Besides teams playing good basketball, there’s something appealing about a well-run basketball organization. There’s no one right way to build an NBA team, but when considering that factor into who to root for in the Western Conference playoff race, the Utah Jazz deserve one of the two remaining spots over the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
What did the Jazz do that was so great? Nothing special. One might even say that not re-signing Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in 2013 was a tanking they should be punished for. But the Jazz didn’t tank. They didn’t see value in competing for these players in the open market (although Millsap leaving was probably something they should have avoided considering the deal he got in Atlanta) . They actually went 43-39 before starting over with a rebuild that built a team around Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward while changing things around them in motion.
Enes Kanter might have been one of those pieces, but the Jazz went with a defensive identity, something Kanter has zero connection with. They won 25 games in 2013-2014, 38 games last season and are at 40 this year, a weird one by Western Conference standards. What will get them in the postseason for the first time since 2012? The 42 magic number clinches it, but considering how bad the Houston Rockets are, 41 could do to.
The Jazz didn’t destroy themselves only to be built up again. They had young players they liked and saw potential in, while in or slightly past prime players like Jefferson stood in the way, not to mention being too expensive. In the luxury tax reality for a franchise based in Salt Lake City, compromises need to be made. The new salary cap helps, with the Jazz built to probably contend with another piece or two. If Dante Exum hadn’t been injured before the season began, who knows if they wouldn’t be playing for higher seeds.
Not a lot connects the Mavericks and the Rockets besides being in-state rivals. But there are parallels. Mark Cuban isn’t the genius basketball mind he thinks he is. The moment the luxury tax became a thing, his prowess of building teams disappeared. Since winning the NBA championship in 2011, the Mavericks haven’t won a single playoff series, and settling for mediocrity while missing on every big free agent signing they’ve aimed for, including DeAndre Jordan, says something about what big-time players think of playing there, despite the head coach and the Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs are unlikely to miss the playoffs this season, but it’s not like they were much different than in previous, slighlty above average seasons.
And the Houston Rockets? Daryl Morey believes in numbers and analytics, but it doesn’t seems like he builds his team that way. Getting James Harden via trade made them relevant again, but it also created a monster. Instead of building the right team, they got caught up in the concept of superstars, adding Dwight Howard, who is now looking like a shell of himself. There’s no chemistry, and there seems to be no future at the moment without a major overhaul. Making everything about Harden and a little bit about Howard while neglecting everyone else created paved the road of losing in the conference finals one year and almost being out of the playoffs the next.
How does this end? Two games left for all three of them. The Jazz even meet the Mavericks next in a game the Rockets are hoping for a Dallas win, while needing to take care of their own business, which has been very difficult for them to do on a consistent basis. For the Jazz, making or missing the playoffs, they seem to be on the right path. For both Dallas and Houston, this feels like the end of the line, or a reminder that with these rosters, they’re not winning or contending for anything anytime soon.