In two years, the Utah Jazz have jumped from the league’s best record into tear-down mode. Once Donovan Mitchell is traded, they will officially enter the strangely romanticized sphere of tanking teams, abiding by the current basketball belief that if you aren’t a championship contender, you must burn everything and begin anew.
I am conflicted because I like basketball and I like competition. Teams like Philadelphia and Oklahoma City have unabashedly tanked their way up the draft board, landing the most valuable commodities in sports (talented, high-upside rookies on cheap contracts) via The Process. Both teams have taken advantage of the paradox created and allowed by the NBA: they want teams to be competitive night-in, night-out; but the highest likelihood of obtaining star-level talent comes from tanking and drafting high. As we have seen over the last decade, it is impossible for both of these concepts to exist simultaneously.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and naturally must turn into the old man shaking his fist at the sky, maybe it’s because my favorite sport (college football) is being irrevocably altered by a lack of focused direction, but as tanking has been prioritized and celebrated within the NBA, my interest has started to wane. I’ve discovered the thing I truly want as a fan: teams who are continually willing to compete, night-in, night-out. If the people who are involved with the game itself don’t care, how can I?
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Which leads to my conflict with the Jazz, the lone professional team in my home state. The Gobert/Mitchell core had reached its ceiling: a good team, but not a great team. Nobody believed Utah, without sweeping roster changes, was capable of winning a championship. And everybody believes, including me, that Utah’s current path—bringing in noted demolition expert Danny Ainge to wrap TNT around the foundation and push the plunger—is its best chance to obtain a star. But even as my brain comprehends the statistical correctness of the path, my heart mourns the loss of competitive basketball and seethes at the league that enables it.
Many fans will be energized by Utah accumulating near-infinite draft assets and praying one (or two) of them hits. Maybe one of them will. Maybe this will mark a turning point for Utah’s franchise, akin to Tim Duncan being drafted #1 by the Spurs and creating magic in San Antonio. Or maybe it will just result in a decade-long story arc like the Sixers are living, years of tanking used to construct a roster that is really good, but probably not championship quality. Sound familiar?
Required listening for the week:
- The Utah Jazz are committed to a full-scale teardown. Is the path forward for Utah energizing or demoralizing?
- A discussion of the various ways to unlock the mind, featuring the words of author George Saunders, Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis, and golfers Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods.
- Winning a championship is all about versatility. Nowhere is this more true than at The Old Course at St. Andrews, site of the 150th Open, where Cam Smith became a major champion.