• Nick Boylan

Utah Jazz: A Rollercoaster Season In Review

With Mike Conley’s buzzer-beating three-point attempt rimming out in Game 7 of the opening round of the 2020 playoffs, a rollercoaster season for the Utah Jazz came to an end. The club blew a commanding 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, despite Donovan Mitchell’s extraordinary heroics. The Jazz’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion.

It was a rough way to end such a fluctuating year for the Jazz, who finished the regular season with a 44-28 record as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Not quite the showing Utah was hoping for.

In the offseason, Utah had acquired veteran point guard Mike Conley, top-tier scorer Bojan Bogdanović, and role players Emmanuel Mudiay, Jeff Green and Ed Davis, all in a pursuit to skyrocket into Western Conference contendership. On paper these signings looked to give the Jazz the offensive help and depth its roster definitely needed; things didn’t pan out that way.

There were positive moments for the Jazz, with All-Star debuts for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Spida’s playoff emergence pushed the third-year guard further into stardom as the franchise’s leader.

Inconsistencies, below-par play, and injuries kept the Jazz in the middle of the pack in the West, rather than in the conference’s upper echelon.

It was such a topsy-turvy season, even without the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. Utah had plenty of things that have gone right and wrong, while leaving much to work on for further success next season.

What went right?

Donovan Mitchell’s postseason

Prior to arriving in Orlando, Donovan Mitchell’s third season showed progress, though not a drastic uptick in form. Earning his first NBA All-Star selection, Mitchell posted career highs in points per game (24.2) three-point percentage (36.4) and field goal percentage (45.3), but it still felt like there was still more untapped potential.

With the apparent fracture in Mitchell’s relationship with Rudy Gobert following the team’s COVID outbreak, there were legitimate question marks about how the pair would approach the offseason. A season-ending wrist injury to Bojan Bogdonavić - the club’s third best player - only heightened these woes.

After continuing to work on his patience on the offensive end while growing as a facilitator, Mitchell’s arrival in the postseason was nothing short of explosive. With the offensive pressure firmly on Mitchell’s shoulders, the former Louisville Cardinal ran with that responsibility.

Over the seven game series against the Nuggets, Mitchell posted averages of 36.3 points, 5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, while shooting 52.9 percent from the field, 51.6 percent from deep, and 94.8 percent from the free-throw line.

Those insane scoring numbers were punctuated by two 50-point performances. Mitchell’s 57 points in Game 1 was the third-highest scoring performance in NBA playoff history.

The series showed the maturity in Mitchell’s game, and his ability to recognize when to put the foot on the gas by scoring from all areas of the floor. Likewise, he showed a knack for knowing when to be more of a facilitator like in this play to Georges Niang in Game 2.

While Mitchell wasn’t able to drag the Jazz over the line in Game 7, the young star’s growth in the postseason was impressive and set the bar high for next season. So much so, that Spida is set for a new max contract extension soon.

Bojan Bogdanovic’s arrival as an offensive star

The Jazz have every reason to be bullish about their championship pursuit next season, with a healthy Bogdanović set to return. The Croatian settled into Utah’s starting five with aplomb, posting career-high scoring numbers. Bogdanović posted 20.2 points per game, on nearly 55 percent from the field, 41.4 percent from 3-point range, and 90.3 percent from the free-throw line, cementing his spot as the second-leading scorer on the Jazz.

As the Utah offense struggled to generate looks beyond Mitchell last season, Bogdanović quickly assumed the complementary scoring role. Whether it was spot-up shooting or creating his own look, the 31-year old was one of only four players in the entire NBA to average over 20 points per game while shooting 40 percent or better from deep.

More than his stats will show, Bogdanović’s ability to shoulder offensive responsibilities was crucial to Mitchell getting a much needed reprieve. Able to dominate quarters in a flurry of shots and also be trusted with multiple game-winners like the one below, the former Pacer has been a home-run signing for the Jazz, and one who was sorely missed in the playoffs.

