The Utah Jazz quickly slid out of contention for the top spot in the Western Conference. Two weeks away from the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline, the Jazz need to shake some things up to hold on to a top-four spot. Star guard Donovan Mitchell is reportedly unhappy, and Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is nursing a calf injury. Worse, the long-standing tension between the team’s biggest stars is bubbling to the surface again.
Entering the New Year, Utah was 26–9 and 1.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for first place in the West. But while the Jazz are 4–10 in January, the Phoenix Suns seized control of the conference with a blistering 11–1 month. After the Suns swept Utah in a home-and-home set, the Jazz are nine games off the pace and have slid to fourth.
Utah chief executive officer Danny Ainge is running out of time to hit the right notes in Salt Lake City. Here are three moves that might help.
1. The Utah Jazz could be a sneaky contender for Jeremi Grant
The Utah Jazz are in freefall. They’ve lost three straight and five of six. In January, they’ve lost to the woeful Detroit Pistons on the road and at home to the tanking Houston Rockets.
Mitchell has missed the last five games while in concussion protocols. Gobert missed five games in health and safety protocols and last played on Jan. 23 because of an injured calf.
Beyond that, 34-year-old Joe Inglis is showing signs of age, Jordan Clarkson can’t throw a rock in an ocean right now, and the defense looks slow.
Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant could fix some of that. The seven-year veteran enjoyed a breakout season in Motown last season. He nearly doubled his previous career-high, averaging 22.3 points a game. This season, he’s putting up 20.1 points but is shooting 45.5% from 2-point range and 33.1% beyond the arc.
Grant might not like the assessment, but he’d be better as something other than the first option. He had success as a stretch big for the Denver Nuggets and is a capable defender. At the very least, teams must guard him. That’s not always true for Royce O’Neal.
Moving O’Neale to the second unit takes some of the heat off Inglis and Clarkson. Adding Grant to the first five opens more space for Bojan Bogdanović, Mike Conley, and Mitchell to do their thing.
2. Adding a former champion at the NBA trade deadline can’t hurt
According to Sam Amick on The Athletic NBA Show podcast, the Utah Jazz are taking a long look at Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes before the NBA trade deadline.
Barnes is quietly having another solid year for the Kings, averaging 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 48.1% inside the arc and a career-high 41.1% outside it.
In Utah, the 29-year-old brings the credibility of two title runs early in his career with the Golden State Warriors. Deemed expendable when the Warriors brought in Kevin Durant in 2016, Barnes fell off the NBA map in 2019 when dealt to Sacramento.
Playing for a team with playoff hopes could revive Barnes at the defensive end. Like Grant, Barnes would give the starting unit more gravity and spacing while allowing coach Quin Snyder to get younger legs off the bench in O’Neale.
Much heralded coming out of high school, Barnes never quite lived up to the next-superstar billing. But he’s a solid pro who can rebound and shoot from outside — a prototype stretch 4.
If Ainge can add the 10-year veteran while navigating the troubled relationship between the team’s two stars, it could go a long way toward getting Utah trending in the right direction.
3. The Utah Jazz must get Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert together
Mitchell and Gobert have never had a great relationship. Nothing the Utah Jazz do at the NBA trade deadline will matter if they can’t clear the air between their two stars.
In the wake of the loss at Detroit, Mitchell sounded the alarm, per Tony Jones of The Athletic.
“We’re fooling ourselves if you think we can win a championship playing like this,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to guard, man. We’ve got to just guard the ball … there really ain’t much else to it.”
According to Sarah Todd of the Deseret News, Gobert made it more personal with a veiled shot at his high-scoring teammate.
“Devin Booker is playing his a** off defensively,” Gobert said. “I’ve been watching him compared to two years ago, and guys like that, they buy in, and you can tell they take pride in playing defense, stopping their man, doing whatever they can do to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture. I just think we’re not there yet, but I think we’re going to get there.”
Teams have won before with their stars not always aligned (see Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant). But the Jazz haven’t advanced past the second round since 2007. Despite the NBA’s best record last season, Utah blew a 2–0 series lead to a Clippers team that played the final two games of the series without injured Kawhi Leonard.
The Utah Jazz need to make something happen at the NBA trade deadline. Age is catching up to this group. But there’s no trade out there that will fix the Mitchell-Gobert dynamic. That has to happen organically.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.