After three consecutive seasons where a top-3 defense in the NBA yielded postseason exits before the conference finals, the Utah Jazz made splashy offseason moves to shake things up. Mike Conley landed in Utah for a deal for role players and prospects. Then, the Jazz signed sweet-shooting wing Bojan Bogdanovic and dealt long-time big Derrick Favors.
Utah had finally pushed its chips to the center of the table to acquire the weapons to relieve Donovan Mitchell of his high-scoring demands. Jazz fans were happy. The franchise was talked up as a title contender. Trading in some defense for a boost in scoring was supposed make the Jazz scary.
But 24 games into the season, the Jazz have are 13-11, a distant No. 6 seed in the West, with some losses that have been ugly. Against top competition, Utah’s folded. In three straight games, the team lost to the Raptors by 20, Sixers by nine and Lakers by 25 points. The Pacers have blown them out by 19 points, the Clippers by 11. Opponents are outscoring Utah by .12 points per 100 possessions, a worse rate than the Magic, Pistons and Thunder. The Jazz aren’t very good right now. They might even be mediocre.
What’s going wrong?
The offense that was promised is nowhere to be found.
The Jazz added elite shooting in the offseason, yet it’s amounted to nothing. Utah’s scoring just 105.94 points per 100 possessions, six less than last season. That offense ranks No. 24 in the NBA in front of just the Magic, Grizzlies, Warriors, Bulls and Knicks.
Without Ricky Rubio, Utah’s as stagnant as ever with the ball. They average the fifth-fewest assists per 100 possessions per game in the league (21.2), and turn the ball over at the fourth-highest rate (16.3 per 100 possessions.) A lot of Utah’s offense is built with the hope that Mitchell would take a play-making leap, and Conley would be Conley, but neither is happening. They’re tough to watch.
Conley is averaging the second-fewest assists per 100 possessions of his entire career, all while his shot is fading. At 32 years old, he’s hitting his decline quickly, shooting a career-worst 37 percent from the field. His quick first step is lost, and because of it, he’s hardly getting to the rim, instead taking low percentage floaters. A career-most 23 percent of his shots are coming between 3-10 feet. He’s averaging 14 points on 13 shots. That’s Ricky Rubio numbers without the play-making.
Conley’s bad start could be salvaged by a Mitchell explosion, but that hasn’t happened. Mitchell is playing similar basketball to how he was a season ago, which was a modest improvement from a breakout rookie year. He’s scoring 25 points per game on 21 shots with nearly identical efficiency to last year (44 percent from the field and 36 percent from three). His shot selection remains questionable, as he’s taking 28 percent of his attempts between 10 feet out and the three-point line, a career-high. And his assist numbers have fallen by one dime per 100 possessions.
Yes, the Jazz are better when either of their lead guards are playing. Utah’s outscoring opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when Conley plays than when he doesn’t, and 1.3 points when Mitchell plays. But those are the team’s top-two options. The Jazz can’t afford to be merely better when these two play. A shallow bench means their stars need to be dominant.
The Jazz’s lack of offensive identity is frustrating for one obvious reason
Utah’s struggles are especially maddening because they’re a great three-point shooting team. They sink 38 percent of their looks, fourth-most in the league. Problem is they don’t take many.
Utah ranks No. 20 in the league in three-point attempts per 100 possessions at 31. Six players are shooting 35 percent or better from range, including Bogdanovic’s 45 percent on seven tries per game, and O’Neale’s 45 percent on three tries, but they aren’t getting the ball enough.
The clunkiness of the offense is apparent. With limited playmakers to take the defense off-the-dribble, so many of the Jazz’s possessions go to waste. They average the fourth-most turnovers per 100 possessions, and fifth-fewest assists. With Conley struggling, Mitchell plateauing and Joe Ingles having a down, the ball hardly moves. Emmanuel Mudiay, Jeff Green, Georges Niang and Dante Exum aren’t the answers off the bench.
There’s a Rudy Gobert issue, too
The saving grace for Utah over the last few seasons, even in the midst of of ugly-looking offenses ,has been its defense. At the center of it all is the Jazz’s second-highest paid player, 7’1 Gobert, who is perennially wonderful protecting the rim, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2018 and 2019.
This year, teams have figured out Gobert’s weaknesses, and they’re exploiting them more than ever: he’s still a force down low, but struggles to defend in space. Laterally, Gobert doesn’t move well, and team’s are pick-and-popping bigs on him. Against elite teams, this has meant Marc Gasol or Al Horford stepping out and knocking down three-point shots.
And if Gobert chases to the three-point line, slashers seize an open lane for dunks and layups.
Two years ago, Utah was 6.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Gobert played than when he sat. Now, that line has moved to just .5 points per 100 possessions.
So what can Utah do?
The Jazz are locked in with big money invested in Gobert, Conley and Bogdanovic, and none of the three are likely to move. Mitchell should be considered mostly untouchable as he plays out the end of his rookie deal, and there’s little else left on the roster that’d command a big name via trade.
Utah should be a mid-season trade candidate though, looking to make some move to help their bench. Utah should eye a guard with play-making abilities. Maybe that’s DJ Augustin from Orlando or Ish Smith from Washington.
The season is also just 24 games young. Maybe Conley can bounce back. Maybe Ingles becomes the passer he was a season ago. Maybe Mitchell’s shot selection improves.
For right now, Utah’s on track to be the NBA’s most disappointing team though. In Conley, the Jazz made the trade we’ve been waiting for, yet it’s turned a worse product. Utah’s far from title contention right now. They’re on their way to another first-round playoff exit.