The signing of Jordan Clarkson

With Utah’s bench ranking 28th in scoring by December, it was clear the Jazz second unit needed re-tooling. The Jazz finally called it quits on 2014 No.5 overall pick Dante Exum, sending the Australian point guard and two future second-round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for another 2014 draftee Jordan Clarkson.

Utah sought to add a much needed spark plug to the second unit. Prior to the trade, Clarkson was averaging a respectable 14.6 points on 37.1 percent from deep.

In Clarkson’s first game, against Portland, he showed that microwave scoring ability by pouring in nine points in nine minutes, transforming the game completely. Three games later, he scored 20 for Utah - no other Jazz player had achieved this in fewer than 30 games.

With Utah Clarkson averaged 15.6 points per game while shooting 36 percent from deep. He provided that needed offensive punch and looked like he finally had found the right fit.

Back with Cleveland, Clarkson struggled mightily in the postseason. He averaged just 4.7 points per game in the 2018 playoffs. With the Jazz, though, Clarkson showed he could contribute in the postseason, with 16.7 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting from the field and 34.7 percent from deep against the Nuggets.

Gary Harris’ return coincided with two of Clarkson’s weaker performances in the series, posting 11 and 10 points in Games 6 and 7 respectively. This was due to not only Harris’ fantastic perimeter defense but also the over-reliance on Clarkson to be the only Jazz bench player to score.

While the sixth-man did re-energize this bench, Utah’s second unit still ranked 19th in scoring through the rest of the season after Clarkson’s arrival.

The 28-year old showed more than enough production in the postseason that he ought to be the number one offseason priority for Utah’s front office. Clarkson is an impending unrestricted free agent who no doubt has earned his fair share of suitors.

However the Jazz do possess the scorer’s bird rights, giving them the ability to go above the salary cap to secure Clarkson. Jazz fans will hope that playing under head coach Quin Snyder and playing the most consistent basketball of his career will convince Clarkson to sign in Salt Lake City.

What went wrong?

The supplementary off-season moves

Although Bogdanvoić, Clarkson, and Conley (more on him later) were successful offseason and mid-season acquisitions, the Jazz’s other moves didn’t boost the second unit as much as the front office would have liked.

After seeing Derrick Favors sign for the New Orleans Pelicans, the Jazz made the shrewd move of acquiring veteran big man Ed Davis on a two-year $9.7 million deal. Davis had impressed as a reserve big man for Brooklyn the previous season.

Unfortunately, Davis wouldn’t work out as a member of the Utah Jazz. He averaged career-lows in scoring, games played, rebounds, minutes played, and field goal percentage. After ranking in the 87th percentile as an interior defender in four years prior to this season, the 31-year old slipped to 59th.

Add in games lost to injury and the steady improvement of young big man Tony Bradley, and Davis’ papers were stamped. Davis was also ineffective in the pick-and-roll, which, in turn, impacted Joe Ingles. The Australian swingman's offensive game struggled without adequate space.

Snyder eventually pulled Davis from the rotation entirely. Finding a reserve big who can finish inside while providing steady defense will be another key move for the Jazz front office to make in the offseason.

In other moves, Jeff Green’s stint with his eighth NBA team was short-lived. Utah waived Green in December who ended up playing meaningful minutes during the Rockets’ postseason. Emmanuel Mudiay, meanwhile, wasn’t solid enough to earn playoff minutes in Utah.

Big man Georges Niang showed some progression as a bench shooter (40 percent from deep on 3.4 attempts per game), but overall the bench unit for the Jazz was a glaring hole exposed by deeper rosters. Just ask the Denver Nuggets.

The supporting cast in the playoffs

Poor signings and bad luck meant Utah’s rotational players couldn’t be consistently relied on. As such, the best Jazz players faced added pressure.

Joe Ingles’ up-and-down season continued in the playoffs; the Australian shot only 35 percent from deep, and really struggled on defense. While Ingles had a defensive box plus/minus of 3.4 in last year’s playoffs, that number dropped to -0.2 against the Nuggets this year.

