Playoff basketball is returning to Salt Lake City for the first time in five years, but for seasoned Utah Jazz fans, that shouldn’t be enough.
While it has yet to be determined who will have home court advantage for Utah’s first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers — L.A. needs to beat lowly Sacramento in its season finale to clinch the No. 4 seed — the Jazz are more than capable of making noise in this year’s NBA postseason, which gets under way this weekend.
It has been a long road back to the playoffs for the Jazz, who have made the postseason just one other time since the Jerry Sloan-Deron Williams debacle in 2011. At 50-31, Utah is enjoying its finest season in the past nine years. There’s a lot to be excited about at the corner of 300 West and South Temple in downtown Salt Lake City.
But there’s also the risk of Utah and its fans taking the “happy to be there” approach. And, for a small-market team, that can spell disaster down the road.
Now that the Jazz are in the playoffs, they need to seize the opportunity, particularly in the first round. While the Clippers won three of the four games against the Jazz this year, Utah is certainly capable of beating them, regardless of whether a potential Game 7 is played in Utah or Los Angeles.
Advancing past the first round might be the most the Jazz can hope for with the powerhouse Golden State Warriors looming in the conference semifinals. But it’s certainly something to aspire to, especially with forward Gordon Hayward looking for a new contract.
If the Jazz show they can compete in the playoffs, Hayward’s probably less likely to go searching for that contract elsewhere. The duo of Hayward and center Rudy Gobert seems destined to lead the Jazz to levels not seen since Karl Malone and John Stockton were in their prime, when deep playoff runs were the norm.
A first-round flameout could help push Hayward out the door, leaving Utah to relaunch its rebuilding effort anew –– but, hey, fans will be able to watch the next several years of mediocre Jazz basketball from the comforts of a renovated Vivint Smart Home Arena and its fancy new padded seats.
This year’s playoff appearance is the beginning of a new era in Jazz basketball. This could be the beginning of an Oklahoma City Thunder-type run, with a small-market team establishing itself among the powers of the Western Conference for years on end. Or they could become the mid-2000s Denver Nuggets, who made it a yearly tradition to win 50 games and collapse in the first round of the playoffs.
Or, worse yet, this year could be a one-year blip on the radar screen. Hayward could leave, deciding that a reunion with his college coach, Brad Stevens, makes Boston an attractive option.
The Jazz could go back to winning 35-40 games a season at best, finding themselves in the middle of the draft lottery thanks to being just good enough to avoid being truly awful. Years upon years of mediocre-at-best basketball could follow, with the occasional No. 7or No. 8 playoff seed once every few years.
It could all hinge on what happens over the next couple weeks in their first-round series against the Clippers.
It’s nice to have playoff basketball back in Salt Lake City, where it used to be the norm.
It’s nice to be here again. Jazz fans hope to stay a while.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. While he didn’t grow up as a Jazz fan, he grew up hearing about how great they were at a time when his favorite team was awful. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.