The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Today’s question: Are we sure the Jazz now have what it takes to win it all?
When you stand back and really take a look, you’ll see that what the Jazz have done over these past two seasons is pretty remarkable. After a slow-and-steady build in which they improved from 25 wins in their final season under Tyrone Corbin to 38 and 40 victories in their first two under Quin Snyder, Utah broke through in 2016-17: 51 wins, a division title, and a playoff series win, knocking off the Clippers at Staples Center. But when All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill both left in free agency, it seemed like the Jazz were poised to plummet from would-be contenders to a team just hoping to stay in the playoff picture. It hasn’t worked out that way, though.
Hayward’s exit opened the door for Rudy Gobert to make the argument that he was Utah’s most valuable player all along. It also cleared the runway for the takeoff of Donovan Mitchell, who went from “athletic and toolsy late lottery pick” to “clear no. 1 offensive option” faster than anybody anticipated. With Gobert locking down the lane, Mitchell attacking the basket, and everybody else pitching in, Utah stayed afloat, stayed around 50 wins, stayed in the playoffs ... and ultimately, stayed just south of true contention, falling to Houston in consecutive postseasons with just two wins in their 10 playoff matchups.
Offense has been the issue: The Jazz scored just 101 points per 100 possessions against Houston in the 2018 playoffs, and a dismal 99.2 points-per-100 in 2019. So, Utah’s front office shuffled the deck this summer. The Jazz might lose something in continuity and institutional memory by moving on from top-six rotation pieces Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, and Jae Crowder. The hope, though, is that importing Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic will add enough offensive punch and versatility to more than offset those losses—while also helping Utah remain one of the stingiest defensive squads in the league.
Jazz GM Justin Zanik recently told Ryen Russillo that Utah had been calling the Grizzlies to inquire about Conley’s availability for the past five years. It’s easy to see why; the 31-year-old point guard seems tailor-made for Jazz basketball. He’s a smart facilitator who rarely makes mistakes with the ball; the only point guard who’s played as many minutes as Conley has over the past five seasons and sported a lower turnover rate is Kemba Walker. He’s a willing and accurate 3-point shooter who can also dust opponents off the bounce in the pick-and-roll. He also gets to the foul line more often than Rubio did. And while Conley is smaller than Rubio, and three years older, he’s still a quality defender at the point of attack with plenty of experience navigating pick-and-roll coverages in tandem with a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber backline captain from his years playing with Marc Gasol in Memphis.
Bogdanovic, too, looks like a snug fit for a Jazz team that had long built upon the defense-first foundation of its Gobert-Favors frontcourt, only to find that its most effective lineups the past two seasons were smaller looks featuring Crowder as a floor-spacing shooter at power forward. It’s unclear whether Bogdanovic will be tapped for heavy duty as a small-ball 4; maybe Snyder opts to start Jeff Green as an innings-eating starter at power forward, with one of Bogdanovic or Joe Ingles coming off the bench to lead the second unit, before lining up together alongside Gobert, Mitchell, and Conley in what could be a potent two-way closing lineup. (Emerging 3-and-D slasher Royce O’Neale will factor into that mix, too.) Whichever way Snyder chooses to go, the Croatian combo forward should afford him more offensive options than he’s previously had.
Bogdanovic shined for the Pacers last season when pressed into duty as a no. 1 offensive option following the quadriceps injury that ended Victor Oladipo’s season. After Oladipo got hurt, Bogdanovic averaged 20.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game, with a true shooting percentage of 61.3 percent despite finishing more than a quarter of the Pacers’ offensive possessions. That’s a rare combination of usage and shooting efficiency; in fact, only five players managed it for the full 2018-19 season, and four of them have MVP trophies on their mantels. (Worth noting: Like Conley, Bogdanovic owns one of the league’s lowest turnover rates among big-minute wing players over the past two seasons.) And while Bogdanovic isn’t a lockdown defender, he’s got the size (6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, 216 pounds) and smarts to hold up against 3s and 4s, depending on matchups and assignments.
Conley and Bogdanovic should lighten Mitchell’s load when they play together, allow Snyder to keep multiple shot creators on the floor more frequently, and—crucially—give the Jazz more viable shot creation in crunch time. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann recently noted, Utah has actually underperformed in recent seasons, winning fewer games than its overall point differential suggests it should have. One culprit last season: a sub-.500 record in close games. Adding Conley, who ranked sixth in the league in 2018-19 in total points scored in “clutch” situations, and Bogdanovic, who finished second on the Pacers behind Oladipo in fourth-quarter scoring last season, should prevent defenses from keying in so much on Mitchell, leading to a more diverse and dangerous late-game attack—and, possibly, better success in tight situations.
Ed Davis is a strong low-cost option to replace Favors’s minutes as a backup center. Fresh off a career-reviving season in New York, Emmanuel Mudiay could push the perennially tantalizing Dante Exum at the point behind Conley. Freed from the expectation to turn his occasional heroics into consistent production, Green should be a solid fit in a versatile frontcourt. O’Neale could be poised for a breakout after becoming a rotation mainstay last season. Exum’s combination of size and athleticism in the backcourt makes him one of the more intriguing X factors in the whole conference. This could absolutely be the best Jazz team since the heyday of Stockton-to-Malone.
The problem, though: It’s unclear how much all that depth and versatility will matter when it comes time to figure out how to stop James Harden in the playoffs again, or how to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a seven-game series, or how the hell to slow down a LeBron James–Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. It’s possible Utah will have the answers this time—being able to score with those teams for once would represent a hell of a start—but counterbalancing the sheer talent those dynamic duos bring is an awfully tall order. The Jazz did everything they could to build a contender. It’s just that a bunch of other teams out West did, too.
Even so, Utah and its fans should be extremely excited about what Zanik and executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey pulled off this summer, and about watching this Jazz roster head into battle this season. I’m not sure they’ve got everything they need to win the title. But they’ve got a hell of a lot, and considering we’d already seen their previous efforts come up short, I’m pretty interested in seeing them try something different.