Not alone in that regard, Royce O’Neale’s play was especially eye-raising, and for the wrong reasons. Fresh off receiving a four-year contract extension, the Utah’s best on-ball defender was alarmingly porous on that end of the floor.

O’Neale’s defensive box plus/minus mark dropped from 2.2 in the regular season to 1.6 in the playoffs, and he was unable to stop Jamal Murray as the Nuggets guard poured in two incredible 50+ point games.

While not known as an offensive dynamo, O’Neale only scored over double-digits just once with 10 points in Game 5. Ingles’ scoring also fell away after 19 and 18 points in Game 1 and 2 respectively, only eclipsing the double-digit mark in points in Game 5 for the rest of the series.

In Bogdanović’s absence, the play of both O’Neale and Ingles’ struggles proved to be costly to Utah’s championship pursuit.

What needs work?

Finding the right five-man group AKA what to do with Mike Conley?

Arguably THE marquee addition to Utah’s squad for the 2019-20 season, Mike Conley’s veteran leadership and well-rounded point guard acumen had Jazz fans excited to see the former-Grizzly join Mitchell in the backcourt.

For a variety of reasons, however, Conley’s first season in Utah disappointed. Injuries plagued the veteran, meaning assimilation into coach Snyder’s system took added time.

It looked like Conley had turned the corner prior to the NBA season coming to a halt on March 11, playing much closer to what the Jazz front office expected. In seven games prior to the NBA season stopping, Conley was scoring 16.1 points per game on 45.8 percent from deep. Importantly, he looked comfortable on both ends of the floor for the first time all year.

That confidence and consistency continued in the Bubble. Conely missed a chunk of time to be at his wife’s side for the birth of their third child, but he did return for Game 3. He was scorching from downtown, and shot 60.7 percent from Games 3 to 6.

With the season on the line, however, Conley disappointed. He went just 1 of 6 from deep, in many ways negating the impressive 19.8 points and 5.2 assists he had averaged in the three previous postseason games.

Looking ahead, can the 33-year old continue this play? And is he more suited for a starting role alongside Mitchell or as a sixth man?

With Conley largely sidelined due to injury, Utah’s most used line-up featured Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanović, O’Neale and Gobert. That five posted:

  • Offensive Rating: 116.7

  • Defensive Rating: 103.3

  • Net rating: 13.7

With Conley swapped for Ingles, which was common when the guard was healthy, the stats become:

  • Offensive Rating: 113.0

  • Defensive Rating: 103.3

  • Net Rating: 9.7

A major reason why that works is that Ingles in the starting lineup best utilises the Aussie’s playmaking skills, both in the pick-and-roll with Gobert, and also setting up shooters. When Ingles shares the court with both Conley and Mitchell, too many possessions end up with the man from Adelaide stuck in the corner being inactive.

Finding the best lineups to allow all members of the Jazz is crucial, and that may mean that Conley spends some time leading the second-unit next season.

Fixing the bench

Outside of bringing back spark plug Clarkson on a long-term deal, the Jazz front office has some work ahead of them to fill gaps in the team’s second unit, without a lot of room and assets to do it.

A reserve big man who can score inside and play defense is key while Tony Bradley continues to develop would be ideal, alongside a wing defender which was very apparent during the series against Denver.

Due to an upcoming Mitchell extension, and the large contracts of Bogdanovic and Conley, it means that the Jazz will be relying on the Mid-Level Exception and Bi-Annual Exception, with their values yet to be determined due to the potential of salary cap numbers and the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bringing in a defensive-first wing will be paramount, as Ingles continues to get older and Niang struggles on the defensive end. While potential targets will be discussed closer to the end of the NBA season, there will be options for the Jazz to re-up with better reserves and a deeper roster capable of pushing further for an NBA championship.

With the 23rd pick in the NBA Draft, players like Josh Green, Desmond Bane or Leonardo Bolmaro may be good fits as wings in Utah’s second unit, providing another opportunity for the Jazz to get deeper.

While the Jazz’s season may have ended in heartbreaking fashion, there are enough positives to leave fans hopeful of further progression in Salt Lake City next year, provided they tweak a few things in the offseason.

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