate of 26.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game with 44.5/42/82.5 splits.
In 2005-06, Wade averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds a night, all despite being a nonentity from three. That season is eerily similar to the back end of Mitchell’s second-season effort and it should give Jazz fans optimism that he can play at the same level in 2019-20.
Of course, the odds of doing so are in his favor. Conley is as steady as they get, even coming off a career-year in points per game and his highest assist totals since 2012-13. Despite turning 32 years-old in October, he remains an above-average defender. But, most importantly for Mitchell, he’s another ballhandler and playmaker.
Utah has run into a brick wall in Houston during the playoffs each of the last two seasons. While their gimmicky defense and failure to hit open looks contributed to this year’s loss, the overarching struggle was a complete inability, by anyone not named Donovan Mitchell, to create shots. Joe Ingles is serviceable as a third or fourth playmaker as he can attack switches and overzealous closeouts.
But if he’s your second-best playmaker, or becomes the first out of necessity, the offense is in huge trouble.
Simply put, Conley solves that problem. He’ll naturally take loads of pressure off Mitchell, who tied LeBron James with the seventh-highest usage rate at 31.6%. Conley also allows Mitchell to slide back to his natural off-ball role, letting him can catch and swing passes against rotating defenses or run more side pick and roll. Both of these actions get Mitchell opportunities away from the teeth of the defense, which can’t happen when he’s repeatedly forced to initiate offense out high.
Along with Bogdanović, Conley also solves addresses Utah’s often awkward floor spacing troubles. The Jazz spent the last two years with Ricky Rubio at point guard – defense and vision aside, he’s still a below-average shooter that the opposition can leave open during the most important moments. Conley and Bogdanović replacing Rubio and Derrick Favors enables Utah to put three shooters and plus-defenders around Mitchell while the always-effective Rudy Gobert screens or waits in the dunker’s spot.
The newly-added Jeff Green, a healthy Dante Exum and an improving Royce O’Neal round out a solid rotation group. The key, then, is Mitchell. The Jazz figure to remain a top-five defensive team even in a loaded Western Conference, and the offensive mentioned above will make huge strides. However, when April rolls around, the games slow down. Movement-centric offenses don’t always succeed, and defenses break down. To win in the postseason, franchises need to create one-on-one opportunities. Analytics that preach threes, free throws and layups get tossed out the window; the midrange is in play again.
It’s why Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have dominated the postseason for years – they can score from all three levels.
Without a doubt, Mitchell has to be that player for Utah.
He’s the only player on their roster who can potentially match the star-power of other teams. If he regresses in 2019-20, the Jazz will fall victim to the same issues that sent them home the last two years. If he plateaus, they likely won’t have enough to overcome the top-half of the conference.
But, if Donovan Mitchell makes that leap, Utah will have a real chance to win the whole thing and bring their city its first NBA championship.
That sounds a lot like the 2006 HEAT.
Now, all they need is their Dwyane Wade.