NBA, Utah Jazz

This Utah Jazz season has a lot of the same notes as the last

The Utah Jazz’s second-half surge is not necessarily a reprise of last season’s stunning playoff push.

Quin Snyder isn’t interested in looking backward.

“This whole season, I think we’ve tried to get away from the whole idea of déjà vu,” he told reporters after a recent game against Golden State.

The resemblance between this season and last season is hard to ignore. Last season’s Utah Jazz finished the regular season with a 29-6 record after starting the year 19-28. They earned the No. 5 seed in the West and beat the favored Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round before falling to the Houston Rockets in five games.

This season’s Jazz didn’t start quite as poorly — they were 20-21 after 41 games — but they did drop as low as 14th in the West. However, they have won 12 of the last 16 games, have risen to sixth place in the conference and are within striking distance of home-court advantage in the first round.

Snyder carefully pushes back on the idea of history repeating itself. (“I hate to rain on your parade,” he said in response to The Step Back’s question about comparing both seasons.) After all, the idea is to get better, not to stay the same.

“Earlier in the year you feel like you’re the same team so you should have the same results, maybe, but there’s so many different variables: the West is different, we had Dante [Exum] back. Sometimes it’s like the butterfly effect, there’s one thing that’s different but it has an impact that changes a lot,” Snyder said. “So I think our group, our path this season is just about discovering who this team is, and I think that’s ongoing. I still think that we’re a team that’s evolving, and hopefully in the right direction.”

Things are looking up. After slogging through the third-most difficult schedule in the league before the All-Star break, the Jazz have the third-easiest remaining schedule.

Over the last 16 games, the Jazz have the league’s 13th best offense and second-best defense in rating, up from 21st and fifth, respectively. While the defense has been elite all season, the offense’s leap coincided with Mitchell getting over the sophomore wall.

After a sensational rookie season, Mitchell faced high expectations in, this, his second year. At the beginning of the year, he had a propensity to shoot his way out of problems. During a December stretch in which the Jazz went 7-7, Mitchell shot 38.1 percent on 17.6 attempts per game and averaged just 2.9 assists as Utah’s primary shot-creator.

His numbers are still a hair below those of his rookie season, but they are climbing. Over the last 16 games, Mitchell is ninth in the league with 27.3 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting and, more importantly, the assists are up to 5.4 per game. He is more closely resembling the player who led the Jazz to a first-round series win in last season’s playoffs.

Mitchell fell to Utah and dragged them out of the typical haze that befalls teams following the emigration of a franchise player. He is the foundation upon which Utah’s future will be built, and general manager Dennis Lindsey is already trying to get him help.

Several key players were involved in public trade rumors leading up to last week’s NBA trade deadline. As The Athletic’s Tony Jones reported, a potential deal for Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley involving current guard Ricky Rubio came down to the wire. Nothing happened, and now the team (and especially Rubio) can exhale and move on.

“Do I like it?” Rubio asked in response to a question about trade rumors, per The Athletic. “No. I hate it … the team, sometimes, upstairs, they don’t feel like chemistry matters. Sometimes, it matters more than anything.”

The Jazz hope the drama — the rough start, the trade rumors —  is in the rearview mirror. While they don’t assume a second-half surge like last season is predetermined, there is a confidence that the team’s best basketball is ahead of them.

“When you’ve faced some adversity, you have a touchstone, you have a reference point. I think that was probably relevant for us earlier in the year when we played a pretty tough schedule, and I don’t think we were as good a team as we are now,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to be better, we’re trying to be good, but I think that our guys know that it’s possible to improve throughout the season, it’s possible to improve in season, and that’s been the goal for us from the beginning is to maximize this group and to max out what we have.”

For as well as the Jazz are playing right now, the West still runs through the Warriors, and games against the champs can be a humbling referral. Before the reprieve of the All-Star break, the Jazz had one such test in Oakland.

“I don’t know that this game is going to be pivotal in the rest of the year for us — if it’s a springboard or it knocks us back — it could be any of the above,” Snyder said before the game. “But I do think it’s an opportunity for us to, in a singular game, for us to test ourselves on some level against the best team in the league.”

After 36 minutes of basketball, the Jazz led the Warriors 84-81 with one quarter left to play. Four 3s and 19 points from the splash brothers later, and Utah lost 115-108. In three meetings this season, the Jazz lost each game by one, five and seven points.

“They’re the back-to-back champions and it’s a good thing to be able to play them as well as we have,” Mitchell said at his locker after the game. “But the big thing is continuing to improve, find ways to improve and get better, just another step. We got 10 days until we play again, and we can’t lose that edge at all.”

The Jazz are confident they won’t. The All-Star break politely interrupted their run last season, too. They are healthy and, after the break, they’ll be rested. A few minutes after treating his knees to ice wraps, Rudy Gobert told reporters, trust, the Jazz will make the playoffs (no guarantee in the West) and the focus will simply be on getting better.

“We can play with the best teams, I think we all know that. And now the time is to take the next step.”

Next: Forget the NBA All-Star Game, let’s do a midseason tournament

What that next step looks like, however, is the question. The team will ultimately be measured by its performance in the playoffs, but there’s already a pretty clear sense of what the ceiling is. Save for a Kyle Korver-Alec Burks swap, the Jazz have been virtually the same team over the last two seasons. Functionally, this is still the team built around Gordon Hayward. Lindsey could have as much as $39 million to spend this summer to rebuild the team around Mitchell. Two starters –Rubio and Derrick Favors — are not guaranteed to return. Conley is still out there.

There’s a good chance next season’s team doesn’t encounter the familiar sense of déjà vu. Or, if they do, maybe they’ll embrace it a little bit more.

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