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The Jazz Are the Under-the-Radar Winners of the Offseason

In trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, Utah has ascended the Western Conference’s power rankings. The days of rooting for Donovan Mitchell’s scrappy underdog team are over.

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Your heart doesn’t know it yet, but you hate the Jazz. Utah is no longer a feel-good team. You won’t cheer for them on the side. You’re not going to wish them well. The days of supporting the underdog Jazz in the West are over, because their time as underdogs has expired.

In the past two weeks, has Utah acquired Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis, and with those three moves, the franchise’s future is even brighter than it was during any of Gordon Hayward’s seven years with the franchise. The Jazz are now one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the ball, and are, yes, legitimate finals contenders. And they completed this transformation before Day 1 of free agency closed.

To assess Utah’s offseason so far—one full of answers to last season’s problems—you have to ask a number of questions. When’s the last time Utah’s backcourt had this much potential? Or the last time the Jazz had a summer this productive? Or were in the running to be preseason Western Conference favorites? The answers to all three probably date back to when John Stockton was wearing those Utah throwbacks we all adore now—at the most recent.

Whatever the correct responses, they weren’t ones general manager Justin Zanik was around to witness. He was promoted to the head of front office position on May 10, less than two months before free agency opened. Zanik started with the organization as an assistant general manager in 2013 and briefly served as an assistant GM for the Bucks in 2016-17, but was instrumental in Utah’s long-term rebuild. Calling this offseason full circle for Zanik almost doesn’t it do justice. He’s broken out of the bounds of what seemed possible for Utah, piecing together the most modern roster head coach Quin Synder’s had since his tenure began five years ago.

If that seems like an exaggeration, you didn’t watch enough of Conley, Bogdanovic, and Davis last season. (Fair enough; the Grizzlies, Pacers, and Nets are hardly priorities for NBA’s national TV schedule.) Even if the Jazz had managed only to trade for Conley, the offense would’ve significantly improved. The just criticism for Utah last season was that the front office didn’t do much to surround star guard Donovan Mitchell with more scoring help than he had during his rookie season. But the team instantly and dramatically changes by adding Conley, who can create for Mitchell by giving him more open, off-ball opportunities like cutting inside and spotting up and relieve a very young player when his shot isn’t falling. The real beauty of the pairing is that Conley, a career 37.5 percent deep shooter, is also effective without the ball. An opposing defense having to guard one of the two in a pick-and-roll—where Conley is an expert, and Mitchell has grown tremendously—is tricky enough, let alone having to prepare for the two switching off ballhandling responsibilities.

Snyder’s pick-and-roll options begin with his stellar backcourt, but the forwards at his disposal are nearly as enticing. Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles are capable in both roles; last season with the Pacers, Bogdanovic scored 0.99 points per play as the ball handler in the pick and roll (good for the 86th percentile) with a 51.7 percent effective field goal percentage, while Ingles spent under a third of his offensive possessions as the ball handler and notched a nearly identical 51.8 percent effective field goal percentage (though his 0.76 points per play is in the 35th percentile). The offense will also benefit even more from their 3s off the ball—Bogdanovic finished last season in the 91st percentile (1.21 points per play) for spot-up shooting, while Ingles was in the 82nd percentile (1.13). It’s also notable, and perhaps a little unfair, that both can also finish around the rim.

The ripple effect of adding these guys stretches to Rudy Gobert, who broke the league record for dunks in a single season in 2018-19 with 306. In 2017-18, he was considered an offensive liability; the two-time Defensive Player of the Year broke that stigma last season by simply buying into basketball’s most efficient bucket. He’ll now share the court with four perimeter shooters, which should give him the most wide-open paint opportunities of his career.

All the while, Utah should also maintain its elite defense. Davis won’t contribute in scoring nearly as much as Derrick Favors did, who the Jazz had to trade to create enough cap space for its new players, but he’ll keep bigs honest while Gobert’s on the bench. Davis is an A-list backup, an eye-test valedictorian, and a sneaky numbers maven: He averaged 8.6 rebounds in just 17.9 minutes last season for Nets, and Brooklyn was its best defensively with Davis on the floor. Though he did play limited minutes, he also finished the season with the second-best defensive plus-minus in the league. The only player to top that was Gobert, his new teammate.

The lineup possibilities are as grand as Utah’s new expectations. The Jazz should’ve extended help on offense for Mitchell 82 regular-season games and one postseason series ago, but this timing works too. The Warriors dynasty has finally disbanded, more talent has moved East, and, depending on where Kawhi Leonard signs, Utah may be the favorite in the West. They just won’t be, you know, a favorite of yours any longer.