Quin Synder would rather you think of Utah’s problems as a slight detour. “Oftentimes, growth is not linear,” the Jazz coach said on Monday, hours before his team fell to the Sixers, 103-94. It was their fourth loss in five games, the merciful end to an unprosperous road trip. Utah has underwhelmed all season, but there’s more cause for concern after this recent stretch. The worst loss came on Sunday in Toronto, when the Jazz trailed by a franchise-worst 40 points at the half. Some would call this regression; optimists might go with growth. The nonlinear kind.
Utah should not be struggling. (Struggling is relative: The Jazz are 12-9 and sixth in the Western Conference.) After a good summer for the team, expectations were high entering the season. The front office freed Mike Conley from Memphis, signed coveted free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, and added Ed Davis to fill the defensive void that Derrick Favors had left behind. For years the Jazz had been defense-first, offense-occasionally. With shooters like Conley and Bogdanovic, they now had the weapons to lead a modern attack.
A little over a month into the season, enthusiasm for Utah’s offense has gone stale. Conley, for whatever reason, has lost his shot. He went 1-for-16 from the field in the season opener and has yet to recalibrate; after 21 games, he is shooting 36.9 percent overall, the worst mark of his 13-season career. (He aggravated his hamstring in the Sixers game and is currently day-to-day.) Other offensive “givens” are missing, too, like Joe Ingles being a threat at the perimeter. His 3-point shot has withered to 30.9 percent this year from 39.1 percent last season. Ingles’s greatest contribution is gone, and his starting spot and math-teacher charm went with it. These could be temporary droughts for both Conley and Ingles. The former is spending more time away from the ball than he’s used to, and the latter lost his favorite pick-and-roll partner in Favors. Easing those adjustments falls on Snyder, who runs a complex system and has received praise in the past two years for assembling a capable offense without Gordon Hayward.
Snyder and the Jazz have Donovan Mitchell to thank for that offense. His stardom was obvious, as was the fact that he needed help. Utah’s offseason additions were intended to make Mitchell’s life easier and his offense more effective. While he is having career highs in scoring (averaging 24.5 points) and the two ultimate efficiency tests, 3-point shooting (36.9 percent) and trips to the line (5.3 free throw attempts), Mitchell is still often caught trying to go it alone. Many of his unsuccessful plays simply need to be taken a step further, whether that’s dishing out to the perimeter off a drive, or literally taking another step and finishing at the rim rather than pulling up in the middle of the paint.
The scoring pressure can’t be entirely on Mitchell, as it has been for the past two years. When Utah is in trouble, the 23-year-old sometimes emulates Russell Westbrook. Desperate to steer his team back into a game, Mitchell sees only the rim. It’s hard to blame him. Right now, a forced shot from himself is a better bet than one from Conley.
Bogdanovic can help there. He is the one incoming player who has met expectations. (No offense to Davis, who missed 12 games and was never supposed to be a scorer.) With the ball or without it, Bogdanovic stresses out defenders. He’s shooting 44.9 percent from deep (and averaging 20.9 points a game), and can’t be left alone on the perimeter, in the pick-and-roll, or sashaying around screens off the ball. The result is all Utah ever wanted for its half court this season: space, air, room, 3s. But when Bogdanovic is resting and the offense has to hold its breath without him, the break can be disastrous. The bench—Ingles, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Georges Niang—doesn’t provide consistently.
The other constant is Rudy Gobert, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who is off to another award-worthy start. His perimeter prowling, shot blocking, and intimidation (we need a stat that tracks how often players call audibles to avoid being defended by Gobert—the block before the block?) have kept Utah in contests they wouldn’t be otherwise. Defense is supposed to be the pride of the team, though even that is a sore subject. Utah is 11th in defensive rating, above average but much below its potential. After being humiliated by Toronto’s scoring, Conley told reporters that Snyder asked his team a couple of questions: “How bad do we want to be a good team? How bad do we want to win? Are we willing to sacrifice? Are we willing to do the little things?”
“When we do it,” Conley said, “we’re fucking really good.” The Jazz finally have the equipment to clear a path for themselves. What’s left is figuring out how to make it straight ahead.